Co-education conundrum | Focusing on teacher edu

The issue of the co-education system of schooling never seems to lose steam
Feb 16: Spare a thought for the children of Swat. Their schools have been razed to the ground for reasons that are as confounding as a hypocrite's mind. How can you prevent children from acquiring a decent education? How can an act of learning prove antagonistic to any faith, creed or system? Aversion to education breeds barbarism and savagery. There's no need to prove that. We have ample examples of it all around us.

It's not just the tribal areas and the settled localities in their proximity that have been witnessing a hostile attitude towards schooling. Even in the bigger cities like Karachi and Lahore educational institutions are faced with myriads of problems that have sparked off passionate debates all across the country.

The issue of the co-education system of schooling never seems to lose steam. A majority of schools in Pakistan have a segregated system of teaching, that is, separate premises for boys and girls. Is that a healthy exercise? What benefits does it have? Why can't girls and boys study together to forge a better (gender-unconscious) society? What's the harm in it? Or is it really as morally dodgy as some people think it is?

A few months ago, a known school in Karachi opted to set apart its premises for boys and girls. Prior to that, the institution had one building for all students. What caused that to happen was a repulsive incident that involved a young girl and a few boys that pestered the life out of her! Is it a reason cogent enough? Can't such activities be controlled or kept under check?

If you ever get a chance to visit an all-girls campus of a prestigious school, you can't help but notice (read: hear) a constant buzz making you feel as if you've entered a bumblebee zone. This is not to suggest that no such impressions are to be had in co-ed setups. But the general consensus is that mono-sex or unisex environments tend to generate more frivolity. Still, debatable, agreed.

According to Tazeen Erum, who teaches business communication at CBM, "The co-ed system helps students, particularly girls, get into the spirit of competition. If our society doesn't adhere to a segregated system, then why should our educational institutions go for it?

"It is very important for us to realise that after obtaining their degrees students have to do jobs. It is the workplace that requires a fair understanding of how men and women work. The women have to know the male psyche and the men need to understand the minds of their female colleagues. That's how you create a friction-free [work] ambience.

"Girls can have a major issue of self-esteem. Studying in a co-ed atmosphere can take care of that problem. Once they step out of the institution they're more confident and can look people in the eye."

Sumera Asim, a teacher at a Montessori school in DHA also advocates the same. "It has generally been noticed that in an all-boys unit, boys tend to bully their peers with greater aggression and hostility. Similarly, girls are often seen indulging in trivialities when they're under no gender pressure. But in a non-segregated place each sex becomes more confident; and they mingle with each other in a less stressed out or pretentious manner," says Sumera Asim.

"I remember when I was in college - not a mixed-sex one - girls would go absolutely bonkers if a boy entered our building. It would be like a rare occasion.

"As far as the hazards associated with the co-ed system go, I think they can be easily taken care of by being administratively tough and by keeping a vigilant eye on students," she says.

Tazeen Erum highlights the downsides of the co-ed structure but insists that its positive points heavily outweigh the negative ones. "Girls can get obsessed with the other sex and try and attract unnecessary attention, whereas boys sometimes get overshadowed by girls' progress and brilliance at studies. However, this is no big deal. This can be managed," she says.

This brings us to the students' perspective. What do they make of the issue?

Mashal, doing her A' Levels at a distinguished school that has at least a century-old history, says, "It is very important to acquire education at a co-ed institution. You learn to deal with the other sex in a better way. I know girls who say talking to guys has made them more confident. Besides, we don't live in a uni-gender world. When we go out, we have to mingle with all kinds of people. So you have to learn to deal with all situations. The human race has progressed a lot. It's time we put an end to this debate."

But what about reports of moral misconduct emanating from some renowned schools? To this Mashal responds, "Recently our school administration came down hard on some boys and girls who were involved in activities unbecoming of them. The administration asked them to leave. And they did. Then there were some students whose offence was not too worrying, but the administration even suspended them. Ever since there haven't been any such reports. So things can be controlled."

However, Mashal acknowledges that each gender should be cognizant of its limits. There are certain definite lines that they must never cross. It's by traversing those lines that things go awry.

Ostensibly, there doesn't seem to be a major issue vis-à-vis the co-ed setup. It's the collective mindset that needs to be changed. As a society, we have always harboured preconceived notions - be it the realm of culture, history or education. And it's these predetermined ideas that hamper our growth as a nation with a forward-looking approach to life.

Nations have defied gravity and explored the infinite vastness of space, with men and women aboard their spaceships. They have produced Nobel laureates representing both genders. Their men and women have invented life-saving drugs. The co-ed conundrum is so passé for them. So should it be for us as well. - By Peerzada Salman (Dawn)

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Focusing on teacher education
Feb 16: The state of education is well known in Pakistan. And many believe, and rightly, that any intervention that hopes to change the state of education in the country has to focus attention on teachers as well. What are the qualifications of those who become teachers in Pakistan (pre-service), and what is the in-service teacher training and support mechanism would be crucial questions for any reform that hopes to have a deep impact on the education sector in the country. But teacher education is a lot more complex than it appears to be. And it happens to be a fairly neglected area as well.

If your aim is to hit the bulls eye, some of the help manuals, especially from Zen literature, say that you have to ensure that in preparation stage, hitting the bulls eye does not become the sole objective that you focus on. In fact your preparation should focus on other things...getting the form right, making sure your other things are in order and all of your other movements, motions, stance and equipment are all in sync and you are in the 'zone' when attempting to target the bulls eye.

Targeting teacher education might have some similarities with this approach. It is true teachers need to have some understanding of the basics of pedagogical practices and they also need subject matter expertise as well. But where these might be necessary conditions, they are not sufficient. A teacher needs a lot more.

He/she needs to be able to connect with the students, needs to understand their world and their point of view, be able to reach their level of development, and have empathy with their situation. He/she also needs to have a much broader spectrum of knowledge, especially in the social sciences and humanities areas, to be able to communicate effectively with students, especially with younger students.

Over the many years I have been a student and then a teacher, which is most of my life, the good teachers I have come across have always been good at the subject that they were teaching, but they were a whole lot more as well. They were good at communicating their ideas, connecting with the students at their level, having empathy with the students and their worldview, and they were very knowledgeable about a whole host of other areas as well...well beyond their expertise. And finally, they were usually good role models as well, even in terms of human behaviour, their ethical codes and their outlook on life.

Given the above, the question of what teacher education should focus on becomes a lot like the aiming for the bulls eye bit. We have to ensure that everything is in place, all the pre-requisites are taken care of, and then we get to the logistics of the actual event. Teacher education, in other words, cannot be about pedagogy skills and subject expertise only. But this, it seems, is the way we are treating it right now.

The way we hire teachers, especially in the public sector, is that we look for people who have subject expertise and who have a degree in education as well. And since we treat the two areas, general and subject education and the education on pedagogy, separately, our education system has also come to treat them as such.

The programmes on teacher education are offered by institutions that are either dealing with education alone, or are largely dealing with education alone. But this way of looking at the production of teachers has very important and negative consequences about the general education requirement that is important for good teachers as well. And of course the weaknesses that remain in the pre-service education of teachers, especially in the general area, cannot be remedied in the in-service training: in-service trainings are much more focused on pedagogy and/or on specific skills or areas of expertise.

Apart from the few who join the teaching profession out of love for teaching or love of learning, most of the people who become teachers become so out of having run out of options. They do FSc/FA hoping to go into medical/engineering or MBA streams, if they are not able to go there, they do their BAs and MAs and then try to become bureaucrats and if that is not possible, and most other more lucrative avenues are not open, a number of them end up becoming teachers.

And for most of these people, their heart is not really in teaching. For a majority it is just a way of making a living. But more than that, since it is not their top choice in terms of profession as well, it is not really something most of them want to do either. In addition, the teaching profession, for most people, does not offer high rewards as well.

So even after having been forced into a choice, there are no in-service rewards that can get them motivated. Most public sector teachers might have secure jobs, but they do not have good salaries, do not have good prospects for promotions and do not have avenues for career development and advancement either. So, no wonder we get poor teachers in classrooms.

The private sector works slightly differently here. Private sector schools want to give or signal better quality as they want to charge higher fees. The signal will come from having more efficient teachers who deliver a certain minimum in class. So private sector, not caring about whether people have education degrees or not, hires people who just have some area expertise and then either controls them more effectively or motivates them more to deliver more effectively to the point that it is true, in general, that private schools are considered to deliver better quality education than their public counterparts.

Even the elite private schools, and I taught in one, do not really care if their teachers have education degrees or not. What they care about is: a) the accent of the teacher, b) the subject knowledge the person brings, and c) the general knowledge of the person in question. This seems to signal that the pedagogy part can be either done in service, through shorter courses or in a shorter time. The subject expertise comes from the earlier education and of course there is no substitute for earlier education as far as general knowledge or breadth of knowledge is concerned.

How do we put the insights about private school teachers together with the earlier observations about what makes for good teachers and how is the public sector teaching profession organised? The points about better motivators, controls, career paths and so on are all obvious and need not be emphasised. It is much more the need for quality of pre-service education that requires thinking. If we want to improve the quality of education being given to children in Pakistan, we have to make large and deep interventions in the quality of college education that is being given in the country. We have to make sure that our graduates, the thousands that do their BAs and MAs, mostly from public sector universities around the country, are given a better quality liberal education.

If they have a better quality education in the area of their expertise and in social science and liberal arts areas they will, at least, have the potential of being better teachers. Of course if in-service treatment remains uninspiring, as it is, many will not perform and will look for ways out. But others will. And even with the ones who are uninspired, at least the seed for improvement will be there. So the average quality of teaching is likely to increase.

Improvement of the quality of education is an oft-stated goal of almost all governments that come to power. Improving the quality of teachers and their service conditions is also recognised as a sub-goal, and an important one for achieving the larger goal. But the efforts to improve quality of teachers are usually just focused on salary issues, service condition issues or in-service training issues. But like the bulls eye problem, we have to take a more holistic approach here.

The key lies in pre-service education actually. And this is where we need to do a lot of thinking. Our processes for training teachers are not well thought through and could do with a deep review. There are many donors who are planning to put in significant amounts in in-service training, yet again. But this money will largely go to waste if we do not look into the pre-requisites issues more deeply.

The writer is an associate professor and head of the Department of Economics, LUMS. E-mail: (The Nation)

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