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Understanding Education

The requirement of teaching is not a process of pouring in, but drawing out, argues Durriya Kazi.
Published 04 Mar, 2024 10:16am

The moment a child takes its first steps, the entire family is taken by joyous surprise. No one taught the child how to walk. Did it learn from observation? Is it an innate instinct similar to a foal who stands up unsteadily as soon as it is born? What has, however, been agreed upon is that the baby needs a safe environment, lots of play time and the opportunity to be independent and experiment.

These are the conditions that remain essential for learning all through our lives. Yet, they are the very things we deny during the learning process. Many children learn under the fear of a demanding parent or an impatient teacher; playtime is considered a distraction from ‘studies’ and there is an expectation to conform and obey rather than experiment.

Clearly there is a need for structure and boundaries, even if these change over time. Defining these structures and boundaries determine the best environment for learning, teaching methodologies and curricula.

If we start with the premise that humans are naturally inclined to learn and seek new knowledge, then the question arises of why students shy away from studies as they get older. One explanation may be that they do not see the relevance of what is taught to their personal ambitions, or they did not have the benefit of an inspiring teacher.

Socrates said education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. The Socratic method of teaching was to answer questions from his students with more questions to enable the student to arrive at an understanding in his own way, thus internalising and owning that piece of knowledge and being transformed by it. Education is, in essence, about transformation – from ignorance to clarity.

Ibn-e-Arabi taught that learning is a process of recognising what we already know. While it may require an outside stimulus, such as from a teacher, true understanding comes from within. We are born with knowledge latent in our hearts, because God taught Adam all the names when He created him. The goal of human learning is to remember what we have forgotten. Plato, similarly, spoke of the elimination of our amnesia.

In Arabic, a distinction is made between ilm and ma’rifa – knowing and recognising. Knowledge that comes from the outside is called ilm. Knowledge that comes from the inside is called ma’rifa. William Chittick explains ma’rifa as “an unmediated knowing, not received from any book or teacher. It may come to be known because of an outside stimulus, but once it is found, it is as if the heart has always known it.”

The teaching of the creative arts is a good example of this awakening of self-knowledge. The student is nudged into self-expression by the teacher, by the study of creative works, and by interaction with fellow students. Little can be taught in the traditional sense other than a few skills and methodologies. In other words, a teacher can explain how to hold a pencil, but not what to draw. The requirement of teaching is not a process of pouring in, but drawing out.

Ken Robinson, a global authority on education, endorses the idea of teaching creatively, even if one is not teaching creativity. All children are gifted differently. The teacher has to use a creative approach to draw out the individual potential of each student.

Robinson says creativity is not unique to the arts. “It is equally fundamental to advances in the sciences, in mathematics, technology, in politics, business and in all areas of everyday life.” Creativity is not the talent of a very few gifted people. “Many people who are being creative do not recognise that this is what they are doing.” It is something we often see in the jugar culture, often considered a negative term, but are in fact creative solutions to a problem.

The prime mover in education is the teacher. When mass education began in the Industrial Age, prescribed systems were taught in a uniform manner, to create a uniform workforce. The teacher merely had to transfer information and assess the student’s absorption of the information. Much has changed today. Young people now have direct access to information via the internet and may be better informed than their teachers. The nature of jobs has also altered with technological advances and we expect AI to take over many tasks people were trained to do.

The teacher’s role is now to prepare students to be able to adapt to an ever-changing work environment, becoming an enabler, encouraging self-directed learning, problem-solving, imagination, curiosity, self-confidence and originality. Educationist Ben Johnson says: “Great teachers don’t teach, they engineer learning experiences that manoeuvre students into the driver’s seat and then they get out of the way.” He suggests: “A great teacher will keep the students wanting to come to school just to see what interesting things they will explore and discover each day.”

Education is not something to ‘complete’ but to enable lifelong learning. The modern formal educational system creates an artificial definition of education in a finite number of years. An education through life experiences, whether alongside or instead of a formal education, has an equal value, provided it is a focused effort to achieve excellence. Behind informal learning is always a teacher, a mentor or ustad, a wise elder, that one person who at the right time and place can alter the course of a person’s life.

There is no fixed age for learning. Adults seeking better opportunities want to know that if they miss the boat, there is another one coming. Recognising this need, opportunities for adult learning are becoming increasingly well subscribed, from accepting mature students in universities, to free open online courses and even academic credit for work experience. This is an area that needs to be formally developed in Pakistan, enabling a lost generation to feel relevant, instead of pinning hopes on the next one.

Pakistan’s state education system has stagnated. It adopted an international educational system to become part of the world community, but has not kept up with its evolution. Schools are still rigidly streamlined into the sciences or the humanities, abandoning the holistic learning of our traditional systems. Teachers are fixed in a cycle of notes and rote learning where memory, rather than understanding, is assessed.

We need to question why so few study beyond matriculation, which itself is a mere seven percent. Are we failing our young? Why do they find education unnecessary? Most turn to the Ustad-Shagird system, which continues to flourish below the education radar. Should that be seen as an indication of the kind of education Pakistanis want? Can a schooling system evolve that incorporates this need?

Country statistics are far too focused on literacy rather than education. Literacy is not an end to achieve – only a means for a meaningful education. The definition of literacy in Pakistan is simply the “ability to read and understand simple text in any language from a newspaper or magazine, write a simple letter and perform basic mathematical calculations.” Education is a far more complex concept. It teaches people to think, not merely to read. The 19th-century British reformer Henry Peter Brougham reminds us: “Education makes a people easy to lead but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.”

It is only through educational excellence, whether in the formal or informal sector, that Pakistan can break the cycle of dependency that holds us back.

Durriya Kazi is an artist and art educator.