A Wake-Up Call for a Society

Dr. Khazima Tahir

A few months ago, a ninth-grade student of a private school in  the Swabi district  of Pakistan committed suicide after his parents had scolded him for securing poor marks in the Secondary School Certificate exams. The student who committed suicide got 376 marks out of 550 total marks. The result infuriated his father, who reportedly scolded his son and repeatedly asked him to explain his poor result despite the provision of all sorts of facilities by his parents and spending huge sums over his education. The repeatedly raised questions about his result enraged the boy, who took poisonous pills used for killing insects in wheat grain. He was taken to Civil Hospital, Chota Lahor where the doctors pronounced him dead.


This terrifying incident raises serious questions about the structure of education in Pakistan and should be a wake-up call for a society which is involving its young generation in a cut-throat competition that leads them to nowhere. This incident demonstrates an acute toxicity of the conventional idea of success deeply embedded in the whole system of education and indicates an urgent need to reform this system. The pertinent questions are: Does the skill set required to be a good student in our education system match the skill set required to be a success in this global world? Are our grades/numbers really predicative of academic accomplishment? If failure, like success, is a part of life, are we preparing our students to face and learn from failure?  Are we teaching them some valuable dispositions such as humility, goodwill, tolerance, cooperation, and acceptance? Are we motivating students to appreciate the beauty of these behaviours? I’m afraid the response is negative.


Our society is unfortunately obsessed with the conventional idea of success in terms of grades and numbers. Consequently, parents view this type of academic excellence as reflective of personal accomplishment and predicative of socioeconomic mobility. They push their children too hard for good grades and think of their academic success a way of reciprocating parents’ concerns and efforts to provide for them. A superficial notion of success makes parents over-ambitious about their children’s success, which, in turn, makes children highly self-critical or anxious. As a result, a student may become afraid of making the slightest mistake and will blame himself or herself for not being getting up to the normative curve. Recent research studies have revealed that over time, such behaviour, known as maladaptive perfectionism, may be detrimental to the students’ well-being as it increases the risk of the student developing symptoms of depression, anxiety and even suicide in very serious cases.


Among other things, an educational system aims to prepare the young generation to cope with challenges of life. However, our system has remained unable to cultivate in our students the behaviours and dispositions that create the resilience necessary for their survival in practical life. One serious cause of this failure is our assessment system which assesses performance, not learning. This system is based on a normative curve of numbers and grades, and requires teachers to train students for consumption, memorization, and replication. Thus, the students who happen not to measure up to the normative curve are considered outcasts. As students have not learnt to cope with feelings of failure, they are more likely to look for dark solutions.


On the other hand, educational institutes are also obsessed with these grades and number games. The credibility of principals’ positions as leaders is established when they are able to demonstrate how many of their students are passed with flying colours. As the ethical behaviours and dispositions are not graded, they get secondary importance.  Wellby Ings in his book “Disobedient Teaching” points out the flaws of a system that has become obsessed with assessment and tick-box reporting with teaching practices that have been shaped by anxiety, ritual and convention. Generally, students also develop greater levels of anxiety and fear to perform well in the class. In this context, educators reward certain behaviours that are easily measurable and earn an institute the required prestige. Hence, instead of using assessment that informs and improves teaching practices, the system is manipulated to punish and judge students. This practice develops unfavourable attitudes, rivalries, and competition among students.


There is an urgent need to raise a call against this superficial assessment system which is doing more harm than good for a broad and agreed curriculum which will act as a road-map for learners and will motivate them to adopt deep and ethical approaches towards learning. Many developed nations of the world have realized the ills of this system and are striving to take some revolutionary steps to change it. For example, Diane Ravitch in her astounding book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education” provides a gripping and often shocking account of the damage done by the conventional assessment system in American schools. It is all the more powerful for the fact that Diane Ravitch is a veteran scholar of unimpeachable conservative values. She served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the administration of Bush Snr., and for nearly two decades was an advocate of the very reforms she is now denouncing. She says quite openly that she has changed her mind, now that she can see the damage that has been done by this testing system. She calls it a superficially progressive or balanced teaching method combined with a reign of terror. Diane Ravitch argues against ‘sanitized textbooks which eliminate controversy rather than stimulating debate’, she calls upon teachers and curriculum designers to ‘raise questions, provoke debates, explore controversies’ instead of getting the students to technically reproduce for getting good grades.


Creating a non-threatening environment for students to learn is key to nurturing their talents and skills for becoming fully functional and responsible citizens. Children should be given a conducive environment to learn, and the part of learning always involves making mistakes and learning from them. When parents and teachers become intrusive, they may take away this conducive learning environment. Thus, our educators need to realize that limiting our knowledge of students to test scores and numbers would not only create a superficial and fake system of education but also deprive our students of opportunities for discovery and surprise in transformative and intellectually stimulating environments.


An overseas father, Ahmad Naveed recently shifted from Pakistan to New Zealand and was able to see the vast differences in education in both systems. Apart from the free provision of education, his children are given authentic and real-life experiences in a stress-free environment in New Zealand. He comments: “I’m so happy to see my kids with a smile on their faces when they return from their schools. Though English is not their first language even then they are so excited to go to school. There is no pressure for them to complete their homework, and they don’t compete for grades with their class fellows. School involves them in different activities which are both fun and learning.”


Countries such as New Zealand, Finland and Canada have sustained a broad curriculum and even achieve world-class PISA results. In these countries, assessment are used intelligently to judge where to provide support and sources to help students explore their potentials to the fullest. Schools act as anchors of their communities which provide its students with a firm knowledge base and experiences for rational and ethical citizenship.


Education is fundamental to development and growth in every developed country of the world. Sadly, it indicates a bleak picture in the Pakistani context. The tragedy of the situation is highlighted as Pakistan has been ranked 50, with an overall score of 9.2 by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a British ranking agency. Despite students’ regular assessments in the country’s education system, Pakistan secured the lowest ranking of the fifty countries included in the list. However, the situation can be improved if we realize the limitations and damage done by conventional methods of assessments. If the system encourages student self-evaluation and ability to critically see oneself.


Above all in this damaged world of learning and expectation, we need to create opportunities for our young generation to explore deeper ethical realities which are beyond the game of numbers, exams, grades and testing. For this to happen, there is a dire need to shift this traditional assessment paradigm as our society needs individuals who can analyse information, solve problems, work in teams, communicate effectively and reflect critically on the practices.


Khazima Tahir completed her doctorate in Educational Administration from Dowling College, New York, under the USAID Pre-STEP scholarship program. She has been serving in the field of education since 2000. She has worked in various positions such as a school teacher, a lecturer, and an administrator. As an academic and administrator, she facilitated student learning, improved academic environments and provided instructional leadership. Her research work is focused on the big picture to improve the standard of education all over the world. In doing so, she keeps on questioning the existing structures where students find themselves a complete misfit and also provides recommendations to improve the existing situation.

This article was featured in Matter Thoughts Issue 1 – Horizons