Education / 09.02.2021

By Anjum Altaf I have to disagree with the opinion on language and the medium of instruction expressed by M. Zeb Khan (Talking Language, The News, January 28, 2020). The author has identified the key issue but then let his attention deviate dangerously from the main point. The author begins with the very important issue that needs attention and bears reiterating: “Like many other unresolved perennial issues in Pakistan, the question of which language to use as medium of instruction during the formative years of school-going kids remains unpacked and hence unaddressed.”  The author then unpacks the issue in a peculiar manner. Instead of remaining focused on the child and assessing the impact of the use of different languages as mediums of instruction on his or her learning, he ventures into the entirely unrelated adult domains of culture, politics, and political uses of language. The world of Pakistan is...

Education / 24.01.2021

By Anjum Altaf Does the left hand know what the right one is doing? I was forced to ask this question on being updated on recent measures to counter terrorism in the country (Countering extremism, Dawn, December 20, 2020).  I learnt that the government has set up a commission “for implementation of national narrative and development of structures against violent extremism and radicalisation” one of whose objectives is “establishing a centre of excellence to conduct degree and diploma courses in CVE [countering violent extremism] and CT [countering terrorism]. Another objective is “promoting awareness [of extremism and terrorism] through print and electronic media, publications, seminars, conferences, etc.” This reminded me of the bizarre state of modern medicine. If you go to a doctor with a general malaise he/she would, if you are lucky, have your blood pressure measured and, if it turns out high, would prescribe you a pill...

Education / 23.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf The 2020 Global Teacher Prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO worth a million dollars has been awarded to Ranjitsinh Disale, a primary school teacher in a village in Maharashtra where he teaches girls from tribal communities. There were more than 12,000 contenders from over 140 countries.  Two things stand out about the winner. First, Ranjitsinh learnt the local language to translate class textbooks into his pupils' mother tongue. Just this confirms that he is wiser than all our ministers of education and policymakers put together which makes him deserving of the highest recognition. Second, Ranjitsinh belongs to the rare category of those who think beyond themselves. There were ten teachers on the shortlist from which he was declared the winner. Ranjitsinh gave away half the million-dollar prize to the other nine on the list because "Their incredible work is still worthy...

Education / 01.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf I sent my last column (Thought experiment, Dawn, November 15, 2020) to Professor Noam Chomsky. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I had cited in that column, was the leading philosopher of language of the first half of the 20th century, Chomsky is the leading theorist of language acquisition and cognitive development of its second half. I solicited his opinion as a linguist on the choice of language for early childhood education. Here is the relevant part of Professor Chomsky’s reply: “There's no doubt that instruction is more successful in the native language, and there are obviously also important reasons to gain fluency in an international language. Should be possible to balance these needs. Linguistics doesn't tell us much beyond what common sense provides.”  The important message in this response is that there is really no need for any sophisticated theories to address this issue. All...

Education / 16.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf Sometimes an extreme example is useful to make a point and I am going to rely on one to argue about the language of instruction in early childhood. Imagine a girl in a village in Baltistan where no one speaks any other language than Shina. Now imagine someone deciding that Chinese ought to be the medium of instruction there because it is the language of the future. In order to rule out extraneous considerations, imagine the most competent Chinese instructor deployed there with the best texts in the Chinese language. The girl would receive the best education in Chinese and be tested in it. Reflect on this scenario and decide whether there would be any difference in the girl’s ability to learn about herself and her world based on two different mediums of instruction -- Shina and Chinese.  This stylized scenario is so blatant that everyone,...

Education / 29.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf As an academic, I welcome the defence of the Single National Curriculum (The SNC as ‘the way forward’, The News, October 15, 2020) offered by Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Shaikh, an assistant advisor in the Ministry of Education. It provides a ‘teaching moment’ illuminating not just the SNC but other more important things besides. Let me deconstruct it piece by piece, and leave it to the readers to derive the lessons. The opening paragraph says a lot: “Facts take a backseat when a handful of people view well-intentioned developmental agendas through lens smeared with suspicion and an urge for professional recognition.”  One sentence reveals so much about how our governments act -- Ignore the argument; attack the character, integrity, and motivation of those asking questions.   Think through the charge that has been leveled: Those who disagree with the SNC are distorting facts in order to obtain professional recognition. Consider...

Education / 27.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf Policy-making can be based on self-interest, whim, opinion, dogma, or evidence. The choice we exercise says a lot about us. Take the language of instruction that is in the news once again. There is less self-interest on display here than there is in the case of sugar and sweets and other such things. But we have seem whim at play many times. Among the most egregious was the case mentioned recently by Zubeida Mustafa (Dawn, Which language, September 25, 2020).  Referring to the 2006 White Paper on Education (2006) as “the only thoroughly deliberated official policy document on education that I have read in Pakistan” she recalled how the education minister at the time (an ex-army general) rejected it because “it recommended the mother tongue to be used as the medium of instruction.” I recall the rationale that was proffered -- I was educated in...

Education, Language/Meaning / 18.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible "to expect...

Education, Pakistan, Religion / 02.10.2020

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...

Education / 26.09.2020

By Anjum Altaf Neelam Hanif has mounted a passionate defence of English as the medium of instruction (SNC and the language question, The News, September 12, 2020) but I fear the passion is misspent. Look at the beginning: “English… is part of the colonial baggage we carry. From aspiring to be fair-skinned to being fluent in this historically contentious language is our most coveted wish.” And now consider the end: “This language has been part of our culture and heritage for the past two hundred years. It is time to own it, and use it to our advantage in training our children to face the challenges of our collective global future.” How can the two be reconciled? Just these two sentences let loose a flood of questions both cynical and serious. If English is a “colonial baggage” why is it time to “own it”? Isn’t baggage something...