By Zubeida Mustafa
WHAT should be a matter of concern for educators, parents and civil society in Pakistan is the failure of our education system to produce social capital.
The public sector institutions that cater to the needs of the majority leave much to be desired in terms of quality, access and performance. But the private schools, even the upscale elite ones which produce academic achievers, do not necessarily teach their pupils the skills of community living.
Given the direction in which the neo-liberal globalised world is moving, this should not surprise many of us. Competitiveness is encouraged. Students are exhorted to raise the bar and set their goals higher. The emphasis is on individual excellence, the assumption being that if each student can perform well individually, she/he can perform equally well collectively. What is not realised is that this generally works the other way round. If the community does well the individual is better equipped to achieve more.
Hence children have to be taught to work together as a group which has common goals, the main one being that of realising the common good of all members. That is what social capital is all about. A society rich in social capital has its focus on the group or community rather than on individual members.
How can this be taught? Most schools pay lip service to the concept of civic sense and social responsibility but it is not clear if any of them has actually succeeded in inculcating in the child the spirit of acting collectively. The fact is that the strategy of giving sermons on the importance of being kind and ethical has backfired. Even the ideological basis of our education policy — to teach all students the tenets of Islam — has got us nowhere.
Corruption and violence have grown in direct proportion to the emphasis on religiosity and piety. Unsurprisingly, this approach has had no impact in a society that does not practise what it preaches. A child imbibes more from its surrounding environment than from verbal exhortations.
In this context, my visit to a private school in Toronto — the Bishop Strachan School — was quite an instructive experience. With 900 girls of a diverse background on its rolls, the BSS has a strategic vision statement that focuses on “creating an environment that celebrates innovation” and adopts an “approach that integrates each student’s intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, physical and ethical growth”. The focus is on building leadership skills and critical thinking.
How is this done? The strategy adopted is the key to producing social capital, although the school doesn’t describe it explicitly as such. What is significant is the emphasis on socialisation and interaction among the girls cutting across the grades. Any issue that is taken up in class is discussed threadbare by all the students and the projects they undertake are assigned to a group — sometimes as big as 20 girls. Thus they learn to cooperate and respect one another’s opinions. The idea is to make education inclusive and any growth or development that takes place is expected to benefit the group rather than the individual.
This calls for teaching to take place in an atmosphere that is participatory, with the students being encouraged to talk to one another to reach an understanding on subjects under discussion. This is facilitated by highly qualified and well-trained teachers. There is attention to detail and seemingly trivial things count.
For instance, take the furniture arrangement in the classrooms. The primary grade students are seated around circular tables in groups. The teacher sits with them and blends with the class. She does not emerge as a superior transmitting knowledge to subordinates but a facilitator. Knowledge and research are produced collectively by the group.
In the senior grades the furniture arrangement takes the form of bigger desks placed in a horseshoe shape (reminding me of our newsroom in the pre-computer days). The idea is to enable everyone to face each other so that when one speaks she can be seen and heard by all the others.
Another way of teaching the children empathy and compassion as well as leadership is to encourage the intermingling of students of all ages. At lunch time it is common to see a senior student sitting with the younger children to eat with them and guide them through the meal. Or the junior class children are accompanied by an older girl when any of them visit the library to help them choose and locate a book. This also helps create leadership qualities in the older child, thus enhancing the academic performance of students as was first observed by Dr Maria Montessori according to whose philosophy environments (classes) of mixed ages enabled the older children to play a nurturing role that comes very naturally to the child.
In Finland, a country that was ranked in the top three of OECD’s Programme for International Students’ Assessment list of 2009, the state school system also adopts the group approach and children learn faster and more effectively.
One would definitely have something to learn from the BSS approach which focuses more on the collective human dimension rather than seek to produce efficient machines. Needless to say, the teachers’ ability and skills in assessing their students continuously and providing them support in the area where they need it is crucial to the success of the whole enterprise