The case for a culture of learning

This article was commissioned by Alif Ailaan – a DFID funded, project implemented by DAI Pakistan. You can read it here: A version of this is also published in Urdu here.

For what it’s worth, Pakistanis have created a lot of noise concerning its education crisis. Enough to get the government’s attention. To some extent, it has paid off. It is the centre – or near the centre – of our public debate. Despite all this, over 20 million are still out of school. Those in schools aren’t doing much better either. As the debate becomes noisier, it is useful to take a step back and understand the true cost we’re incurring as a nation of raising a generation in the dysfunctional education system. The solution is not only to improve our schools but also to do something bigger, something more ambitious: develop a culture of learning. A culture which encourages its young to be curious, push them to learn for the sake of learning; to think, to write, and to debate. Anything short of this would be setting Pakistan to fail.

Imagine the potential each of us has. If you’re reading this, it means you’re literate. You already have the most critical skill one needs to access knowledge. But at least 4 out of 10 of our fellow citizens can’t read a sentence in any language, let alone the number of Pakistanis who can read an article with ease. This means that if you’re able to read this and comprehend the argument I’m trying to make here, you’re likely to be a minority in Pakistan. We have heard numbers to this effect before, but  have we understood the implications of this? Majority of Pakistanis, for no fault of their own, cannot do the very basic act. This societal failure represents one of the most tragic losses of potential both at the individual and national levels.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this loss of potential is a manifestation of something we have spectacularly failed to develop, a culture of learning. A culture which encourages people to think about the world around them, to question others, to seek out new ideas, and above all, to stimulate a healthy social debate which drives innovation and progress. Take libraries for example. The overwhelming majority of us don’t have access to one. The instrumental value of this is clear, those who cannot afford to buy a book, don’t have access to books and, by extension, information. But the intrinsic value is also critical. The absence of libraries means that pleasure and happiness in pursuing knowledge for the sake of itself become limited to those who can afford to do so. What greater tragedy could there be.

It is not just about building libraries, but also how we sow the seeds of curiosity. In our schools, students are forced to rote learn, instead of thinking critically about what they are being taught. Any student who spends enough time looking at an information can memorise it and forget shortly after the exam, but the challenge is to  use that information to understand the world around them and come up with solutions to problems. This requires encouraging students to question, not staying quiet and simply agreeing with the teacher and regurgitating exactly what was fed. It is important to encourage them to work in groups, thinkg about the practical implications of what they are learning, and at the end of the day instilling in them  a life-long desire to continue to do so when as they grow up. Once these children become parents, they can do so to with their children. And a culture of learning is born.

We need to improve the quality of schools, build infrastructure, and hire more teachers. We need all of this but, at the end of the day, we also need something broader. We need curious students, life-long learners, libraries which can enable that. For education reformers today, it’s important to understand the future society that we want. It requires setting an ambitious long-term vision of the role schools have to play in social change. One way this can be done is  alongside teaching core skills such as maths and languages, encouraging students to read, speak and write clearly, and share their thoughts with their peers. This demands greater focus on curriculum design. Right now, Pakistan focuses on forcing students to memorise a lot of content and learning little.

“We have inherited a house,”Abdus Salam once put it, “which has no windows and its walls are very high, and it’s very difficult to know whether we have inherited a house or a prison.” This prison is not a literal one, it is, at least in my reading of this quote, one of imagination and curiosity. If we want to crawl out of this prison, we need to start at schools. As we go out to vote in general elections this summer, remember that we need to be ambitious in what we ask. We’re not children of a lesser God.

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