What is wrong with education and research in Pakistan?

What is generally lacking in graduate and postgraduate institutions in Pakistan is an understanding by students of critical analysis. Students are generally not introduced to the concepts of critical analysis and their meaning

Just go through the examination papers of the past five years on any subject, find 10 oft-repeated questions (or topics), put them together and predict the next paper. If not 100 percent, the guess will be 75 percent correct. That is, there is no need to study the syllabus thoroughly; just be selective and pass any examination. This recipe works wonders, from Matriculation to a Masters in Pakistan.

There is no need to wait till the end of an academic year to find out those 10 questions or topics; this job can be done earlier by an experienced academician. After finding out the 10 questions or topics, the rest of the job is left to the power of memorisation by a student. Some students may try to understand conceptually a given idea or formula but most students feel safe in just memorising it. That is how rote learning begins and that is how original thinking (or the power of imagination) perishes.

In the job market, one can find a crop of degree holders who do not know their subject beyond eight to 10 questions/topics. Of them, those who have a better memory might have earned a first division. In fact, examination grading is determined by the power of one’s memory retention ability and not by the power of imagination. They may be good at regurgitating crammed information but may not be good at producing a new idea. This is where the traditional system of education in Pakistan fails. There are four dimensions to this problem: the syllabus, teachers, students and society. This column intends to focus on these points but from different perspectives such as the importance of the culture of research, critical analysis, the questioning approach, inductive and deductive reasoning, parallel thinking and scientific writing.

The culture of research is deficient at the college (graduate) and university (postgraduate) levels. In principle, research should start at least from the college level. It is a common observation that, at the postgraduate level, students struggle with grasping the basics of research, which they should have learnt at the college level. The culture of research cannot be constructed with the construction of laboratories and buying costly equipment but with a change in the student’s way of thinking. In this regard, what is generally lacking in graduate and postgraduate institutions in Pakistan is an understanding by students of critical analysis. Students are generally not introduced to the concepts of critical analysis and their meaning. To be critical means to find gaps or inconsistencies, search for weaknesses and strengths, and see what exists there and what is not. To be analytical means to make comparisons by finding similarities and differences. Hence, all students, from the Masters to the PhD level, should be orientated to research essentially by launching a compulsory course on critical analysis (or on critical thinking).

Attached to critical analysis is the questioning approach. Students coming from conservative sections of society — where the habit of enquiry is suppressed — face problems of adjustment in a research environment. Interestingly, in asking and answering three main types of questions — direct (to get specific information), probing (to add detail) and hypothetical (to test one’s creativity) — Pakistani students feel more comfortable asking and answering direct questions and more difficulty in asking and answering hypothetical questions. The questioning approach cannot be adopted if the environment is not conducive to learning. In an environment where belief in the predetermined and preordained is strong, critical analysis cannot prosper, the questioning approach cannot be fostered and research cannot flourish. No doubt it is difficult to mend society first and educational institutions later, yet students can be made aware of the importance of these concepts. Similarly, students should be made aware of the concepts and importance of inductive reasoning (what is specific, which can be generalised) and deductive reasoning (what is generalized, which can be made specific).

Pakistani students are not aware of the importance of parallel thinking. Here the meaning of ‘parallel thinking’ is not what is described by Edward de Bono: “A constructive alternative to adversarial thinking”, but that the students of a field should not keep their focus on their field only. Instead, they should be watchful of parallel or advanced developments happening in other fields from where they can borrow ideas and concepts to apply in their field of study or research. This is in contrast with the old school of thought that valued compartmentalisation. No doubt, the compartmentalisation of scientific areas has worked wonders but it exists with its inherent drawback that the information gathered from one area of science may be irrelevant to another area of science. In Pakistan’s universities and research institutes, the practice of borrowing ideas and concepts from one field of science to be used in another field of science should be promoted.

The idea of both discovery and innovation is to make an unknown known. This is how a new bit of knowledge is added to the existing repertoire of knowledge and, consequently, the field of science expands. Research, which is not original or which is substandard, cannot do this job. This is where plagiarism hit Pakistan’s research community hard. What is important in a research thesis is how a hypothesis is constructed (or a research question is sorted out), why a given methodology is adopted and how the results are interpreted. These are the points where Pakistani students find difficulties in writing their research theses. How to attempt scientific writing is the next big hurdle. Embedded in that hurdle is the problem of not having command over the English language. Students have not yet appreciated the point that English is now a language of science. To overcome these hurdles, both research writing and English language should be taught better in universities. 

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