Monday, February 18, 2008

Get off the phone (02/17/08)

Get off the Phone
by Shehzad Roy
Feb 17th, 2008

IT seems like a lifetime ago when my family moved abroad for a few years. I was sent to a public school, which was, in every sense of the word, as impressive as any modern, fully-equipped Pakistani school of recent times. Along with the culture shock — that too at a very vulnerable age — there was also the language shock. It added to my communication problem.

The language barrier, created mainly by an accent that was foreign to me, was another constraint. My half-foreigner cousins must have found my lost expression most amusing.

One day while sleeping in the room allotted to me, I was woken up by the ringing of the telephone. Half asleep and not exactly pleased by the unwanted disturbance, I picked up the receiver.

A male voice on the other end said, “Good afternoon”. I responded, “Good afternoon”. Again the voice said, “Good afternoon”.

This exchange of greetings was repeated with the tone on the other end becoming more and more exasperated. Taken aback I asked the caller to hold on as I dashed upstairs taking two steps at a time.

Much to my embarrassment I discovered that the gentleman on the line was, in fact, my cousin who had picked up the phone almost at the same time as I had and was asking me to “Get off the phone”.

Being unfamiliar with the

accent, I thought he was greeting me, saying “good afternoon”.

Unfortunately, I faced the same problem at school. I was too shy to share my thoughts in the classroom because my accent was alien in that part of the world. Now, after all these years and with some knowledge and experience in the field of education, I can analyse with hindsight the link between language and the development of the human thought process.

My inability to understand the accent emerged as a barrier to my participation in class activities that I otherwise would have been very good at. In a few weeks, I managed to overcome this problem and completely adjusted to the new environment which was pleasantly welcoming.

Coming to the state of our government schools, I can understand why our children perform so poorly. Their language proficiency is not developed and so their thought process is also stunted.

The bulk of them are without good command over any language — be it English or Urdu. Their creativity and innovative skills literally come to a halt. What is worse, they get into colleges and universities that are equally substandard.

To a layman, a school involves a building, books, teachers and students. Actually, it requires much more. Where does the problem lie? It is in producing school graduates whose thinking process is aligned with the language they speak. The teacher uses books to teach. The books have to have a language.

First of all, the selection of language must be right. No matter how good the books are, if the selection of language is incorrect, the books will not be useful.

For instance, give a good English-language book to students in a primary school where the mother tongue of most children is not English and you will never be able to teach them how to think.

Additionally, the language used by the teacher to teach must also be the mother tongue of the students. Once the issue of the selection of language of instruction is resolved, the focus must turn to the contents of the books used. The text must be thought-provoking.

Here I shall give an example from the Sindh Textbook Board’s Grade 1 textbook. There is a chapter titled ‘Hamara Pyara Ghar’ in which the protagonist says, “This is my house. There are four rooms in it.”

As in most academic books, there is a part at the end of each chapter with test questions. A question from this chapter is “How many rooms are there in this boy’s house?” The students have to memorise the answer for their exams. This hardly encourages students to think.

Ideally, if the exercise asked students to count the rooms in their own house instead, they would be compelled to use their minds and think. This is just a small example from the numerous I can give.

The beauty of language is that once students learn how to think in one language, they find that learning a new language becomes very easy.

I have French and German friends who were not very fluent in English. Surprisingly, this was after they had completed their Master’s degree from their respective countries. And then they went on to study for their PhD in English-speaking countries.

With little effort and within a short time they had gained command over the English language before starting their doctorate. Reason: their ability to think, understand and process information had been sharpened in their mother tongue during their early education.

The term ‘English-medium school’ is deceiving. Such schools produce students who lack good thinking processes though they have learnt how to read, write, memorise and calculate while they have picked up a smattering of general knowledge.

I believe that there is only one difference between developing countries and developed countries. In the former, a majority of citizens have limited thinking and innovative and creative skills.

In the latter, the majority of the people are capable of thinking. Once people know how to learn and think, they can distinguish between good and bad and start working for their own prosperity which eventually results in the prosperity of the nation.

Now the million-dollar question: what do we do? We have very few primary level books in our national and regional languages which are designed to produce thinking individuals. The few that are available are being used in some good private schools.

The need of the hour is for the government to seriously look into the issue and do what is required, that is, change course books with immediate effect.

The writer, a pop singer, is president of Zindagi Trust, an organization working for child welfare and education.

Monday, February 4, 2008

If not you, then who ? (02/03/08)

If not you, then who ?
by Shehzad Roy
Feb 3rd, 2008

ONCE while performing at a school in Islamabad on a Friday afternoon, I stopped the concert as the azaan began. A little girl came up to me and asked, “Shehzad bhai, why did you stop singing?” I smiled and said, “If I sing now, God will send me to hell.” She was spontaneous in her response, “Shehzad bhai. Please sing. You are not going to heaven anyway!”

That night for a long time I pondered over the remark made by the young child. I could not, for the life of me, understand why her parents would bring her to a place for musical entertainment if they believed that the likes of me were not entitled to a place in heaven or its offerings. I then realised that we as a nation lack the confidence to stand up for our beliefs.

The age-old belief that music is a sin and musicians the carriers of sin has sadly been transferred to the minds of these young ones by their parents and teachers, no doubt, wrapped and folded neatly under the covers of religion.

Funnily enough, I have also come across many more who give themselves the undue credit of accepting it as a sin whilst they enjoy the soothing effects of music in their lives! This was just a small example. We face the same mindset on a wider scale as well.

When it comes to bigger issues, ‘my plate is full’ is the answer we get from our friends who belong to the intelligentsia of our country when they are requested to roll up their sleeves, come forward, partner with the government and show some action to make things better for others.

Some say ‘we donate’, others ‘we are members of a social organisation’, and yet others that ‘we are on the board of a foundation’. And many young people aspiring to seek admission to top colleges (in Pakistan and abroad) proudly claim a number of hours completed in community service (more for the sake of getting admission into their choice of university than for the sake of community service).

Can we stop here for a moment and ask one simple question that I am sure has played on many intelligent minds every now and then? If all of us are doing our share of ‘community service’, why isn’t our country progressing the way it should? Why are most issues still considered problems without any solutions?

In my opinion, not only have we failed to identify our problems correctly, we also lack the collective and consolidated will (political and individual), and the drive to draw up plans and implement them.

Let us also ask another politically correct question: Why are the essentials missing when the country’s intelligentsia is there, supposedly playing the role of watchdog over everything ranging from the minor to the major? Are they not the ones that should have the solutions to our problems?

They are, and to give the devil its due, they do take a microscopic view of problems.

But let us not discuss the identification of problems or finding solutions, that are all there. For once, let us talk about the implementation of these solutions. How do we, as a nation, go over this hurdle? First things first.

They (the intelligentsia) need to get over the much-planned and at times deliberate selfishness, jealousy, ego, non-seriousness, laziness and sometimes a serious attack of verbal diarrhoea.

It’s very rare that their ‘plate is full’. Very few of them have the guts and honesty to admit that they give priority to their personal and professional lives over issues that their country is faced with.

When the US consulate in Karachi decided to move into the vicinity of Karachi Grammar School, those who claim to be the intelligentsia of the city got united and rightly made sure that the security of their children was not jeopardised by having any US facility near the school. Entirely conceivable is the thought that if the same people were to decide to get serious about health, education, water/sanitation and other grave problems that society faces, things could improve at the speed of light.

The problems are of such a grave nature that they call for emergency and gigantic efforts to tackle them. Fundraising fashion shows, coffee mornings and kitty parties will not do. Knowingly or unknowingly, many people are suffering from the tamasha syndrome. The need of the hour is for the intelligentsia to get on a collective platform to select a leader from among themselves. It requires a standard and hands-on approach to start working towards the betterment of education and other areas on a macro and holistic level.

This or that side of the world, east or west, the intelligentsia in any part of the globe are similar with regard to their job description.

It paid off when our counterparts in the West decided to put a man on the moon. How long will it take us to put our children into schools? When will we accept the fact that we are no different? When will we embrace the reality that we stand on the same ground with our intelligence, determination and will? It is not that we have failed, it is just that we have found a thousand different ways that don’t work.

We need an approach that will work this time. We are light years away from sending a man to the moon, but the optimist that I am, I believe that we will someday.

First, let us start with the basics. Saying that something as powerful as education can take a long time to show results is not a good enough excuse for not taking action. Mostly, changes can take place quicker than expected. The greatest sadness is not to try and fail but fail to try at all.
The writer, a pop singer, is president of Zindagi Trust, an organization working for child welfare and education.