The first year of school should do away with books and exams entirely and children should learn free of stress through activities centered around exploration and play.
By Anjum Altaf
At the end of the last letter I had posed the following challenge regarding early childhood education: How should it be structured to avoid the negatives of mass production and retain the advantages of individual attention?
Such a compromise becomes attainable with the recognition that while all children are different as individuals, they can be grouped into distinct types for the purpose of instruction. For educationists, the typology is based on how children learn. I have mentioned some of these types earlier: Some children learn best by visual stimulation, some by aural stimulation, some by tactile stimulation; some children learn better in groups, others individually by themselves.
For this reason, I recommend that the first year of school should be devoted to finding out how best a child learns. Keep in mind that there is really no such thing as a poor student — we turn intelligent children into poor students by teaching them in ways that are not right for them. As a result, many children become unmotivated and begin to underperform. Worse still, such labeling makes them start to believe that they really are unintelligent. Children rarely recover from a loss of confidence and self-belief at such an early age.
The first year of school should do away with books and exams entirely and children should learn free of stress through activities centered around exploration and play. During this process of exploration and play, an observant teacher would be able to figure out what aspect of the activities excites a particular child most.
Let’s illustrate this with a very simple example: A child is asked to go outside the classroom and come back with an object that he or she finds interesting. Suppose a boy comes back with a rose (it could be a frog or a butterfly or a stone). Now the day can be structured around the rose. Are there any children who know the name of the flower? Do they know the names of any other flowers? The name of the rose begins with what sound? Why are there thorns on the stem? Does the rose come in only one color? How many petals does the rose have? Do all roses have the same number of petals? Does anyone know a story about a rose? Can someone make a poem about the flower? Can someone draw a rose? Can someone paint a rose? How do roses grow? What do they need to grow? How do they die? How many roses will there be if someone brings in one more? The number of questions is endless and limited only by the imagination of the teacher.
The children will learn a whole lot more about science, arithmetic, horticulture, nature, the environment, and aesthetics, and in a more involved manner, than from any essay on the rose in a textbook. But, more importantly, the observant teacher would identify the particular strengths of individual students. Some would be good at storytelling, some at making verses, some at drawing, some at painting, some at counting, some at explanations, etc. The teacher could assign group projects to do with the rose. Some children would do well in a group, some would be at a loss. The ones who do not do well in a group are not necessarily stupid. They would most likely do better on an individual assignment. Future assignments would benefit from this knowledge of what excites a particular set of children, how they learn most effectively, and what skills they need to work on.
This interaction with a rose can even turn into a gentle introduction to philosophy, abstract thought, geography, and language if the teacher were to know the following couplet of Bedil:
مباش ای غنچهٔ اوراقِ گل مغرورِ جمعیت
که این پیوستگی ها در بغل دارد جدایی ها
The teacher could ask what the students made of this couplet (it may well be nothing at all but that is not the intention; involvement with something new is) and let them discuss it amongst themselves for some time before relating it to the evolution of the flower. The poet is warning the rosebud not to be arrogant of the tight unity of its petals for in that very togetherness is hidden a future separation. The students would now see the natural life of a rose in a different perspective.
Contrary to the above approach, the last thing one would want in the first year of school is a dull textbook in an alien language that makes everyone learn the same facts about a rose that they have to memorize in order to pass an exam.
Even worse would be a textbook essay that informs the children that our beloved leader, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, loved roses. Notwithstanding how much we love the Quaid, this practice, common in Pakistani textbooks, is terribly wrong as far as early childhood education is concerned. For one, five-year-olds have limited awareness of who Quaid-e-Azam was, what he did, why he did it, and what were the consequences of his actions. The proper time for these lessons is quite some ways in the future.
Second, and more importantly, this kind of imposition of preferences can crush the individuality and agency of a child. A child should be free to not like a rose, to be critical of some aspect of it, or to prefer some other flower to it. But once he or she is told that our beloved leader, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, loved roses, he or she would likely feel disloyal and unpatriotic and ostracized for not loving the rose as well and not preferring it to every other flower. The child would learn to suppress his or her own feelings and express what he or she is expected to say.
This is the beginning of indoctrination and the end of individuality resulting in an unthinking and conformist society — a seemingly harmless first step can have dire consequences of intellectual timidity and emotional violence. Is it any surprise that the country has been left so far behind its peers? The education we have been imparting to our children has crippled their ability to think for themselves and to express their opinions honestly. The result is there for all to see — the inability to address complex problems, relying instead on solutions borrowed from other places that fail because they are inappropriate to our own situation.
Education is a key ingredient of social progress. We need intelligent and thinking citizens and not the unthinking robots that are being churned out to sustain a regime that benefits a few at the cost of the many.
What I am saying is neither radical nor new. The essentials of a rich early childhood education have been known for a long time and practiced in schools that genuinely follow, for example, the Montessori or the Waldorf philosophy of education through exploration and play — follow the links and read up for yourselves. Why should these tried and tested methodologies not be extended to all our public schools? Does your child not deserve a better education?
Dr. Anjum Altaf