Why only one manual? – Newspaper


THAT the bottom of the Pakistani education system has disappeared has been known for many years. Efforts to change this have failed because rote memorization dominates the public school system while subject comprehension has dramatically diminished. The current exam system simply tests memory. The main culprit behind this dismal state of affairs is that only one textbook is needed for each subject. All public review boards – and there are 25 – follow similar patterns.

This is how it works: The so-called experts who organize the jury examinations are required to use only the prescribed manual. As part of their standard operating procedure, they should indicate from which page and which paragraph of this manual each question arises. I first learned of this fact while attending a meeting with officials from the Punjab Education Department in Lahore. Another participant, an exam corrector, concurred with this view and said the answer must reproduce exactly the intended text. A slight variation of the answer, even a correct one, would not yield any score. This fact has been reconfirmed several times after attending other meetings.

Today there is a lot of empty and misleading talk about “learning outcomes” by education officials. Buzzwords such as “understanding”, “application”, “analytical skills” and “creativity” are used. But in reality, the questions asked in the final exams come exclusively from the only textbooks assigned. In the model textbooks for the One National Curriculum, end-of-chapter questions only ask for the text to be reproduced for the answer. Teachers who prepare students for these exams urge them to memorize parts of this book. The tuition centers and guides help the student to further refine his choices. By asking similar questions in practice sessions, teachers complete the cycle.

Read: Dissect the unique national curriculum

SNC reform continued the disastrous policy of prescribing only one textbook for each subject.

In previous decades, this was not the case. In light of my own experiences, in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was no single prescribed textbook for a subject. Instead, authors were asked to write textbooks according to the prescribed curriculum, and school boards approved books that met the outline of the curriculum. Thus, for each subject, several approved textbooks were available on the market and a school could freely prescribe one or two to pupils. The jury’s examination was therefore not based on a particular manual. Instead, the exams tested the skills learned.

This all changed after the 1959 Sharif Commission report which argued that producing textbooks was a complex task that could not be left to individual authors but should rather be entrusted to a specialized body. He recommended the formation of textbook commissions for the preparation of school textbooks. These would become the only textbooks authorized in that province. Initially, an East Pakistan Textbook Council and a West Pakistan Textbook Council were established. After One Unit was abolished in 1970, each of the re-established provinces established their own textbook council.

With competition eliminated in one fell swoop, provincial textbook boards became monopolies producing error-filled books with poor pedagogy and poor quality printing, graphics and paper. The books of the previous generation had been far superior. This drop in quality was bad enough, but learning horizons were further limited by the new one-textbook policy. Ideologically charged officials have welcomed this as a way to facilitate mind control. Instead of having to falsify the teaching of history in several textbooks, only one now had to be corrected.

This change also corrupted the exam templates. The formative and summative evaluation questions were limited to the material in the manual. Memorization by rote, course centers and guides have exploded. It was also an invitation to financial corruption.

Read: Bias in textbooks

Today, textbook authors are handpicked and paid generously. Worse, groups of authors come together and make a new edition every year with only marginal changes. The profits are huge since only one book is published by the millions in a large province like Punjab. Each new edition means a greater financial burden for parents. Although the state has provided free textbooks in public schools since the 18th Amendment, students in private schools following the state curriculum are also required to purchase new editions each year.

An attempt to eliminate the threat of one-size-fits-all textbooks was made in 2007 as part of the National Policy on Textbooks and Learning Materials. This initially planned to revert to the pre-1970 multiple-book practice and would have downgraded provincial textbook boards to authorities to regulate textbooks rather than write them. Instead, authors and publishers would have been invited to an open competition with multiple textbooks approved for each subject and level. But pernicious influences have mysteriously crept in in recent rounds of policy writing; only one of the approved textbooks would be used in all provincial public schools. Vested interests had succeeded in subverting the change, preventing it from happening.

Today, as part of PTI’s one national textbook program, the disastrous one-textbook policy has been reinforced by the one-national textbook program. The textbooks prepared by the federal Department of Education, with all their errors and bad pedagogy, were forwarded to other provinces for printing as a product of their respective school boards. Thus, teachers and students will experience only one book per subject and per class. Obviously, the exam questions will also be limited to their texts. Despite all the fine verbosity about higher cognitive skills, this is yet another step backwards.

Untold damage has already been inflicted on young Pakistanis through rote learning. Their learning deficiencies show up in repeated surveys like ASER and NEAS, which show year after year that most students in low-cost public and private schools are two to three years behind on their marks in basic language skills and in arithmetic. They carry their shortcomings in their professional jobs, as is so obvious.

The very first step towards improving education standards in Pakistan must be to end the one-textbook policy and define the exam questions from the learning outcomes defined by the curriculum. This is not a revolutionary suggestion, it is simply a statement of the obvious – and a reminder of something that once was. Any government that is serious about improving education must start with this.

The writer taught physics at Quaid-i-Azam University and Lums.

Posted in Dawn, le 6 November 2021

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