It is April 20, 2017.The Physics Practical Examination of class 10 students is under way at the LDA Model Girls High School, Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore, under the aegis of the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education. Before starting the viva voce, the external examiner asks a candidate, Bisma Hameed*, how many marks she secured in the grade 9 board examination. “481 out of 505,” Bisma tells the examiner proudly. “Good. That means you secured more than 95% marks,” the examiner appreciates. “So, would you like to explain what’s relationship between the Second Law of Motion and Momentum,” asks the examiner. The high-achiever gets confused. She was not expecting any questioning by the examiner, as is the practice of the practical exams. She makes two, three attempts to explain, but then admits frankly that she has forgotten the answer. “Sir, I had memorised the complete textbook perfectly… word for word. But couldn’t recall that now, as many weeks have passed after I took the written exams,” she makes an excuse. “That means you had ‘memorised the complete textbook word for word’ only for taking written exams. As that process has completed, so you need not remember that book,” the examiner remarks.
Bisma had no answer. The overall response of other students in the examination hall was not much different from that of Bisma Hameed. Even a cursory look at the matriculation and intermediate board results makes it clear that there are hundreds of students who secure exceptionally high marks every year. However, if you come across them after some weeks, and ask them what they had learnt before the exams, most of them would fail to answer your questions about their textbooks and prove that they had gained any knowledge. It is a common assertion that today’s students study to get good grades and high percentage and not for the sake of knowledge. Prof. Obaidullah, a teacher at the Institute of Education and Research, University of the Punjab, Lahore, believes that a reliance on grades as a tool to motivate students is actually detrimental to the process of learning. Talking to Cutting Edge in his office at the Punjab University, he says that mostly grades are the only thing that students are taught to care about. Ideas such as research, the joy of discovery in critical thought and delving deeper into the book just because it is a profound read leave these students cold, adds the professor. They ask their teachers whether all that extra effort would be graded. And an answer in negative makes them wonder “Then why do it?” Prof. Obaidullah says that perhaps the most detrimental effect that our emphasis on grading has had is that it kills the spirit of creativity. Most of our A-graders are not risk-takers. They like to play it safe. They don’t like to waste time studying anything “outside the syllabus”.
The professor with over 35 years experience in teaching and research says that these Agraders hate to make a mistake, a quality which, according to Sir Ken Robinson, is the antithesis of creative thinking. Solutions to a problem are acquired only after trial and error. But a schooling based on tests, quizzes, evaluations and exams does not reward, but rather punishes any “out-ofthe- box” approaches. Only “word-for-word memorising of the textbooks” is rewarded in the annual exams, adds the professor. Shazaf Fatima, a teacher and writer based in Karachi, agrees with Prof. Obaidullah’s opinion. In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, she says that our education system is focused only on examinations rather than training students for the future and really testing their knowledge. Because of this, students are forced to take tests that show only their retention powers, not their actual capacity or knowledge. So engineers today cannot do actualwork in technology and doctors do not go to people who need their services. She says that today students are completely professionally-oriented. They take examinations for scoring good marks, for getting admission to professional colleges and universities, rather than gaining knowledge. The education system, especially promoted by private chains of school systems, looks at commercial gains only and students are trained to look at their monetary future. The curriculum is also built around clearing an exam and getting into particular professions. Learning is not a priority, regrets Ms. Fatima. However, Ms. Sajeela Ashfaq* has a point to defend students’ race for securing good marks and achieving high grades. She is a teacher at a famous chain of schools, mainly situated along Wahdat Road of Lahore.
In an informal talk with this writer at a monthly parent-teacher meeting, she says that merit for admission to professional institutions – medical and engineering colleges and universities – is going up with each passing year. This year, admission to medical colleges in Lahore closed at over 88% aggregate marks. Next year, it will further go up. If students, desirous of getting admission to medical colleges and universities would not focus on getting very high percentage, and indulge in some co-curricular or extracurricular activities, they would miss their target. Ms. Ashfaq is an expert in training students on paper presentation. She visits different campuses of the school system, and guides students on how they could get more marks through better presentation of their answer sheets. “Our main purpose is to help our students get more marks in the board exams so that they could get admission to professional institutions. “Every year, hundreds of our students get admission to medical and engineering colleges and universities,” Ms. Ashfaq says proudly. She doesn’t agree that the knowledge gained in the process of securing high grades is short-lived. Prof. Obaidullah doesn’t hold these school systems responsible for the said state of affairs, but the education authorities. Those regulating and those making policies are mainly responsible.
If the system has deteriorated to this level where learning has been substituted by a race to get more and more marks, regulators and policymakers are to blame for not acting on time to correct this anomaly. It’s also not enough to have rules and regulations, it is important how they are implemented, he says. The educationist believes that students must remember that college education is the basic foundation. It’s the only place they will get to learn. They must read textbooks not only to get higher marks but also gain knowledge. Once they are outside their educational institutions, they will have to practise what they learnt here… they will not get a chance to learn outside. So they should seize the opportunity, and learn the art of critical thinking. It will help them excel in their practical life, believes the educationist. * Names changed to protect privacy