Wrong approach to primary education

By Zubeida Mustafa

WHERE is a Pakistani child at the age of 8 12 years being led to provided he is among those 50 percent who go to school? By the time he is eight—the age at which Dr Montessori, one of the greatest educationists of the century, thinks a child is ready to go to junior school — a Pakistani child has already been attending school for three years , even more if he began his studies at a nursery school. His activities have already been restricted by the rigours and discipline of a regular school at a time he should have been free to be active and explore the world for himself.

If he happens to go to a Government or nationalised school, he would in all probability be one of a class of 80 or 90. His teacher would never get to know him during the course of a year and worse still he would not be learning much while being confined to the restrictive environs of the classroom .

wrong-approachBy the time he is eight and in Class III he will be expected to know about the District Council, the Judiciary and the Deputy Commissioner and be able to add and substract fractions and identity angles. It is another matter that he will not actually comprehend all that the books published by the Textbook Board try to spoon out to him in the most unimaginative and unappealing style?

Private school

At the other end of the scale is the child whose parents can spend enough on his education and can afford to send him to a private school. It might be one of those institutions which escaped nationalisation or it might be one of those which have mushroomed in the last five years or so, ever since the education policy was reversed.

Such a child is fortunate in the sense that he studies in classes which are small enough for the teacher to come to know his pupils and establish a relationship with the man and the environment is generally conducive to some form of educational activity. Some of these newly   established   schools   are   in   fact   very   efficiently   organised,   equipped   with   modern   and   scientific   teaching aids and it is clear that they care for the child and try to look after him well.

But   an   important   element   seems   to   be   missing   in   them   —   namely,   a   scientific   understanding of the child’s mental development. In their enthusiasm to impart what they perceive to be quality education, many of these schools, especially at the primary level, are competing with one another to produce a prodigy out of every child. For them the only criterion of quality is how much information (not necessarily knowledge) they can cram into their young pupil’s head.

Admission test

The child comes under pressure from the very beginning. When he is five he has to take an admission test to got into the school of his parents’ choice. What is most appalling is that, with a few exceptions, it is now standard practice to hold written tests for a child of five.

Mrs A, the principal of a PECHS school which claims to have a Montessori and primary  section, proudly tol d me that she tests every child who comes for admission to Class I in Urdu, mathematics an d English. He is given a written paper and is expected to know his two and three times tables, addition and subtraction of two-digit numbers and should be able, to read and write English and Urdu and spell words like ‘mother.

For the child who manages to get admitted, the next five years can prove to be the most gruelling experience of his life-time. To my question, what should be the goals of primary education (from five to ten years of age in Pakistan) the headmistresses I met, with one exception, spoke in terms of academic achievements.

Mrs W, who heads the primary section of a prestigious private school, said the aim before her is to develop in the child the capacity to answer spontaneously, express himself fluently and work independently an d confidently. Mrs A was even more specific. She wants her students to be well-versed in mathematics, English, Urdu, social studies, science, Islamiat and geography.

Ms P was the only principal I met who has what might be described as the child-centred approach to primary education. As the head of a private school which has been in the education line for over a hundred years, Ms P feels that the objective of primary education should be to help the child develop his own personality and discover himself.

She says that in our education, system we require the child to come up to the expectations of an adult in learning. It is wrong to confine the child within the four corners of a standardised system. According to her the message from every child is, “1 am a different person.”

Given these views, it is not surprising that Ms P is very critcal of what she describes as the “examination-ridden” and “home-work oriented” education system of ours. No examinations are held in her school until Class IV when the child appears in an exam for the first time and that too only in mathematics, Urdu and English to prepare him for secondary school.

Periodic tests held during class periods help the teacher assess her pupils. But not student is required to repeat a class in the primary school and ranks are given only upto the first ten — and that too on parents’ demand. No home assignment is normally given in Class I and not more than half an hour’s work in Class II and III.

Most schools, however, place a lot of emphasis on examinations. Thus one school has four tests of 70 minutes duration in every subject plus a final examination in the course of an academic year. Yet another has two series of tests and two examinations. These can unnecessarily over-burden the child because every two months he is expected to revise all that he has studied from the beginning of the year.

                                 Traumatic experience

Not only are the exams bad enough, the reports can be a traumatic experience for a young child . Under pressure from his family, society and school, he has to slog it out to get a “decen t” rank, which for most people is in the first three . The excessive competition to which the child is subjected from the age of five is not fair to him and can deprive him of the plea sures of learning and make school work a drudgery.

And yet our educationists staunchly defend examinations and ranking. Mrs W and Mrs A do not agree that informal assessment of the student by his teacher is enough.

“A child needs competition, ” they declared vehemently. In fact Mrs W feels that the child’s parents also need to be shaken out of their complacency through a system of exam and ranking.

“When their child does not get a good rank, they realise that he is not as smart as they think him to be,” she insists. On the contrary, ranking can hurt a young child psychologically at a sensitive period of his life, by making him feel little.

While the exams and tests come periodically, home-work is a daily affair. Some schools give home assignment to the child which takes as much as 11/2 hours to carry out. I know of children in Class I who are taking private tuition which lasts as long as two hours. With schools haying a five-hour day, a child is at times spending more than a quarter of his day with books.

How do parents feel about this? Mr and Mrs T, whose son aged 5 is studying in one of the newly-founded private schools, are on the whole satisfied with its teaching methods and environment. But Mrs T feels her child is being taxed too much because what he is being taught is definitely beyond his comprehension. Since he is a bright youngster he manages to memorise his work. Thus at this age he has to learn about fractions, work out addition and subtraction sums of two-digit numbers, remembers the names of the occeans and the continents and writex fifteen essays in five months on topics such as “A rainy day, ” “Ice-cream and “Summer vacations. ” Home-work is still manageable, says Mrs T. The trouble begins with the exams and tests. They are a “big affair.” It takes her two to three hours the day before a test to prepare her child for the ordeal the next day. Her son has so far managed to do well but she feels there is something amiss somewhere. “If I do not sit duty-bound with him and help with his home-work or revision, he simply cannot cope, which means he is being pushed too hard.” At one stage when she stopped tutoring him at home his marks went down drastically.


Mr M, whose son is not yet five and in KG, came home one day with his exam-table . One of the subjects in which he was to be examined was “English literature.” What is surprising is that most parents do not want to complain. While some are reluctant because they fear reprisal against their child, others secretly worry fearing that their child is below average and they drive him still harder. Some cannot find time to go and see their child’s teacher. It is time the schools took a hard look at the standards they are setting for their primary level student. There is a widely prevailing belief that the child of today is much more mentally and emotionally developed than his parents were at his age because of his exposure to TV and other technological innovations. He is certainly more widely travelled and comes in contact with a greater number of adults than his parents did in their childhood. Hence the principals of these schools insist what better proof is there of the mental advancement of the child of today than that he can learn all that he is being taught .

A child is a child

True, but at what costs. Mrs P asks. Holding a postgraduate degree

in psychology, she believes a child is still a child however much he might have been exposed to television and he cannot be treated like a small adult. The modern child is handicapped in many ways. He has far too many distractions in his life and because he receives so many external stimuli, he has no time or opportunity to experience ence his own feelings. Life has become so mechanised that the child of today is not much in contact with Nature and this hampers his emotional development. To prove that basically a child has not changed, Ms P says give him a free choice between a video game and playing in the rain. He will opt for the rain. While educationa l psychologist should try to determine the ideal academic level for the primary school stu – dent , teacher s ca n hel p i n thie r ow n way . Mr S, who has been teching primary school children for fifteen years, suggests that the teacher can simplify the lessons for the young child by marking out simple portions in the text and substituting difficult words with easy ones. In formulating its education policies, the Government has not been very mindful about the interest of the child, especially at the primary level. Its policies have shown more concern for the ideological content of the courses and the goals of education have invariably been defined as the raising of literacy levels and achieving socio-economic advancement. There has been excessive emphasis on behavioural objectives. This is in marked contrast to the aims of primary education specified by teachers in a survey carried out in England. They listed the first aim of primary education to be to keep the child happy, cheerful and well-balanced. Second is to help the child enjoy school work and find satisfaction in his achievement s and, third, to encourage individuals to developing their own ways. Moral values, respect for property and courtesy came next. Reading with fluency was mentioned as the last objective. The Sixth Five Year Plan’s chapter on primary education is no more child-centred than earlier education policies. It is, however, an improvement in that it concedes that the curriculum is too demanding and as such fails to achieve even the most basic objective. The Plan speaks of simplifying the primary school’s curriculum so that during the first three years of schooling only religious instruction, reading and writing and elementary arithmetic will be taught. Social studies and science are to be taught as an integrated part of the course on reading and writing. Basically this is a sound approach . but much would depend on the textbooks to be used and the quality of the teachers

                     Important aspect

An important aspect which deserves serious consideration is the age at which schooling should begin. We put a child in a regular school when he is five, and from the beginning the task of serious learning begins What is worse is that the school curriculum spread over ten years is divided into ten equal parts to determine how much a child will have to study in each class. This obviously overburdens the young child for in terms of his mental ag e an d capacit y t o absor b informatio n h e i s taxe d mor e tha n a twelve – yea r old . Thi s als o explain s wh y ou r standard s ar e s o lo w a t th e secondar y level , althoug h fey the n a child’ s developmen t i s suc h that he can take in more A child in England or the United States goes to school at the age of six. Why do we wish to push our children earlier into school? Ms P, who went to school when she was eight because her father was opposed to sending any of his children to school before that age, finds she has not suffered because of that. In fact, she feels that she and all her sisters and brothers have done better than average. She very strongly advocates raising the school going age to six years or even more. “We are supposed to be underdeveloped. If children in the developed countries begin school after their sixth birthday, it is but logical that our kids should be going to school even later,” she insists. It is really not easy to explain why our children should be in such a hurry? After all they do not have much time to play and relax later.

Source: Dawn, 24 June 1983