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October 17, 2009

By Shafqat Hussain

Classrooms are the educational arsenals which equip future generations with the skills, knowledge and dispositions required to deal with the existing and emerging social, economic, political and religious issues. A tour in history and the philosophy of education reveals that the complexities and needs of human society have a direct relationship with the content and strategies used in the classroom to educate and prepare the students to face the emerging challenges. Children of royalty in ancient Greece were taught history, philosophy, logic, rhetoric and war science. However, the children of gladiators were trained to become good slaves. The logic of this educational practice and philosophy was to prepare good warriors and politicians from the royal breed and raise good slaves from the ghettos of slaves. Similarly, in the late 18th century, when industrial revolution began in the western world, chemistry and composition of content and strategies used in the classroom in the mediaeval era were changed and scientific, technical content and manual practice for students was especially emphasized in the schools. The educational history of other parts of the world in that age narrates the same story of teaching and learning process in the classroom. In Pakistan, during the Ayub regime, remembered as the era of industrial and agricultural revolution, federal and provincial education departments launched a scheme of imparting technical and agricultural education in Pakistani schools to promote three major subjects — carpenting, electric work and agriculture — at the secondary level so that the need of industry and agriculture could be fulfilled. However, the 21st century has brought with it new challenges and problems at the national and international levels to be faced by the human race. These insurmountable challenges ranging from global warming to street crimes; demand to change drastically the teaching strategies as well as the knowledge and skill of the teachers and students. This is equally suggestive for a developing country like Pakistan and developed countries such as America and Britain.Therefore, in many advanced countries the curriculum, content and teaching strategies are being changed keeping in view the challenging conditions outside of the classroom. The situation demands for the students to not only have the knowledge but also the skills to deal with the issues and problems emerging in society. In this regard, one teaching strategy being welcomed by much progressive schools and educational systems is the inquiry strategy which not only improves the content knowledge of the students but leads them to take action in order to bring improvement to the situation. The strategy helps students become active actors to deal with the issues and problems in order to solve them. The approach was recently supported vehemently by Craig Venter, author of A Life Decoded and founder and president of the Craig Ventor Science Foundation, on BBC One, dated December 4, 2007. During his lecture he said that the emerging complex issues and problems around us could be tackled in many ways but the single most important way was to teach the students to explore, challenge and solve problems instead of rote memorization so that they understand the world around them. However, Mr Craig’s major focus was on the scientific inquiry in the subjects of science and maths in order to deal with the growing issues and problems of the world. Still I would like to go beyond him by suggesting that along with the scientific inquiry and discovery, social inquiry is also an imperative to be used in the classroom. The argument for extending this idea is based on the logic that technological and scientific development is creating many problems and issues such as global warming, imbalance in ecological balance, pollution, shortage of food and water. All these problems could be tackled with scientific inquiry which would make the students able to deal as well as suggest some ways to solve the problem technically. However, these problems are also impacting on our social life and creating many social, economic and political issues. Therefore, students along with the scientific inquiry in math or science must be encouraged to use issue-based social inquiry in social studies as well as other social science subjects, which allow students to actively engage in the process of searching information about a social issue in the community and society. Finally, they take a social action according to their capacity of bringing some kind of a change and improvement regarding these issues and problems. As Pakistani society is prone to many socio-economic, political and religious issues, it is required that the students should be prepared in their classrooms to become active social inquirers to contribute constructively to society. Contrary to this, the teachers in Pakistani classrooms used to mainly follow a transmission method and emphasize on the memorization of facts which caused passiveness and disinterest among the students, who were being treated like a product. The criticism on this approach is abundantly available in Pervaiz Hoodbhoy’s book Education and the State: Fifty Years of Pakistan. He states that students become “regurgitate parrots” because of the rote memorization and transmission method. Moreover, there is critique on the role of the teacher who follows the transmission method and rote memorization particularly in government schools. However, I would like to open up a new dimension to this phenomenon of rote memorization and transmission method. The teachers alone cannot be held responsible for the rote memorization and transmission method as our textbooks do not promote inquiry skills among students. There is only narrative content available in the books therefore the teachers have no option left to them except for pouring content into their students’ minds. Secondly, social sciences teachers have no special training and expertise to use different instructional strategies in their classroom therefore they mainly focus on the transmission method. However, they do have the desire and urge to improve their practices in order to bring change in the teaching and learning process. In this regard, I would like to share one of my research studies conducted in a government school with social studies teachers. It was during this study that I realised that social studies teachers wanted to use new instructional strategies, however, opportunities for them to do so were close to non-existent. They told me that the teachers of other science subjects were provided opportunities to improve their practices but there was no such opportunity of improvement available for them in social studies. It suggested that the government too was neglecting social studies as well as its teachers. Similarly, this apathy towards social studies and other social science teachers is also prevalent at the international level where funding agencies support the programmes for the development of pure physical sciences and math teachers. The United States Agency of International Development (USAID) recently started an Educational Links programme for the professional development of maths, science and English teachers in Pakistan. This political dimension of funding for educational development reflects that donor’s priorities are much superior to the need of the donation receivers. I would like to suggest experts of international development to revisit the educational development paradigm in which inclusion and exclusion of areas for development ask for careful examination. Craig Ventor’s opinion to focus on using scientific inquiry in science and maths subjects, the Pakistani government’s negligence towards social studies teachers training and the instance of USAID programme to train maths or science teachers suggests that from the international to national level, it is the understanding of our “global and local educational think tanks” that the solutions to our problems and issues are hidden in science subjects. Therefore, development and improvement in the teaching-learning process of these subjects is the prioritized area for funding and support. Science teaching and learning in classrooms is considered the panacea of our problems from top to bottom. However, I disagree with this approach of exclusion of social science subjects particularly social studies from this paradigm of educational development in developing countries. As I have mentioned earlier as well, the recent problems and issues which have engulfed the human race globally cannot be dealt with merely the scientific knowledge and skills which are only confined to the domain of physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology. The teachers of science and math would be able to solve the problems of pollution, ecological imbalance, food shortage and power shortage by making the student’s good scientific inquirers and problems solvers by using scientific inquiry. However, international conflicts caused by pollution and human migration as a result of ecological imbalance have sparked many conflicts among several groups and nationalities. Things like droughts and famines have caused war-like situations creating many socio-economic and political conflicts while damaging the fabric of human society, and last but not the least, blind pursuit of technological advancement which is eroding the social domain of human society and making this world a dangerous place to live, are problems which can be solved by the generation of young social inquirers and problems solvers, well-versed in social sciences. One such effort has been made recently on the international level by the United Nations to involve students into the emerging social, political and economic issues. Initiated by the United Nations Association of the United States of America, it is called Model UN. Each year more than 2,00,000 students from the school to university level participate in this model to practically deal with issues related to human rights, environment, food and hunger, economic development, globalisation, peace and security in the world. However, in the context of Pakistan such efforts to involve students into the socio, economic and political issues by employing different teaching strategies at school, college and university level are very rare. However, few private teacher training institutes in Pakistan have made the effort to develop the pedagogical knowledge and skills of their teachers to use new instructional strategies like issue-based instructional strategies in social studies and other social science subjects. More than that, it is necessary that the government of Pakistan, international donor agencies and teacher training institutes work collaboratively to improve the social science standards and their teaching-learning environment so that our educational institutions can become nurseries of mushrooming social inquirers and problem solvers.

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