In education, the first step is the language in which we teach a child when he or she enters school and there is little argument that it should be the one that the child understands — anything else is second.
A series of articles on education in the form of a multi-installment letter to the parents
By Anjum Altaf
In every endeavor, it is the first step that is the most important. That is the reason I have spent a lot of time on the first step to a good education for your child, examining the issue from many different angles.
The importance of the first step is captured very well in common wisdom. If you start off in the wrong direction, it would not matter if you went on foot or in a Rolls Royce, it would not matter if you went wearing rags or the most expensive clothes, it would not matter if you went alone or with a retinue of servants. The inevitable outcome will be that you will not get to your desired destination. In fact, you will get further and further away from it as you proceed. And note that while in a physical journey, it is possible to turn back and retrace one’s steps, that luxury is not available with education — time only moves in one direction; it is not possible to be young again; the damage done cannot be undone.
In an earlier letter I had mentioned that this wisdom was beautifully captured 900 years ago by Shaikh Saadi. It wouldn’t hurt to repeat what has been known to thinking people for such a long time:
خشتِ او٘ل چون نهد معمار کج
تا ثری٘ا می رود دیوار کج
When the first brick is laid crooked by the architect
The wall will remain crooked even if raised to the stars
In education, the first step is the language in which we teach a child when he or she enters school and there is little argument that it should be the one that the child understands — anything else is second-best and there should be a very good reason for choosing the second best. All the reasons that are given in Pakistan for making a second-best choice that is harmful for your child are unconvincing as I have argued in the preceding letters.
Once the first brick is laid right, education can be made as good as resources and imaginations allow by improving its various other aspects — the quality of teachers, materials, infrastructure, facilities — the list of things that can be improved is quite long.
Two points are important here. First, what I have described does not work the other way around. Spending money on all the other components of education cannot undo the damage of a wrong first step — that of teaching in an alien language. In Shaikh Saadi’s framework, even if you reach the stars you will not be able to correct the alignment of the first brick because it would be embedded too solidly in the ground with a lot of weight on it — trying to move it would topple the building. Second, you would most likely not even get to the stars — the crooked building would topple well before the stars are reached. And third, even if by some miracle you arrive at a star it would not be the one that you had wanted to reach.
The second point one must keep in mind is that it is not enough to have a long list of things that need improvement in the system of education once one has started in the right direction. One must have a sense of prioritization — which aspect is more important than another, in which sequence they should be tackled, how should scarce resources be allocated intelligently to yield the best outcome in the shortest time. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by talking about everything at the same time as if everything was equally important. That is the surest way to enable the reform agenda to be highjacked by vested interests pushing their individual hobbyhorses simply because there is a lot of money to be made by particular choices. As you know, a lot of money can be made if a ring road can be routed along one alignment instead of another. Every choice implies a set of gainers and a set of losers and the pressure is ruthless. Unfortunately, when choices are made haphazardly, your children are almost always in the column of losers because there is no one watching out for their interest or speaking up for their rights. And no one will, unless parents recognize the importance of the issue and make their voices heard through the political process.
As an educationist, I have submitted to you my own understanding of the sequence of steps that constitute the bedrock of a sound education in the early years of school till students become mature enough and equipped to learn on their own:
- The language in which a child is taught.
- The content that a child is taught in that language.
- The method by which that content is taught in that language.
I believe I have covered the first two elements of the sequence adequately — the familiarity and comfort level of the child with both, language and content, is the key to a sound education. In the next letter, I will focus on how best to teach what is taught.
Dr. Anjum Altaf
[author title=”Anjum Altaf ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Anjum-Altaf.jpg”]Former Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)[/author]