Education, Development, and Change
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reason for Education

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 04 Jan, 2010
“Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.” — Neil Postman

THE goals of education have been changing over different eras. These inform, shape and guide the curriculum, the assessment system, learning processes and pedagogical techniques. It is this

reason for education which Postman considers as the narrative. These narratives keep on changing with social, political, cultural and economic trends.

Currently we are living in the narrative of neo-liberalism. The desire for financial gains is the essence and soul of this narrative. These financial gains justify their means as there is not much talk of values and ethics in this narrative. The maximisation of profit in itself becomes an inspiring value. The slogan of quality is used to sell the product of education. The notion of quality, in this paradigm, however, is confined to measurable aspects of efficiency and productivity.

Recently there has been a lot of rhetoric to improve the quality of education in Pakistan but most efforts have hinged on the physical, measurable change as it is easy to bring about such a change and convenient to demonstrate it. The problem, however, with this kind of change is that it focuses only on the quantitative aspects and numbers tend to dominate more than individuals.

The school management believes in and encourages a machine-like, automated system of teaching and learning as it is handy to monitor, convenient to document, easy to evaluate and suitable to serve the interests of the management based on a hegemonic paradigm where there is little room for the in

dividual freedoms of teachers, for personal initiative, out-of-the-box thinking, reflective stance and creative space.

Thus the goal of education has been confined to produce mono-cultural minds, possessing a robotic thinking, acting in a mechanical manner, demonstrating efficiency and productivity by moving in set grooves and approving unequal social relations dictated by the powerful groups of society.

Postman in his provocative book, The End of Education, laments the state of schools at large. Schools, being an important source of the socialisation process are unable to construct their own narrative or reason. In most cases the schools help approve, certify, validate and perpetuate the powerful narrative or ideology of society’s powerful social groups. In contemporary times it is the ideology of neo-liberalism, based on the maximisation of profit, that is acting as a driving force in our educational system and in turn being justified by the existing educational system. This mutual relationship of convenience flourishes through privatisation of education and making the latter into a commodity.

It is true that the role of schools as a constituent of social reality has been constrained and curtailed with the emergence of a powerful media, popularising the ideology of consumerism, but even the little space for movement that remains with schools is not being exploited in a creative manner. The reason is the overemphasis on the development of piecemeal skills assessed through a discreet point-testing system depending heavily on objective-type questions. This kind of assessment is popular for a number of reasons including its so-called objectivity and easy-to-mark tests.

Such tests can be easily marked with the help of computers in a very short time. The problem, however, with such a testing system is that its scores do not reflect the competence and ability to critically reflect and apply knowledge in a new situation.

Such a point assessment system that encourages recall and memory has a direct impact on teaching and learning interaction in the classroom. In such a system where competence and efficiency are measured through a recall-based assessment system, the teacher is encouraged to teach with the sole objective of facilitating the students to get better grades. The vicious circle of recall-based assessment, transmission-oriented pedagogy and mono-cultural efficiency of students goes on to carry forward existing power structures and amplify and perpetuate socially constructed stereotypes.

How can a school be empowered to construct a reason for education? The answer lies in breaking the vicious circle and entering the benign one of assessment, critical pedagogy and intellectual pluralism. This may appear to be a straightforward task but in reality is highly complex and cannot be realised through quick fixes. Such quick-fix initiatives were taken in the past and assumed the form of crash courses for teacher training, widely publicised by political governments to enhance their images as they showed an inflated number of ‘trained teachers’.

Similarly tinkering with the curriculum is another convenient activity for all governments. The key to empowerment is a holistic approach to change. Assessment, pedagogy and teaching materials should be revisited simultaneously. It is this holistic change which would create space for teachers’ individual freedom and creativity and lead to a more meaningful teaching-learning process necessary for producing thinking citizens. It is in such a milieu that schools can explore alternative reasons for education.

The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and the author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

shahidksiddiqui@yahoo.com