Tampering with Curriculum in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Education reform in Pakistan’s curriculum is rejected as an international conspiracy.

Curriculum-Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

Credit: unesco.org.pk

Whether the curriculum needs to be in line with the cognitive needs and interests of the target groups—children—or it should be based on the geopolitical and ideological wrangling is a question which has not left us haunting in Pakistan yet.

Having an immensely polarized society the popular discourse never allows any consideration of the country’s religious, cultural and linguistic diversity. Education in Pakistan is sandwiched between the political ideologies of political parties, pressure groups and jihadi outfits.

A study of education policy making in Pakistan clearly shows that it has always been favoring the “religious extreme right” and the “bourgeoisie,” and both safeguard each other interests.

In the wake of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan in 2010 many subjects were devolved to the provinces by abolishing the “concurrent list” including education whereby the provinces can now legislate on education, and decide both the “contents” and “medium” of it. Since both have deep political and ideological connotations, therefore, these have surpassed other problems in quality, access and of budget allocation in education sector. For instance, curriculum in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa becomes a hot topic but lack of access for girls to education in Indus Kohistan, the least developed district in the province, never becomes news.

Issues of access to education, its quality and retention of students at schools are effects of “medium of instruction” and “contents” added by other factors such as lack of education infrastructure, security, and quality of teachers.

Medium of instruction in education in Pakistan has oscillated between two languages—Urdu and English. Urdu is Pakistan’s national language and English is overwhelmingly considered the “language of development” in Pakistan. Despite being the mother tongue of only 7 percent of Pakistanis, Urdu is understood by the majority of Pakistan. Of course a majority understands it, as it is now the language of mass media in Pakistan, and in India, where it is called Hindi. However, the rural fringes in Pakistan still don’t understand it.

Whatever your memories of your school days, for most of us, they were not the best years of our lives. It became painful when we were forced to speak an alien language, or taught in some other language, which we never used at home or in our environment. We were made to feel that our own languages were backward, embarrassing or simply irrelevant.

While English has been made a “Holy Grail” and Urdu a “drive of patriotism” in Pakistan, any concern regarding the mother languages of children fall on deaf ears.

The former government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under the Awami National Party (ANP) initiated a somewhat inclusive policy conducive with the immediate environment of the majority of children in the province. In 2012 the then provincial government made Pashto—the majority language of the province— a compulsory subject and medium of instruction in public and private primary schools in the 17 majority Pashto-speaking districts.

For the next academic year, it also introduced four other regional languages—Seraiki, Hindko, Kohistani and Khowar— to be taught in pre-primary classes where these are the mother tongues of a majority of children, aiming to make such language classes gradually compulsory throughout primary school.

But in the aftermath of 2013 elections wherein ANP was routed by cricketer-turn politician, Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) formed a coalition government in the province. The new PTI led government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa announced a new education policy. It abandoned the initiative by the previous government; and in early this year opted for English as medium of instruction from class one and claimed the change would be incremental. Interestingly, despite being a strong adversary to the Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League’s Federal and Punjab governments, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa copied what the Punjab province had adopted in 2009 and reverted it to Urdu, this year, as medium of instruction with English from class four (8+).

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The PTI leaders have asserted that they want a “uniform education system” in the country wherein every child will have the equal right to quality education. According to them the only solution to eliminate this disparity in education is to make English as a medium of instruction as early as in class one (5+) at the public schools. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government says it has prepared new textbooks and plans to train 350 teachers, who will in turn train 23,000 teachers.

This argument ignores the sociocultural processes in language acquisition especially for second or third language. Whether the teachers are prepared for teaching in English; and whether the schools and children’s immediate environment provide them the sociocultural settings for English is not considered seriously. Cognitive linguists suggest that to assure cognitive and academic success in second language, a student’s first language system, oral and written, must be developed to a high cognitive level. This asks for child’s mother language as medium of instruction for him/her at schools, at least for the first 4-5 years of education.

For a multilingual country like Pakistan the educationists suggest a trilingual plan: child’s mother language at the early stages; at a later stage a second (national language) is to be introduced; and afterwards a third language (English) must be incorporated.

As for the contents in the textbooks Pakistani students have always been very unfortunate. They have been taught a distorted history, a biased science, a half-true social studies curriculum with a boring and repetitive Pakistan Study. Even the languages—Urdu and English—are taught through books full of lessons on religion. Every government in Pakistan has tried to infuse what the ruling party or even individual like General Ziaul Haq (1977-1988) holds dear irrespective of its relevance in the contemporary world.

Distortion of facts in Pakistan has a long history. It started from the days of Independence and with the passage of time increased. During General Zia’s regime it attained its new zenith. Zia not only changed the textbooks at the school level but also changed the entire higher education curricula. This has stopped the critical thinking as well as the skill development in students. Today we have a large number of resisters swathed in extremism, bigotry, and conservatism as a result of Zia and his legacy.

Any reform in the curriculum is rejected by dubbing it as an international conspiracy against Pakistan and the Ummah (community).

The ultramontane political party Jamat-e-Islami, (JI), though, a junior coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has virtually forced its big partner, PTI which looks confused unfortunately, to concede to purge the province’s curriculum of “objectionable” contents. They want to incorporate jihadi teachings in the curriculum that will nourish extremism further rather than stemming it in the province.  The provincial secretary of JI rationalizes the change in words “our homeland is under threat. It is being droned by American forces, and we have to defend ourselves against the Americans. In these circumstances, is teaching our youth the ideology of jihad a sin?”

Instead of instilling their own whims and political agendas in the minds of Pakistan’s future generations the policy makers must take stock of the needs and interests of the children. While language in which students are taught matters, what is taught in school is even more important if the ubiquitous increasing intolerance and extremism is to be stemmed.

Zubair Torwali is Director of the Institute for Education & Development in Swat. Email: ztorwali@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @zubairtorwali. Read other articles by Zubair.

  • arshad Durrani

    I couldn’t agree more with you Zobair