A Better Way to Teach

By Anjum Altaf

The Single National Curriculum has some very laudable objectives including raising good human beings and promoting inclusiveness and tolerance. It has decided on a methodology to achieve these aims. For the sake of discussion, I am suggesting an alternative to the proposed methodology.

The chosen methodology leans heavily on religion as the vehicle for raising good human beings. Muslim children will be introduced to Ahadees, Ayaat and Quaranic injunctions in support of habits that include speaking the truth, respecting one’s elders, being kind to fellow humans and animals; and of beliefs that all citizens have an equal standing in society regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, gender and colour.

Muslim children will be learning these good things by memorizing the relevant Ahadees, Ayaat, and Quranic injunctions and will be tested on them. While Muslim children are attending the class on their religion, all non-Muslim students would leave and go to segregated classes, separate for all religions, where they would be taught exactly the same good habits drawing from their own scriptures.

Religion can be a very good vehicle for teaching these basic lessons but dividing children, who might otherwise be very close friends, into separate groups every day may not be the best of ideas. Young children would inevitably ask why some of them have to leave the class and would have to be told that it is so because they are different. The consciousness of difference would be ingrained from day one. The aim of inclusiveness would be compromised and that of tolerance would be strained.

Could exactly the same goals be achieved without sacrificing inclusion and incurring the negative psychic costs of physical separation? How about experimenting with the following alternative: All children stay together and learn together. This is possible because all controversial material has already been sensibly removed from the SNC. Thus, if the lesson is about speaking the truth, the relevant messages from all religions can be listed on the blackboard. Similarly for lessons pertaining to respecting elders, treating others with kindness, etc.

(This would also resolve the awkward problem of not knowing where to send the child who subscribes to the category now allowed on the Pakistani passport — ‘no specific religion.’ Imagine the cruel fate of a child ‘outed’ in such a manner.)

It is hard to imagine that any religion would have messages contrary to the essential traits of good conduct. It would be a huge gain if by going though such a collective exercise children learn in a convivial environment about other religions and also that all religions emphasise similar good things — they are different roads leading to the same destination.

These collective exercises could be extended by exploring what the places of worship of different religions look like, on what date the new year begins for different religions and how it is celebrated, what are the different rituals at birth, marriage, death, etc. At a certain stage students can be taken on visits to different places of worship and encouraged to engage with the caretakers to satisfy their queries.

Such an approach would encourage curiosity, prompt students to ask questions, and promote mutual understanding in a positive and not an artificial manner. It would also obviate the need to memorize anything. Anyone who has been close to education knows that memorization, especially of material that cannot be imagined, is detrimental in every way. It stunts the intellectual development of children. In particular, memorizing religious injunctions cannot make people good. Had that been the case our clerics would have been the paragons of virtue but they are just as good or bad as anyone else.

Good habits pertain not just to conduct. Good mental habits are equally important and they cannot be inculcated by memorization. In fact excessive memorization of normative content dulls mental capacity by taking away agency and replacing behaviour based on intelligence by that based on fear of punishment. And why persist with a failed approach when Pakistan’s position on the Corruption Index shows that the fear of God has ceased to deliver good behaviour with the most blatant violators being its leaders who have performed endless umrahs.

Educationists who have kept up with the subject also know that children learn in very different ways — some respond more to aural stimuli, others to visual cues, and yet others to tactile inputs. Some love to put things together, others to take them apart. If allowed the freedom, children gravitate to what excites them most. Instead of regimenting all children into a standard format and boring most of them to tears, the first few years are the time when a teacher observes and groups children by how they learn best. Once their learning ability is unleashed they progress much faster than children raised in the equivalent of chicken coops or cattle stalls.

Let us have faith in our children and give them a chance to develop into intelligent human beings leading fulfilling lives. Yes, they will ask questions but what kind of an adult is afraid of questions children might ask?

This opinion was published in The News on October 1, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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