We are raising our children like farm-raised chicken; Let us go back to the desi chicken analogy
A series of articles on education in the form of a multi-installment letter to the parents
By Anjum Altaf
We are discussing how children should be nurtured in their first three years of school and I had left you with a rather odd analogy — comparing farm-raised chicken with desi ones, asking which you preferred, and what you thought contributed to the difference.
To me, the most obvious difference is that the farm-raised chickens are mass produced. Every chick is treated in exactly the same way, given exactly the same nourishment, and exactly the same medications and inoculations. They are allowed no independence whatsoever. By contrast, desi chicks are allowed to run free and eat whatever they please. It turns out that when they grow up, desi chicken end up tastier and with more individuality. And this is not just the case in Pakistan. In the West, you will also find that “range free” chicken are more desired and are available at a premium to farm-raised ones.
I want to apply this comparison to education to suggest that we are raising our children like farm-raised chicken. Education has been turned into an assembly line operation. Cohorts of five-year-old children go into the same class, are taught exactly the same material, in the same way, from the same books, and are tested in the same manner. This mass production ignores the fact that children differ — not only do they learn in different ways but they also do not learn at the same speed. Some five-year-olds know a lot more than others and putting them in the same class is not good for either group. This is even more relevant in Pakistan where opportunities for pre-school learning vary widely.
Research in education recommends that children should be grouped by their learning level and not by age. This becomes increasingly important as children progress through school. Typically, of all the eight-year-olds in Grade 3 in public schools in Pakistan, only a minority have Grade-3 learning competence, while a fair proportion have only Grade-1 competence. Grouping children with such learning disparities in the same class fails to do justice to either set. Teaching would be much more rewarding and learning much more effective if students were grouped by their levels of competence.
Let us go back to the desi chicken analogy and recall that it is a preferred product even though all it is allowed to do is to run free. In the case of children, in addition to being given independence, they can also be tutored. This customized education tailored to the abilities and interests of a child enhances the prospects of maximizing his or her potential rather than flattening it out in the assembly line of mass education.
A little bit of the history of education would help to place these arguments in context. The kind of mass education that we have today is a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of humankind. It was only the advent of the industrial age that created the need for a uniformly trained, and preferably docile, workforce that gave birth to the kind of schools that are ubiquitous today. Recall that the British in India introduced this kind of education to produce the clerks (babus) they needed to rule the country while reserving a few elite institutions (like Aitchison College and the Doon School) for the education of the ruling class. This iniquitous system persists till today — education for the rich, indoctrination for the poor.
Before the industrial age, there was no mass education. The majority did not have a formal education and those who acquired one had individual tutors who worked with them on a one-on-one basis and nurtured them in accordance with their abilities and interests. This legacy still lives on at universities like Oxford and Cambridge where undergraduates are assigned individual tutors.
The challenge in early childhood education today is how to structure schooling so that it avoids the negatives of mass production and retains the advantages of individual attention for all children, not just those of the elite. In the next letter I will propose some ideas for how this objective can be achieved.
Dr. Anjum Altaf