Sunday, October 4, 2015

How Education System is Promoting Non-Readers and "Functional Illiteracy"

Our educational system is producing graduates who can read but are not readers, who can write but are not writers i.e. functional illiterates [1].  They do not read fiction, have often never read books except those that they were forced to read for their exams, but which mostly they cunningly avoided by cramming the notes, and many a times not even the notes, just the presentation slides! I now think they are not even buying, let alone reading the text books!

About five years ago, Mr Khurram Ali Shafique, renowned Iqbal scholar and writer, was the guest speaker at the final year projects presentation of MBA Education Leadership Program at KIET. He started his address by asking the participants to do a thought experiment and visualize the following scenario:
Khurram A Shafique's book on Iqbal
What if I tell you that there would be a time when you will have a library in every other street of the residential areas. When you will see that drivers of rickshaws and taxis, while waiting for the passengers, are reading fiction books or newspapers. What if I tell you that the corner stores in residential streets which offer cold drinks, candies and other daily items, have showcases that prominently display fiction books for sale for children and elders. What if I tell you that each busy bus stop has a newspaper stall which is doing brisk business selling magazines and fast moving fiction books. Visualize every bazaar and shopping center having huge bookstores which are doing brisk business,... 
While Mr Khurram Ali Shafique was describing this scenario, I was contemplating the apparent impossibility of the scenario. But, then he suddenly pulled the rug from under me and my thought process, and brought me and the other participants to their senses by asserting that this is not a scenario of the future, but was the actual real life situation that prevailed in our society in not too distant a past. Even as late as mid 1980s this was the reality of life in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad as well as other cities!

And, then I began to recall that yes, I too had witnessed and experienced this situation; I was part of this culture, I had seen and visited these libraries, I was actually an owner of a small library myself, I had seen taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers reading fiction books and newspaper while waiting for passengers, and yet, somehow, I had not only forgotten that this situation existed only three decades ago, but was also unable to visualize the possibility of a such a scenario existing in the future! I will be describing how this happened in the later part of this post.

A flood of memories came rushing in about my school days in Islamabad of 1970s: I was a proud owner then of a small library of about 100-200 books, mostly Ferozesons Urdu books for children. I used to rent out the books at the "grand" rate of 10 paisa per book per day from my good old Millat Library! I still have some books from that library, sporting my very own library's stamp. How I took pride in stamping those books, and putting an impressive accession number on it similar to the number seen in British Council Library books. This also brought to my mind, the libraries owned by proud children like me, if not in every street, but in every other street. Our school library and (libraries of nearly all schools) had an impressive and wonderful collection of beautiful books. Of course there were the bigger National Center Library which earlier used to be called Pakistan National Council Library and of course my dear British Council Library that we used to frequent regularly every week. I still can point out the  general stores and chemists which kept fiction books in their corner showcases and from whom I had brought some of the books for my library. It was inconceivable that you will find an idle shopkeeper who was not reading the newspaper while waiting for the customers.

Even in early 1980s, there were several libraries around our residence in PECHS, Karachi. There were two commercial lending libraries in shops in the Dupatta Gali of Tariq Road. [I still recall issuing "Song of Bernadette" by Franz Werfel from one of them. I liked the book so much that I did not return it and let my caution money be forfeited.] There were at least two commercial lending libraries in Nursury. In addition there were several children hobbyist libraries in every locality. Chemists, stationers and other stores did use to display books of fiction in their showcases. There were several magazines and book stalls around the intersections. I remember several large stalls at Nursury bus stop, Nursury market, Liberty chowk and other places on Tariq Road, Bahadurabad Chowrangi and so on. And I had seen taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers reading books as they waited for passengers. Zaibun Nissa Street (Elphinstiene St) boasted of not one but several multi-storey book shops; Sassi Book Store, Pak American, and others.

British Council ???

During my university days of the 1980s, I remember taking route 20 bus to Metropole every week, disembarking and going first to American Center Library, and then walking the short distance up to 20 Bleak House Road that housed the wonderful old colonial era building of British Council. At other times, we would take 1-D bus that directly took us to Cantt Station from where British Council was closer, and from there we would walk to Amercian Center. Those were the good old days when walking in to Amercian Center and British Council was straightforward without the security checks and without the multiple level of fortifications that are seen today. Pakistan Center Library was on the Nursury intersection and much closer to my house as was also the Friendship House of USSR in PECHS. There were other foreign centers such as Goethe Center and Alliance Fran├žaise. Government libraries included Liaquat Library which used to be full with readers, Ghalib Library, Khaliqdina Hall Library and other government and private libraries were spread all over the city.

But, then some thing happened, and all of this evaporated as if it was a dream in a few years.

Our educational institutions from schools to universities have now become mass producers of functional illiterates. Universities complain that they are getting intake that has studied English for 12 years but have no reading comprehension and no expression. The employers are complaining that graduates coming out of the universities can not even write a single page of correct English. A few years ago, in one of the curriculum advisory board meetings of an engineering program when the details of the courses and the course descriptions were presented, a board member who is the CEO of an IT company raised his hand and made a very illuminating remark: He said that all these finer details of high end technical courses are fine. But what I am interested in is a graduate who can first demonstrate that he can do two things before I spend my time and interview that person. I first ask the applicant to write one page on a selected topic. Majority of the applicants are unable to coherently write even one page and fail the simple test. Once I have done this, I ask the applicant to put two printer papers side by side so that the edges are aligned. Then, the applicant is given scotch tape to paste the two edges together so that they remain perfectly aligned after they have been taped in such a way that if you hold them towards light, there is no crevice that can let the light through.  The first test will identify the functionally illiterates, the second test would identify those who do not have the drive for excellence and can not work with their hands.  Please note that the problem is not limited to only English. Most of our graduates would even fail to write a single page of correct Urdu. 

Gulistan e Saadi
I used to take the following quiz at IBA when I was there in the late 1990s and have also taken it in 2010 at LUMS, and have been taking it regularly with every new intake at the institutes where I have been working for the last fifteen years. In motivational talks with the new intake or with existing students, I often quiz them about the extent of their general knowledge. My question typically revolves around great names in our history such as how many of you have heard of Rumi, or do you know who was Saadi Shirazi. This question is important because for centuries till about a century ago, a person was not considered educated unless he had read and learned Masnavi Maulana Rum and Gulistan -Bostan and could effortlessly recite the verses and anecdotes from these books with reference to the context. [My nani who had not gone to any school, but was educated enough to use the verses and the anecdotes according to the context! ] At times, I even ask the students if they can place Aristotle on the right side of the millennium. Response to these questions is often dismal. I consider myself lucky if I see a couple or more raised hands in the hall of hundred or more. I am afraid to drill further the students with raised hands about the specifics because of what it may reveal.

Often when I question the students about the books (non-text book) that they have read, there are only about ten to fifteen raised hands from about 200 participants in the hall. When I inquire about  the last time they read a book, I feel lucky if there are even two or three whose answer is "within the last few months". I am afraid to further drill for information about the books that they have claimed to have read, because they often claim to have read a classic although what they have read is only the abridged version of 40-60 pages and that too when they were at school, and consider that to be equivalent to the real book! Results are equally discouraging when interviewing the students for admission or when interviewing the professionals for faculty position.

This is a dismal situation. We are producing graduates who know how to read but do not read and who know how to write but do not write: Functional Illiterates!

What are the reasons for the decline in reading and writing:

Destruction of Merit by Bhutto's Nationalization 

Depth of Degrading of Merit: PM defending fake degrees
The rot started with Bhutto's nationalization that played havoc with the structure of education system. Not only did it destroy the private schools, more to suffer were the government schools. There was just no competence in the Government ministries and departments to handle the load of huge number of educational institutions that came under the Government control. The system of inspection went down, the system of finances went down, the system of checks and balances evaporated as Government service became equivalent to a source of nepotism and for giving employment on the basis of ethnicity rather than on merit. Destruction of merit was the severest blow to the foundation of the entire system of education. Meritocracy went out of favor and was made fun of everywhere. 

Violation of Fairness in Government Boards' Examinations

Corruption in Board Exams
Once upon a time, grades in examinations used to be a measure of scholarship and a representation of the opening of mind in a culture of reading and intellectual debates. Corruption started the decline of fairness in the results of the examination boards and with that there was a decrease in the importance of independent thinking. With the pathetic payment per answer script to examiner, the quality of checking declined. Good examiners refused to check the examination scripts. Those who did take the assignment started taking more scripts than they could check with fairness. This then got coupled with the engaging of examiners with dubious qualification. This resulted in the penalizing of  original writings and innovative thinking. Only the standard replies were expected and were given good grades.

Decline in fairness started with the prevalence of cheating in examination halls of the board examinations. First the invigilators were bribed, then the examination centers were bribed. Where this system of bribes and favors did not work, the centers and the invigilators were coerced using threats, booty mafias and violence. Then the corruption started spreading to bribing of the examiners, and eventually the entire system got corrupted. And then it became quite simple. You bribe the touts in each board and for a fee they would manipulate the results to the grade that you are willing to pay for. Answer scripts of good students were exchanged with  scripts of bad students; scripts were often forged and substitutions became prevalent. Worst to suffer were the good students who were grief stricken to find that their excellent performance in class was in stark contrast with their board results, and they could do nothing about that. The resulting frustrations resulted in parents pulling out the good students from the board examinations and transferring them to Cambridge System. The damage was now complete. Elite schools and smart students have moved to Cambridge system but that became another problem as explained below. A few years ago Punjab actively started to eliminate the cheating culture and the situation has improved [4]. Situation  in KPK has also improved. However, situation of cheating in Sindh and Baluchistan remains pathetic.

The net result of violation of fairness was the development of conventional wisdom in the environment which advised and convinced the students and their parents that reading and writing has no value, and what is of value is money or contacts. This started often as jest and as criticism, but the generations of students took it seriously and this thinking has solidified in our culture.

Bureaucratic Invasion of Classroom: Proliferation of Large Schools and School Chains 

Growth of large schools and private sector school systems or the huge chains of schools spread around the country can be correlated with the growth of functional illiteracy. We see a mad rush to establish corporate chains that (i) value structure over content, (ii) consistency over scholarship, (iii) form over content, (iv) standardization over creativity, (v) mass production assembly lines over child centered education and (vii) the letter of the rule over the intent of the rule which may be termed as the bureaucratic invasion of the classrooms [2].  This bureaucratic invasion of classroom has robbed the teacher from his autonomy to customize the lecture according to the requirements of the students. 

Pressure of syllabus coverage acts as the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of teachers which has caused them to became automaton for covering the course irrespective of whether the students are understanding or not. Teachers often find no incentive to develop their innovative delivery style or improvise on their methodology. Their interest and challenge of making the class engaging and interesting wanes and compromises their ability to be creative when the only thing they are accountable to is the syllabus coverage using prescribed forms [3].

Abuse of Cambridge Education System's O/A Levels

Cambridge system of education became popular in Pakistan for two reasons; first it was supposed to be more conceptual which did not require rote memorization, and secondly it was supposed to be more fair and transparent. I think it has lost ground on both accounts.

Guides, Past Papers, Guess Papers

In Pakistan, implementation of Cambridge System has moved away from its original objective of developing the conceptual foundations to designing the shortcuts for passing the exams. The system we call O/A Levels has mostly been phased out of the world, and only being used in Pakistan and a couple of other countries, and in Pakistan, the system is being systematically abused. During early 1970s, the use of past papers for preparing for the board exams used to be a source of embarrasment for good students. Only the poor performers who had failed and were appearing in the supplementary exams would dare to use past papers and guess papers, and they too would use them surreptitiously. Similarly, buying of the solved keys for various subjects was only done by students who were weak. Students using these keys or past papers would never advertise this. Good students were those who read the books on their own and did not require these artificial props. 

I am now alarmed to see the schools officially and formally using these artificial props for preparing the exams. In fact, teachers and schools recommend these proudly and force the parents to make their children use them diligently. The schools have shifted their focus away from making the students self learners and independent learners. They are now focusing more on making them dependent upon targeted preparations for passing the exams, and scoring as many A's as possible. Scholarship has been reduced to a measure of the number of A grades that a student has earned!

There are now increasing reports of papers getting leaked, and manipulation of results and the reports are getting stronger in intensity reminding us of the decline in transparency and fairness of the board examinations [8, 12]. There are rumors of answer scripts getting changed, students and their parents are reporting dramatic fall in the grades. Dramatic rise in the results is also being reported. Students performing badly in the class are surprisingly getting A Stars and those performing excellently are getting surprisingly bad grades. I have been shown the miserable scripts of such students a couple of weeks before the exams followed by their unbelievable stupendous O'level results [5].

Mad Race for Grades at the Expense of Education

Grades vs Education
The schools routinely advertise through large bill boards the number of A grades scored by their students and the number of positions secured in the board exams. Grades which used to be a by-product have now become the prime objective of scholarship. This situation is aptly described by Alfie Kohn in his book "Punished by Rewards: Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes [6]. 

As schools have started focusing on how to score A grades, the emphasis has decreased on enabling the student to open his mind and to understand the broader context of knowledge and the emphasis has increased on just mastering the narrow context of what would come in the exam and how to score well in exam. Breadth and depth of knowledge and scoring on exams are sometimes working in opposite directions when you try to measure learning that has occured over a couple of years in a single 3 hour exam! In the end, grades only represent your ability to recall the right thing at the right time and within the stipulated time period on a particular day of the year. Application of knowledge is often not constrained in such manners in the real life.

This is happening despite there being not much need for these grades. Growth of private institutions of higer education and universities since the 1980s have opened up scores of options all over the country for higher education. Most institutions now rely more on aptitude test and interviews and less on the abundance of A's. Having top grades used to be a necessary requirement till the 1980s for getting admissions to professional medical and engineering universities that could be counted on fingers and were all in the public sector. 

Tuitions, Notes and Guides at the Expense of Reading Culture

Test Preparation vs Education and Opening of Mind
Focus on grades spilled over to the tuition culture. Students of even the best of schools are now taking tuitions. Learning somehow has become a separate entity quite different from tuition which is more about scoring in the exams. The two are now in a conflict in which exam preparation always wins! Between the school and the tuitions, a student neither has time for sports nor for pleasure reading or hobbies. Consequently, there is a drastic decrease in the opening of the mind. 

I can never understand why notes written by people with poor expression and on hardly readable paper can be a better substitute to very beautiful and appealing books now available. The intense use of guides, past papers, guess papers and the culture surrounding these have numbed the minds of the students and are so accustomed to spoon feeding that they refuse to use their minds.  

Reverse Engineering the Question Papers by Specialist Tutors

I now know of tutors who have so reverse engineered the senior Cambridge system that given an average student, they now have the confidence to guarantee a particular grade in one month of tuition and another grade in three months of tuitions. Their recipes are now so perfected, so calibrated, and so honed to the examination pattern, that one only needs to go to them for a few months to get a particular grade. A remarkable reverse engineering of the O'Level and A'Level has taken place. These tutors are reputed to be earning lacs of rupees per month from tuition culture. Before the exams, the guess papers proliferate in the market the same way it happens in the board examinations. 

Disillusionment of the Intellectuals and Ideologues: Death of Student Activism

Winning Candiates of DMC, Year ?? Ideological Debates??
Crippling of student activism and intellectual debates took place following the violence on the campuses in the 1970s. Finally the student activism and culture of intellectual and ideological debates died with the ban on student unions. The authorities threw the baby out along with the bath water. Engagement in these debates would force many students to contemplate the wider context of the problems affecting the nation and the possible solutions. These would also compel them to read and be prepared with their intellectual adversaries. 

Degree Became more Important than Knowledge

Degree vs Education
Destruction of meritocracy by the quota system that destroyed the Government infrastructure of education, and prevalence of nepotism and corruption followed by the commercialization of the degree awards and the scoring of grades has created a situation in which knowledge lost its respect and its value. 

Once education lost this wider context of how it would help in solving the problems of the people and humanity, it  became simply a stepping stone for getting a job. Devoid of its noble mission to remove darkness from the world and to spread light everywhere, the degree got relegated to a necessary evil that needs to be overcome. Thus, the emphasis shifted from getting the knowledge or enjoying the process of learning to getting a degree, whether original or fake [9]. People started talking about getting a degree by hook or crook. 

Is Internet the Cause of decline in the Reading Culture?

Internet vs Reading Culture
Number of people writing books have increased, the number of books that are being published has increased. People are reading more on the Internet. However, in Pakistan this number continues to decrease. The hypothesis that somehow Internet is responsible for decreasing the trend for reading or writing is simply not tenable. It should have increased rather than decreased.  
[more on this later]


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1 comment:

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