Why rote learning (unfortunately) works for Pakistan

Published: June 29, 2012
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We have classes from morning to evening and in every other class, we have to take quizzes or submit assignments so we don’t get enough time to do research for group assignments. GRAPHIC: ERUM SHAIKH

According to Charles Darwin, collaboration is the key to progress. He once said:

It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

Inspired by Dr Ashraf Iqbal, Sugata Mitra and Ken Robinson, I went on to implement various forms of collaborative learning in my own classes to check if this model would be productive in our rigid educational system.

I believe that just saying that we need to move away from rote learning is one thing, but actually attempting to do so is an entirely different thing. Having given it a shot, I was quite disappointed in that on paper, it makes sense, but our Pakistani educational system just hasn’t made the space for it just yet.

From our curriculum, to the attitude of students, I don’t think Pakistan is ready for this system yet.

Listed below are my ways of implementing collaborative learning techniques in my classroom, and the reasons why they just didn’t work out.

Group presentations or group assignments

Group presentations or group assignments are the most commonly used methods of encouraging collaboration among the students. The purpose of group presentations is to make students sit together, work as a team, prepare, discuss and present what they have learned from their discussion.

In the semester system, however, this idea does not flourish. The reason, as stated by most of my students, is the lack of time and failure to coordinate. My student, Saad, while telling me the reason behind his poor performance in the group assignments, stated;

Sir, subha se shaam tak classes hoti hain aur her doosri class mein quiz ya assignment, time hi naeen milta ke group assignment ke liye research ker ke group mein discuss ker sakein.

(Sir, we have classes from morning to evening and in every other class, we have to take quizzes or submit assignments so we don’t get enough time to do research for group assignments or even have a prolific discussion about it.)

During the semester, my students have to take six courses and for each subject they are made to take four quizzes and submit six assignments, which include two lab assignments. This, no doubt, causes them to remain overloaded with work.

Thus, as soon as something is to be done as a group, coordination and meeting becomes virtually impossible. Moreover, most of the members of the group place the entire burden on one or two members of the group while they prepare for other tests. Students who get the extra burden tend to be the ones who complain about it, or as the students like to say, ‘rat the other person out’. This, in turn, damages peer relationships.

To make group assignments and presentations possible, the whole system needs to be change to allow students more spare time. They need to be given fewer individual assignments for every class to accommodate this system.

Open-book group tests

The other method which I have seen in various pedagogical presentations and lectures is the open-book group test.

Surprisingly, most teachers and even students do not like them. There is always some hesitation towards making them a part of their curriculum.

Why though?

Teachers hate this method because making the question paper for these tests isn’t a very straight forward task and students fear this because they think they might get a question that’s unsolvable. One of my students Imran, who managed to improve his results due to these tests, complained saying,

Sir, I liked the open-book group tests but sometimes they are difficult to understand and solve within the given time.

Moreover, students tend to deem this system as cumbersome, as they feel the need to rote learn the contents of every page of the book, so as to solve the question in the allotted time.

Clearly, this method is not everyone’s cup of tea.

What I feel is necessary here is the need to train teachers as well as students about how to make and write such tests respectively. Pakistani schools lack such training, obviously leading students and teachers to resent the system.

Daily class discussions

My favourite method of teaching, and that of many other teachers, is the daily class discussion which involves questioning the motive or reason behind an author’s words. It is a way to develop minds based on cognitive reasoning.

A student’s learning curve improves a lot this way, but bringing every student to the same conclusion takes more than one lecture. As a result, it becomes difficult to complete the course within the given time of a semester.

Some mischievous students even try to deliberately lengthen the discussions just to slow down the pace of the course. This was admitted by my student Abbas, who said,

Sir, honestly we did that to stop you from moving on to the next topic.

At the same time, if the teacher is unable to complete the course, he has to face the administration. So, at some stage, he is forced to skip class discussions and resort to outdated methods of teaching, inclusive of the infamous spoon feeding method.

Group-based semester projects

The method that worked to some extent for my students was assigning them a group-based semester projects. This meant that students worked on group presentations and assignments, but because they are permitted a four-month time frame to work on the project, they tend to learn more and bank on their team working skills to some extent. Although this method involved the same techniques as the group presentations and assignments, the increased time frame made a bigger impact on the results.

To summarise then, I would say almost all methods of collaborative learning need time and a conducive environment for students to discuss and learn more collectively. In the semester system, we bombard students with just too many tests in a short span of time which leaves them with little or no time to learn and collaborate. The only choice left to them is to isolate themselves and cram ─ which, unfortunately, the test obsessed system demands them to do.

As far as teachers are concerned, an easy way to do your job is not to alter the predefined system or conduct experiments. The result of such experiments will almost always be disappointing or choked by the stranglehold of the archaic system that prevails.

But, I ask, where has taking the easy-way-out gotten us today?

Usman.Shahid

Usman Shahid

A PhD candidate at North Dakota State University (USA) and a lecturer at COMSATS, Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.