Why fifth graders throw rocks and want peace

Published: April 19, 2011

My job in these schools is far more than teaching kids about the rivers in Punjab .

A great deal has been said and written about the education emergency in our country.

However, the most disturbing statistics are not the ones about the number of children not being taught in schools; it is the ones about children who go to school and yet fail to develop the critical thinking skills Pakistan badly needs. As co-director of The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) School Outreach Tour, I work with 1,000 children in low-income schools in Karachi. It has taught me about educational methods in Pakistan in a way that no report or research paper ever can.

In one of my first teaching experiences, a confident little girl stood up in my fifth-grade class and offered to explain the word “democracy” for us.

“It’s when there is a bomb blast and the media comes to photograph all the injured people” was the heartbreakingly innocent definition she gave.

There was no flippancy, no irony in her statement. That was when I realised that my job as a teacher in these schools is far more than teaching kids about the rivers in Punjab and our constitution. The real work that needs to be done is using the vast information that children are expected to memorise as tools for understanding society, analysing problems and growing up to be well-adjusted members of their communities. What we really need to ask ourselves is whether it is enough to simply build schools, if inside each one, children equate violence with democracy.

Geography is both taught and memorised in schools everywhere. Yet, in one of my classes, not one 12-year-old girl could tell me what a continent is, or for that matter, which continent we are on. I received confused, hesitating answers: “Sindh?”, “Pakistan?”

These are the same children who were unaware that Karachi has a port or that the capital of the country is Islamabad. Something has to be going very wrong if my students, who are both intelligent and hardworking, are unable to understand concepts that are ordinarily grasped in primary school.

Stretching their geographic imaginations beyond their neighbourhood is a struggle, but who can blame them? Teachers who receive little or no training resort to having students copy facts from textbooks into their exercise books, with nothing being absorbed along the way.

When we showed these students animated videos about geography, engaged them in discussions about our environment and played quiz games to reinforce what they had learned, the results were heartening. Every single one of our students can now point out the provinces on a map, explain how agriculture and industry contribute to the economy and take part in thoughtful, often noisy, debate about forms of government.

Education in Pakistan is in a state of emergency, yes. It is easy to fall back and wring our hands about how we don’t have the funds, the teachers, the resources. This may be true – we can certainly use more of all these things in our schools. However, what we need most, and what is abundantly available, is innovation, creativity and a little bit of love.

Two hours of interactive teaching every day, in five different schools, has given us the tremendous reward of seeing one thousand children grow in ways we thought impossible when we began. All it took was a desire to make learning fun for children, a challenge to force them to think and a little bit of optimism.

With schools closed for board exams these days, we are already itching to return.

Yes, it shocks us when 70 per cent of our students say that Americans were responsible for violence during partition.

Yes, it saddens us when the poorest of our students says that throwing bricks is the only way to have his voice heard in society. What keeps us going is that it makes us infinitely happy to receive a card at the end of a class that says “I love my teacher” and to come back to the office to read their ideas for a peaceful Pakistan.


Sarah Elahi

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College who works with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan

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

  • http://www.citizensarchive.org Sarah Elahi

    Thanks for posting this! Please let people know that if they want to learn more about our educational projects and how to get involved, they can email [email protected] and ask about School Outreach Tour. Recommend

  • http://grsalam.wordpress.com Ghausia

    I absolutely love reading your blogs.Recommend

  • parvez

    Wonderful article. From my days in school I understood one simple thing, that it all depended on the teacher.Recommend

  • Sajid I. Barcha

    You’ve noted what I and my friends often call maleducation (a red underline confirmed to me that this word doesn’t exist). When I was growing up, in our social studies books, we had to cram “facts and figures” which made no sense. The amount of jute exports, rice and cotton exports, which had nothing to do with a child’s intellectual development. Needless to mention the slow but deep radicalization of minds through biased and prejudiced History that we were taught. Overall, education in Pakistan is in a sorry state, and I am not sure if those with power to make necessary amendments are aware of the flaws. Recommend

  • sanjithmenon

    keep up the good work, Recommend

  • Rizwan Takkhar

    Great post. I worked with an NGO last year and taught at low-income schools in Lahore. When it all started, I was extremely enthusiastic because I felt creativity and innovation will finally feature in a few schools at least, through me and other teachers. The students blew my mind, destroying my low-expectations-from-a-low-income-school. Classes were always amusingly creative and two-way, with me being the professional learner and they the amateurs.

    Towards the end though, I realized how much work needs to be done on the management too. I quit the job when I was forced to stick to traditional teaching methods, ancient managerial, monitoring and feedback methods, etc. All this coming from a management that boasted of being ‘modern’ and highly educated/experienced in what they were doing.

    I hope CAP doesn’t turn into this authoritative management machine and lets young teachers make education fun, creative and empowering. Best of luck for everything, seriously.Recommend

  • ZanNeko

    There’s a reason as to why I like reading your articles. People like you manage to make a difference, little by little. These little things amalgamated make one big change. The kids you educate now will want to educate their kids properly and so on. You’re a great role model and the children are lucky to have had such a dedicated teacher. God bless.Recommend

  • To Sarah Elahi

    Thanks for posting this god bless you and Jinnah’s Pakistan!Recommend

  • Nadir El-Edroos

    Amazing! Well said!Recommend

  • Joginder

    Badly printed, poorly edited, awfully written text books; a teacher who doesn’t spare the rod – and the boot and vicious tongue; an emphasis on rote learning; the murgha position helping you to get rid of any original thoughts; help books; good teachers shunted off to the backwaters for not sucking up to Authority…. One could go on and on about the ills of the education system all over Pakistan, India and Nepal, and I daresay even in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (though I don’t have personal knowledge of the last two). Sarah Elahi can’t even guess what a godsend a good teacher is. After suffering the primary education of the normal kind for a couple of years, it was such a pleasant shock to me when the first teacher spoke to me kindly (a gentle South Indian lady, bless her, where ever she is). I can never forget her. May her tribe increase.Recommend

  • Saad Durrani

    Teachers who receive little or no training resort to having students copy facts from textbooks into their exercise books, with nothing being absorbed along the way.

    ^ that is why we have an emergency.

    I have worked as a School Coordinator in a Publishing Company. You launch a new series of books; the first question would come “Is ki Teacher’s Guide tu day dein?” (Do you have the Teacher’s Book with this?)

    If there is no Teacher’s Guide readily available, they go “Hum ‘apnay’ bachoon ko kese perhaen gay?” (What will will teach ‘our’ children?)Recommend

  • Nasir


    Great initiative on your part. Its amazing how young children can be moulded into becoming leaders of tomorrow ….this is the only only solution for our country Recommend

  • Rizwan Takkhar

    Joginder’s comment got me thinking too. I had a godsend teacher too in 6th grade, who wiped clean my previous oppressive educational slate, and made me what I am today. Anything I’ve done after 6th grade, I always attribute to her. She doesn’t remember me on being added on facebook and probably doesn’t realize what she did for me, but I know what she did and I hope we all do that for our kids.Recommend

  • zunair ali

    great write up sarah! i love how you underlined the problems with our informal education structure. Best of luck!Recommend

  • IZ

    Great article. you may be interested in this article from the Guardian’s Development Blog on the issues with focusing goals on educational access rather than educational quality, along with suggestions on how to improve on schools: