Have you ever felt a wall of textbooks around you, obstructing your vision and thinking, rather than widening your horizon? That’s how one of my research participants, let’s call him Basil, described his educational experience to me. He felt that he was positioned as an empty vessel by the writers of these textbook, as if he were a brainless creature. When Basil became a teacher himself, he looked back at all those years and wondered why there had been no sources of knowledge other than the single government-approved textbook for each subject.
In Pakistan, textbook production, dissemination and reception has always been highly regulated and structured. School textbooks erect a regulated and guarded wall, purposefully painted with a single color and single texture to hide diversity under its surface; it is manipulated by an elite which decides which ideas, history, socio-cultural values and norms are being walled in and which ones are being walled out.
As a teacher Basil realized that school textbooks in Pakistan neither nurture inquisitiveness among the learners nor do they enhance the intellectual competence of the learners. Rather, they seem to be produced and taught to manufacture consent and produce unthinking beings. They position learners as blank slates devoid of any consciousness, intentions, individual or collective agency, and they act as instruments for casting learners in an identical form and deprive the learner of formats, texts, images, questions, exercises that trigger thinking and give space to the views, interpretations and responses of learners and teachers. In classroom discursive practices, they do not help teachers engage their learners in developing their own identity and confidence in their individual as well as social consciousness. As a result, pupils largely remain dependent on what is published in textbooks and are largely the passive recipients of views, ideas and interpretations which they take for granted to be accurate.
Basil even argued that much of Pakistan’s woes from suicide bombs to sectarian violence are built in these textbooks which each child is made to learn by heart. While Basil’s views may be controversial, they are not uncommon and have now entered mainstream educational institutions in Pakistan. For instance, the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKUEB) has recently taken the initiative to diversify educational media in Pakistan. AKUEB was established in 2002 to move beyond the single-textbook approach to teaching and testing.
AKUEB has been the subject of harsh critique and and propaganda. Despite these attacks AKUEB works to promote students learning outcomes (SLO) within the approved curriculum rather than single-textbooks, and promotes the use of alternative educational media in its affiliated schools. Though AKUEB-associated schools were and still are legally bound to use the government approved single-textbook, they have been successful in diminishing the authority of the single textbook by providing multiple sources of knowledge. The introduction of alternative educational media has brought multiple discourses into the classroom. Being exposed to multiple interpretations, views and perspectives, young learners begin to see such media as legitimate sources of knowledge and develop an appreciation of complexities, dichotomies, paradoxes, and diversity.
When I asked another group of my research participants, Grade 8 students, to use a metaphor to describe the subject History, their responses included “history is a sermon,” “history is poison which spreads in the whole body and mind,” “history is an elephant,” and “history is water in a pond.” I think these metaphors provide evidence that education in Pakistan has moved on since Basil’s time and they can be considered as evidence of the emergence of a critical stance in young learners. These young students are developing the habits of thinking, researching, analyzing and above all questioning and bit by bit the wall is being torn down.