Schools Need to Produce Innovators, Not Machines - Laraib Laiq
Maria was in first grade when the class was told to make sentences. The word was ‘cup’ and she wrote, ‘This is a broken cup.’ The teacher told her to remove the word ‘broken’ from the sentence since adjectives were to be studied in the second grade. In fourth grade, she was reprimanded for drawing a parrot with red wings and a yellow bodice instead of just plain green, in art class. There were so many things she wanted to do, but she would find out they were wrong for one reason or another. She wanted bangs because they made her feel better about her forehead, but having your hair cover your face was against the school rules. So she would have to pin up her bangs, feeling conscious and insecure the whole time. She learned that it was best to simply do what she was told to and just follow the rules.
There’s no denying that schools provide children with an opportunity to step out of the comfort of their houses and step into an environment where they get to meet other kids from backgrounds different than their own. It gives them a chance to interact with their peers and helps to develop their social skills, exposes them to new perspectives and ideas, and gives them a little taste of independence when they step into a place without their parents. But the question is whether schools are as advantageous for kids as they can be?
Now, we are talking about the schools an average Pakistani child gets to go to. We are not discussing the handful of progressive institutions that may be present in some major cities of Pakistan. Schools normally come with a rigid set of rules and a strict curriculum that must be completed within a school year. Starting small, a few examples of the strict rules are that elementary school kids are told that they have to write the date on the left side of the pages in their notebooks, or that they have to draw a margin line exactly one inch in width. These things sound insignificant, but it needs to be understood what small things, such as the ones mentioned, imply.
Children are not given the freedom to simply do as they please in such small matters. They seek their teachers’ approval in every little thing that they do. It divides their focus. Instead of just focusing on learning and understanding, kids are worried about their work being in the correct orientation. Another example is that kids are always taught to run after good grades and good marks, so they always aim to do what can help them achieve these things. They lose interest in trying out new things. For instance, kids will avoid the use of words if they aren’t sure of the spelling because they do not want to risk losing marks. They always want to play it safe. Schools have conditioned children to work hard towards somehow getting good grades, they have lost sense of what the actual purpose of going to school is— learning.
People argue that rules are meant to discipline children. It makes them lawful citizens, but that is only true to some extent. Some rules have no contribution to making kids a productive part of society because the purpose of those regulations is not clear to the students. And that’s just because they do not have an advantageous purpose. For example, one can make a child understand why it is wrong and immoral to steal something or abuse someone, and the reasoning would make sense to the child. However, when one tries to teach a little boy his hair must not be more than 2 inches long at all times, it simply stops making sense. When a child is told that they have to always write in the nelson writing script, the child will never understand why. They’ll follow the rules only until they are policed into following them and not a minute later. And they are not to blame.
Talking about the current situation in most of Pakistan’s schools, we see that children do not get the space to express their ideas and do things that are considered “out of the box”. This is because children are not given the margin of error. Everything needs to be perfect and everything is measured in terms of numbers or letters. There is always a race to find out who achieves the highest score. Children need the space to be wrong. The word ‘wrong’ is not synonymous with ‘creative’ but in the words of a British author, speaker, and educationalist Sir Ken Robinson,
“If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”
In his 2007 ted-talk, he argues that when children are obliged to study and pursue only a couple of subjects, the world will end up having too many people of certain professions, but not as many jobs go around. Our current school system only really caters to a handful of professions. By the time children reach the age of 18 - 19 years old when they have to choose what career paths they want to take, they aren’t even fully aware of all the prospects. Their creativity has been educated out, so most of them don’t have any polished talents to pursue. Creativity isn’t a test to take, a skill to learn, or a program to develop. Creativity is seeing things in new ways, breaking barriers that stood in front of you for some time. Creativity is the art of hearing a song that has never been written or seeing a work of art on an empty canvas. Its essence is in its freshness and the ability to make dreams come to life. Schools definitely play a role in stifling these dreams. But what does this mean? Is there a better way to prepare your kids for the world, without sending them to school? Well, we have the example of people who choose to homeschool over the traditional school.
Farzana Yaqoob is a former minister of Social Welfare and Women Development, Azad Jammu and Kashmir. She is currently running her own company, the Mantaq Centre for Research. She is one of those people who choose to not send their kids to school. I had the honor of talking to her about her decision and learning about her insights. Being a smart and successful woman, she must have made decisions about her kids’ futures after careful thought. I was interested in knowing about those thoughts and she was kind enough to lend me some of her time. When asked about the main reason why she decided to pull her kids from their school, she said,
“Schools have become mass production facilities. Children who are unable to conform are set aside as failures. There is the perpetual insistence on conformity and high performance without any resource for helping out differently-abled children. So instead of fighting with the principal and teachers to put in more effort to understand my children and fulfill their learning needs, I took them out of the system.”
She says that her kids have not missed out on any experience, as she has ensured they get the best tutors and get to take part in everything a school-going child gets to do. She says that homeschooling has taken off unnecessary stress and load from her kids’ shoulders.
“My children are just like all other children. They have not missed out on anything. They are happy children and not part of the rat race going on out there. I have never pushed them for grades but I have always pushed them to put in their effort.”
Farzana is completely satisfied with her choice. She never compares her children to other kids and is assisting them in thriving. There is one thing she deemed the most problematic in our existing school system. When asked, she said:
“Underperforming teachers, untrained teachers, who either do not or can not handle children with different needs and capacities.”
In many schools in Pakistan, children have to face the tremendous stress of completing assignments that do not add much to the learning process or worry about beating other kids in the race to get the highest grades. The kids who choose to not take part in this race are labeled ‘failures’ and this label, no doubt, demotivates them to try out new things and explore things that interest them. On the other hand, the ones who accept the challenge of taking part in the race are left with very little time and energy to be innovative.
It is common knowledge that not a lot of schools found in our country have functional laboratories to learn about scientific subjects practically, thus even in those subjects, children are not given all the tools to succeed. A Dawn News article from 2018 explains the lack of laboratories and classrooms in schools, and the statistics haven’t improved much since then. The pandemic that’s been around for the last year and a half has definitely not helped.
Matriculation and intermediate exams are considered milestones in anyone’s life. Thousands of children enter the race to secure marks in these exams, and for that, they turn to their teachers for tips on how to attempt the exams. What paper-solving techniques are they told?
‘Make sure to focus on paper presentation so that the examiner likes it, underline the topics, use a black marker for headings and a blue pointer, not even ball-point to write your answers, memorize the essays for the topics you expect may appear in the exam, make sure to write as long as you can, leave lines in between answers to make it look longer, but be careful you don’t exceed 4 lines when answering the short questions!’
None of this has anything to do with learning. All these are sort of ‘tricks’ to somehow manipulate the examiner to award the students with more marks. I had the pleasure of talking to Ifrah Hameed. She has 10 years of teaching experience in schools in numerous cities in Pakistan, and she was happy to comment on the role of teachers in the country’s school system. When asked if teachers, in her opinion, are sufficiently trained to handle students of different mental capacities.
“In our educational system, training programs or workshops are usually conducted in a fixed pattern and content that contains derivatives of a typical organizational structure-based training focused on leadership skills, or planning techniques. In my opinion, teachers' personality grooming and response management are more important, and these things should vary by region. Uniform training methods cannot work for everyone in the country. Oftentimes, teachers do end up learning how to deal with their pupils, the cost of their own physical or mental health, or at the cost of students' careers or emotional health. And these both things are not positively contributing to our society and nation-building.”
She was also of the opinion that the country-wide exams that are designed for matric and intermediate do not accommodate all types of children. She commented,
“Matric or F.Sc exams do not accommodate all types of students and it is not 'exams' but the whole syllabus or subject combination. All students have to study the fixed combination of subjects with the choice of the rigid system. Students' liking, potential, passion, dreams all get ignored. The concept of counseling and aptitude testing does not exist.”
What does all this do? The years that are supposed to be the years of nourishment for a child, the time when their personalities are formed, nurture them into becoming machines that simply conform to the rules and regulations without question. Students are pushed towards never trying to think out of the box, but to just close the box and sit inside it, absorbing a mountain of information. It isn’t important to actually understand the concepts and learn to apply them in their practical life, but what’s important is to be able to quote the definitions of all sorts of things. And this whole scenario is the tragedy that stands in the path of so many people who perhaps once thought that they might have something special in them, but over the years that light has diminished. The idea of ‘becoming your own boss’ scares people who have been taught all their lives not to take initiative and to just do as they are told.
Of course, some people manage to bloom and learn despite everything. They take it into their own hands to lift them up, but that does not mean every child should be tested to see who comes out at the top amidst such demotivating circumstances.
Pakistan is a country of 216.6 million people and most of them can not afford to homeschool their kids or send them to fancy schools that have progressive teaching techniques. Even those schools are ridiculously expensive and do not cater to anyone below the elite or upper-middle class. Major changes need to be made in schools all over Pakistan. There need to be amendments in the curriculum, teachers need to be trained to teach in ways that are beneficial for kids, and the fee structures also need to be regulated. For Pakistan to move forward with the world, imaginative and creative people are required, who can take the initiative to build their dreams, and work on what they want to work on.