Fixing the System
Naira Khan critiques the draft education policy and suggests we focus more on the education system
The publication of the draft of the education policy in 2009 was met with mixed reactions, as some parties embraced it, but expressed their constructive criticism or presented recommendations, while some simply rejected it outright, deeming the policy controversial.
The education policy, in its essence, is basically a set of promises and a plan for necessary reformation in the spirit of improvement. The most important part, of course, is the implementation of the policy.
Although many interesting critiques have been published, I present here a few simple recommendations based on my intuitive observations:
Rote Memorisation is Not the Evil, Plagiarism is
Throughout the education policy, and in all the subsequent critiques and recommendations, two concepts populate almost every page: prevention of rote memorisation and advocacy of creativity.
What we need to realise is that memorisation itself is not bad. What we want to prevent is blind memorisation from the textbook, which is essentially plagiarism. Somehow in this region, plagiarism and rote memorisation seem to have become synonymous and yet they are two entirely different concepts.
Plagiarism may be committed through rote memorisation but rote memorisation itself is not plagiarism. In most other countries plagiarism is not only severely frowned upon, it is even considered a criminal offense.
Yet in our country it is not only the students but also even teachers who are unaware of the concept of plagiarism; in fact many teachers even advocate carbon copy answers from the textbook. Hence, brilliant students graduating in this education system with little or no idea of plagiarism suffer when they go abroad on scholarships.
We want to prevent this culture of memorising from the textbook, we want to create awareness regarding plagiarism, and we want to advocate originality. Essentially we want our students to go beyond the words of the textbook, think for themselves and be original. We also want to create awareness regarding the system of citation in that it is okay to use another person's work as long as you give credit where it is due.
However, if a student happens to prepare something in their own words that they intend to memorise, there is no problem in that. On the contrary, the memorisation skills and memory capacity for retention of information displayed by our students is truly remarkable.
A certain amount of memorisation is also inherently necessary in any learning process and it is primarily due to this skill that students from India and China dominate the world of academic scholarship.
Hence, let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. We recognise that memorising page after page from the textbook or in other words "copy-pasting" is what we want to prevent in our students. However, in an attempt to build a creative curriculum, we should not lose this remarkable skill or allow it to atrophy. Let us instead create awareness regarding prevention of plagiarism.
As mentioned earlier, in every section of the education policy, as well as the discourse that has followed, has consisted of the term "creative curriculum" as well as "creativity." However, neither this concept of creativity nor how it can be brought about has been clarified. We assume that "creativity" may be well defined by the concepts of: a) analytical abilities, b) critical reasoning, and c) originality of thought.
Given that the aforesaid concepts are what creativity entails, then the simplest way to build an education system in our country that advocates creativity and prevents plagiarism and copy-pasting from textbooks is to change the structure of the exam.
Changing the General Structure of Examinations and Question Papers
It is very easy and attractive to state that we want a creative education system with a proper learning outcome. However the reality is that the education culture of this sub-continent is geared towards obtaining marks, and hence is an exam-oriented system.
Therefore, if the structure of the exam is changed, then studying for the exams and trying to excel in them will automatically bring about a change in teaching and classroom lessons, with creativity automatically percolating from the centre to the farthest outreaches of the system.
If we change the structure of the exam and design questions in such a manner that students will not be able answer with blocks of text from their prescribed reading, then we automatically eliminate the possibility of plagiarism.
That is not to say that we do not need to create awareness regarding plagiarism. However it is also not as easy as simply substituting subjective questions with objective ones -- it is basically the art of designing creative questions, whether subjective or objective, that will compel students to engage in analytical or critical thinking.
Hence, we need to rid ourselves of the entire culture of question suggestions, question banks, the concept of getting "common" questions in exams, questions that can be answered directly from the text. The reality of our exam system is that questions are predictable and tutors are rated on how well they can predict the questions. Questions are meant to be unseen in every subject. If society is focused on obtaining marks, then we need to design the exams in such a way that analytical and creative thinking is required to obtain marks.
Even in mathematics, why should the problems in the question paper be problems that are already present in the textbook? The idea of teaching math is like teaching someone to fish. If the questions comprise problems that they have already solved from the textbook, then it is analogous to catching the fish for them and feeding them for a day.
But if we teach them the techniques necessary in terms of how to solve any kind of problem and keep the questions unseen then we teach them how to fish and feed them for a lifetime. It also eliminates the possibility of memorising mathematical problems.
In fact, there is a section in the policy that mentions the ban on notes and guidebooks. Once again this is a misapprehension in terms of identification of the root problem. Guidebooks are not evil; in fact they can be very helpful in allowing students to learn techniques in solving problems they may not have understood in class, eliminating to a certain extent the need for a private tutor.
Hence, it is not guidebooks and notes that need to be banned, it is the exam system that needs to be changed by designing questions in such a manner so that students will never be able to answer by memorising from the guidebooks.
Designing such questions of course requires a certain amount of skill and creativity from the teachers, and thus enhanced teacher training would be required.
Educating the Educator
In order to implement any changes in an education system it is necessary to train the teachers in light of the modifications that are to be made, given the degree of change. Otherwise the effect will be of a system with a changed framework that looks promising, without proper personnel backing the system.
Such a system will see the teachers regress and teach in the previous system and of course produce students who are inept at participating in the modernised exam system. In the end the exam will be blamed and the system will revert back to the prehistoric plagiarising habits it was accustomed to.
If the curriculum is to be made creative, then in order to implement the curriculum it is necessary to have teachers that are creative. Teacher training in our country has also transmogrified into a mechanical system focused on obtaining certification with very little learning outcome.
Hence, a concrete government focus is required in terms of teacher training where the training itself needs to be redesigned. A good solution to this would be to create public-private partnerships and perhaps invest in hiring renowned educators from other countries to provide training.
Hence, we can infer that the key solution to transforming our education system into a creative one lies in primarily redefining the system of examination and in teacher training.
In fact teacher training is the key factor in improving and sustaining a good English language program.
A Bilingual Education System that Works
Bangladesh is very fortunate to have a bilingual education system with English and Bengali being taught in parallel for twelve years, fortunate because there is a substantial amount of research that proves bilingualism is directly responsible for contributing to cognitive intelligence.
Simply put, when you are using two languages you need to process double the amount of information than you would with one language, and you also have to use twice the memory capacity for vocabulary and rules. Hence, it is automatically exercise for the brain, contributing to intelligence.
Unfortunately in our country, this bilingual system does not seem to be working, primarily due to the poor quality of the English language program in mass education, and similarly the poor quality of the Bengali language program in English medium schools.
In terms of board education, students that graduate from high school gain knowledge of English and its grammar but cannot use the language in any way. This is because the language is being taught in a grammar-translation method -- a method that had been devised in the early 19th century to teach classical languages such as Sanskrit and Latin.
The reason this system worked for classical languages is simply because these were dead languages and hence did not have a spoken form. Similarly the English language classes in our education system do not have a spoken component -- the most important aspect of learning a language.
Learning a language is analogous to learning to play a sport. If someone gives you a description of the sport of football, tells you the rules, shows you the field and even hands you the ball, you will still not be able to play the sport. You need to play it to learn it.
Language is just like that, you need to speak it learn it. Once the spoken component is in place, the other components become an easy train to follow. The problem with any language class is that once you step out of that class you cease to have any contact with it. The more exposure you have with the language, the more you interact with it and the more you practice using it the more fluent in the language you will be. Hence in terms of the situation of English in Bangladesh there can be two solutions:
Improving and strengthening the existing language program: Lately there has been a great buzz about the communicative approach to teaching English and that the textbooks have been designed to be communicative. The reason that changing the textbooks could not lift us out of the grammar-translation ditch is that the teachers teaching the lessons do not have the ability to teach in a communicative approach and hence they use the new text but employ old methods.
This is one of the key areas where teacher training is an absolute imperative. It is necessary to design texts keeping the teachers and the context in mind and to train the teachers to be able to utilize the texts and materials properly. Inception of technology in a productive way can also prove fruitful in increasing interaction with the language.
Here emphasis is placed on "productive." Most cases technology is used as a means of transferring the book to a different medium without much modification. In this way, there is increased motivation due to the novelty of the medium, but not much improvement otherwise.
Technology can only prove useful through successful integration where it supplements and complements the entire program rather than being a gadget of novelty. Improving the English language program is another area where public-private partnership would be a good investment.
Advocating the English version of board education: Another way of improving the situation of English is to increase seats for the English version of primary and secondary education. This is because when students access the world of knowledge, i.e. physics, history, geography, etc. using the target language they automatically become good users of the language. They are continually exposed to it and are interacting with it on a daily basis as opposed to the language being confined to a language class three to five hours a week.
This is currently one of the main incentives for parents to send their children to English medium schools. In fact there is also a social divide between these English medium students and Bengali medium students and with the increase of English version this divide can also be lessened to a certain extent.
Along with English it is also necessary to strengthen the Bengali language program. If we compare our curriculum to that of our neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal, we find that their program, even in the Bengali medium schools, is much stronger.
In our country, the Bengali language program needs to be improved in both English medium and Bengali medium schools. It would also be good to teach the various forms of functional Bengali such as those used in legal documents or manuscripts. Although Bengali is our native language, knowledge of formal varieties of Bengali is essential for any well-educated citizen.
The Overall Structure of the System
The most controversial aspect of the education policy appears to be the restructuring of mass education in terms of primary and secondary level and their duration. Primary education has now been extended to class eight where it previously used to be till class five. The reasoning behind this is to prevent drop-out rates among students who graduate from the primary level and do not continue, since the next public exam is five years away after completing class ten.
The new policy however plans to eliminate the current SSC level board exam and instead there will be only one secondary level board exam after completion of class twelve. This, however, seems contradictory to the previous logic in that where students could have strived another two years to complete the secondary level, and higher secondary would be optional.
In the new system, they will now have to complete four years simply to complete secondary level. In the context of Bangladesh, SSC is still considered a level of qualification whereas class eight is not. Although the extension of the primary level seems logically sound, by that same logic SSC should not be eliminated.
One serious concern of such restructuring is that of teacher status, as we find that a teacher of class 6-8 having previously been known as a high school teacher will now become a primary level teacher.
Similarly, does this also not mean that teachers in colleges teaching class eleven and twelve will become high school teachers. Although these labels seem trivial, in Bangladesh, especially in the rural areas, these labels are directly related to issues of social status and prestige, and therefore pose a question of concern for existing as well as aspiring teachers.
There appears to be no mention of session jam in the education policy. Is this not regarded as a problem? The current higher education institutions in the public sector follow a yearly system whereby each course is taught for a year with an annual final examination and some faculties have also started a semester system.
However it appears that none of the universities have a fixed academic calendar in that no one knows when classes will commence or end or when exams will take place, and everything is based on a tentative schedule that may or may not be adhered to. This relaxed system leads to a huge discrepancy in terms of the intended schedule and the actual schedule.
The problem is compounded by unscheduled closures due to political unrest in the country or on campus with no make up classes for lost time. Hence, it has become the accepted norm that students will write two dates on their exam scripts: the intended date when they should have been taking the exam and the actual date when they are taking the exam. And the difference between the dates can be one or two years or maybe more.
Hence, a student who was supposed to have graduated in 2003 will graduate in 2006, although he or she may have been a completely regular student and attended all classes. If other universities in the world, as well as private universities in Bangladesh, can run like clockwork then why can public universities not manage to straighten out its session jam problems?
In fact, teachers teaching at public universities appear to be very diligent when they teach as visiting faculty in private universities, yet at public universities they continue to perpetuate the problem. Why should there even be such a discrepancy? What example are the educational institutions setting for the youth of the country in terms of punctuality and integrity?
Public universities need to set up a system of accountability so that teachers as well as administration are compelled to maintain the schedule. It is also necessary to exercise authority on students in terms of enforcing the schedule and to prevent postponement of exams. It is of course easier said than done as the language of protest in this country always unfortunately degrades to vandalism with the destruction of public property and loss of life.
The Practice of Politics in Educational Institutions
Bangladesh has a glorious history in student politics and activism. However, the spirit of these movements has become a thing of the past in that at present we find two extreme situations that exist in public and private universities.
In public universities the practice of politics has transmogrified into one that represents violence and vandalism, with the majority of the students having developed a very negative and frustrated attitude towards anything pertaining to politics.
On the other end of the spectrum we have private universities where any form of student activism is strictly prohibited, resulting in students who are mostly indifferent to issues of politics and government.
The reality of the situation is that students who get involved in politics on campuses usually do so due to some need not being met, rather than to be involved in political activism and this leads to the negative practice of politics that we see today, and a direct reaction to this is the banning of any form of activism in private universities. Both are extreme ends of a spectrum and an unhealthy scenario.
We need a middle ground where students involved in politics and governance can be beneficial, so long as the practice of politics is redefined with a penalising system should the student's political activism impede the educational environment of the institution.
Instead of glibly saying "ban student politics" we need to address the root cause of the state of politics on campuses and the social factors behind it as well the need for certain people to actively perpetuate this state of affairs.
If a student chooses to be involved in governance and policy making issues, whether it is for the university or for the country, they should be allowed to, as students should have a right to opine on issues pertaining to the national budget, agriculture, education, university policies, etc.
Such constructive involvement in governance and policy making issues is necessary for students in building themselves as conscientious citizens and future leaders and can lead to the betterment of the institution.
The current education policy promises to bring change in our education system. A policy is said to be a set of promises and the general opinion seems to be that promises are never kept. As I congratulate the honourable education minister for the publication of the education policy, I hope that the implementation of the policy will be as progressive as the policy itself.
Naira Khan is a Lecturer, Department of Linguistics, University of Dhaka, and a Member, Jagoree.