By Zubeida Mustafa
PAKISTAN’S education is in the doldrums. The more the crisis deepens the more anxious do our policymakers and education stakeholders get. The outcome? They make formal education more rigid and complex, thus driving away children from the process of learning. This intensifies the crisis and the vicious cycle goes on.
It is time for policymakers to relax and loosen their purse strings for innovative, instructive activities while getting teachers to put their act together and perform cheerfully.
It is time for a change in our grim education scenario. The whiff — rather puff — of fresh air that recently enlivened the premises of the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, should usher in some rethinking on our children’s future. The sound of music, the laughter and squeals of young voices that filled the air came as a reminder that ours is age-wise a young country with a bleak future. Above all, it clearly vindicated the widely accepted view of educationists that children learn best when they are happy and fully engaged in the educational activities assigned to them. And if they are not put in the straitjacket of military-like discipline or dumbed down by an unfamiliar language being slapped on them they are relaxed and receptive.
Who made the Arts Council a school for 30,000 young scholars and their teachers for three days in mid-December? The occasion was the Pakistan Learning Festival which has inarguably established that children learn best the ‘fun way’.
It is time for policymakers to loosen their purse strings.
The festival is the brainchild of Baela Raza Jamil, the CEO of the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi. She launched the Children’s Literature Festival (that is how it was titled initially) in 2011. This year it celebrated its 10th anniversary. Those of us who have participated in this fun exercise since the start marvel at how it has evolved over this decade under Baela’s phenomenal and untiring leadership. Her forte is her ability to adjust and willingness to learn from experience and innovate without destroying the soul of the venture. That is embodied in the anthem of the PLF written by Zehra Nigah — ‘humain kitaab chahiyeh’ (we want books). It symbolises the power of the word that is so important for the concept of education through self-learning.
That is how Baela connects the festival to education. Children who read books develop in themselves the self-learning capacity. That is actually what schooling should be doing by inculcating in the child an interest in books while perfecting her literacy skills. Thereafter, the child will venture forth on her educational journey with confidence.
The most essential element in this exercise, according to Baela, is that the process of education should be fun. You cannot force a bored child to participate in an activity or read a book, if she doesn’t feel involved in it. At all festivals, and more so at the event at the Arts Council, music has been an integral part of the programme.
Learning has remained the goal of the PLF from the start. Many new activities have been introduced in its programmes to enrich its contents. Teachers day, young authors’ awards with an offer of mentorship from experienced writers, Science Fuse for budding Einsteins, arts exhibitions and storytelling make the PLF a place for every child to be in.
Teachers in search of an opportunity to enhance their own knowledge and improve their pedagogy also got it in abundance at the PLF. An entire day was devoted to lectures and workshops for teachers. They must have also benefited from Fauzia Minallah’s session for children on Amai and Shabnam. Unwittingly, it became a practical demonstration of perfect pedagogy. Her classroom behaviour was impeccable. After showing the video depicting the story of Amai (a fictitious bird of light) and Shabnam, a blind girl who talks of what she would see if her sight was restored, Fauzia asked the audience to describe their reactions. She conducted the session exactly as a good teacher would do — with compassion, respect and encouragement. No child was reprimanded for poor performance. No youngster’s esteem was trampled on in contrast to a typical Pakistani classroom where students are constantly abused.
No wonder our children are so emotionally insecure with most of them never outgrowing this insecurity. We need a Fauzia in every classroom in Pakistan.
The prayer in every heart that cold but sunny December day was ‘may the PLF prosper and bloom’. And I softly added “may no child in this city of diverse incomes be denied the experience of interacting with the offspring of the not-so privileged other”. That is the greatness of the PLF — it is inclusive.
To convince the sceptics, the PLF should undertake serious research on its impact on education. It should not be difficult if some schools which participated in the festival agree to cooperate in a study to assess how the PLF changed their academic practices, their reading habits and their critical thinking.