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Pakistan’s Education: Lack of Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking
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Taimoor Khan |

‘Your assignments and exams will be assessed, keeping in mind how critically you have done your research and presented your ideas on the paper. Think practically and out of the box, and while finding solutions to a problem, assume yourself in a real-world environment (as a manager, consultant or a supervisor)’.

The above statement was one of the major highlights of my first lecture at a reputed business school in the UK when I started my Bachelor’s degree. Among a lot of things which were new for me when I started, the aspect of critical thinking really puzzled and confused me. I knew its literal meaning, but how to think critically and how to translate that thinking on paper was the real question. I was coming from an education system, where rote learning was more encouraged and going to academic institutions was mere to complete syllabus and get good grades in exams. Achieving 90 plus percentage was considered a yardstick for success and there was no room for general abilities and skills. Alternatively, the UK education system demanded more practicality and room for new ideas. In the preliminary semesters, fewer parameters and criteria were set and we were assessed more on our quality of ideas and class discussions/ activities. As I read more and actively participated in seminars and lectures, I was able to overcome the problem by the end of Year 1.

Lack of critical thinking among students in Pakistan is among the major reason Pakistan is left behind in conducting quality research. It is evident from the dismal performance of the country’s institutions at global ranking tables such as THE (The Higher Education) and QS (Quacquarelli Symonds). Only 3 universities of Pakistan are among top 1000 of these global tables, which raises major concerns regarding the quality of education at our institutions. Furthermore, as of 2016, Pakistan’s education system has been ranked lowest on QS 2016 ranking, with an overall score of 9.2, finishing on a lower rank of 50. Comparably, India ranks 24 with 60.9 points, finishing with 30 universities in top 500 tier in the global ranking.

Quality research, all over the globe, can be defined as something that adds to the existing knowledge by identifying questions that have been empirically tested. In terms of research quality, Pakistan ranks lowest among all SAARC nations. Furthermore, highly cited papers from Pakistan are 0.01% of total research produced in the last decade.

Any discussion on the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ is also discouraged. A state narrative is to be acknowledged. The journey from Muhammad Bin Qasim to the independence of Pakistan is muzzled and censored. Any opportunity for discussion and investigation on it can land you in serious trouble.

Often, the lack of research funding is attributed to the stagnating research quality in the country, however, that is not true. HEC allocated Rs. 41 billion (0.039bn $) in 2014, Rs. 42 billion in 2015 and a massive 91 billion Rs. (US $ 0.087bn) in 2016. In the last 10 years, Pakistan has also seen a surge in published research papers from 2000 articles in 2006 to 9000 articles in 2015. However, the increase in published papers has not improved Pakistan’s research quality globally as 70% of the research conducted is of poor quality and does not meet the global criteria.

Such grim and gloomy figures shouldn’t be surprising. It can be attributed to a culture that discourages independent and critical thinking. The society we live in is a hierarchical system, where there is nearly zero tolerance for dissent and almost no scope or opportunity for new ideas and discussions. Critical thinking thrives where people with different ideas and viewpoints can argue; where a healthy debate contributes to the betterment of the society and paves way for a more inclusive and pluralistic environment.

Read more: Pakistan: Education can be a strategic investment

Lack of quality research and critical thinking in Pakistan can be analyzed with two of Richard Feynman’s quotes, ‘There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires a doubt.’ and, ‘I can live without doubt and uncertainty. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing them than to have answers which might be wrong.’ Research begins with doubt and doubt leads to questioning. Questioning and doubt have been the force and reason behind the rise of various fields, and it is the thriving force of ‘investigation’ which has not halted the research prospects in numerous fields. The questioning conundrum has deeply hindered learning prospects for students and society in Pakistan. Critical thinking is non-existent because students in educational institutions are not encouraged to question, ponder and investigate. In classrooms, there is no stress on discussing new ideas, there is no place for open discussions on various topics and issues. Healthy debates take a back seat while more focus is given on covering the syllabus.

This can be justified by the study of Durkin (2008) who conducted critical research thinking skills of South Asian students who went to the UK for higher education. She concluded that these students had the tendency to agree with the teachers’ opinion and even though lectures were designed in a way that discussion and debate were encouraged; they sided with teachers’ opinion. Moreover, this behavior seems a cultural norm and instilled in pupil’s mind from an early age. This study was further endorsed by another research conducted by Shaheen (2012). She concluded that Pakistani students in the UK lacked creativity and lacked skills to think out of the box. Their writing lacked self-expression and critical thinking. A similar study, conducted by Schweber in 2010, explains his experience at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of the most highly ranked and reputed institution in Pakistan. He stated that students showed unfamiliarity with questions regarding their critical skills and felt perplexed and confused.

Pakistan’s education system has been ranked lowest on QS 2016 ranking, with an overall score of 9.2, finishing on a lower rank of 50. Comparably, India ranks 24 with 60.9 points, finishing with 30 universities in top 500 tier in the global ranking.

Therefore, it’s important to encourage and promote healthy debates and active thinking in class. Merely covering syllabus and subjecting students to endless drills can lead to students possessing less creativity and expression. These students can be termed as well trained, but not well educated, as they lack skills which are needed to examine various aspects and gather evidence to investigate a question. Thus, critical thinking skills lead to enhanced questioning skills and are considered to be a significant ingredient for researchers.

Teachers in institutions should be advised to encourage the act of questioning in class and build a more positive relationship with students. It would lead to lessening the communication gap and students would feel more confident in expressing themselves. Students are supposed to consider teachers as their mentors and role models, not someone they should be afraid of questioning or having a discussion with.

Furthermore, a range of topics and issues should be opened for discussion. This would enable students to observe and investigate facts with a much wider perspective. Quantitative and qualitative methods of investigation should be taught to students from secondary level. These methods are essential for research students and possessing the knowledge to do so, from an early stage, would make them more creative, expressive and proficient in these skills. Students should be taught to listen to ideas of others and prior to approving/disapproving, test it, either through observation or experimentation.

Read more: The quality gap in Pakistan’s education system

Another pedagogy used by teachers can be through research projects and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to enhance and develop the critical thinking skills among students. The study of Tiwari and Yuen in 2006 conducted this research on two groups of students where one was taught using lecture method while the other taught using PBL. It was concluded that students taught through PBL had more enhanced expression and critical thinking skills as compared to students taught using the lecture method.

Another major factor due to which, Pakistan has failed to produce critical thinkers is the mismanagement of education funds and its inappropriate allocation. In the FY2018, 902.7 billion was allocated for education by all governments, as compared to Rs. 776 billion last year, which shows an increase of 16.3%. However, due to underutilization in the FY2017, the budget couldn’t achieve major educational targets. Punjab and Sindh couldn’t effectively utilize their budgets and fell short by 30% and 37% respectively. In this way, Pakistan will spend 2.5% of its GDP on education, which is a slight improvement from 2.3% in 2017 but, it still fails to meet international standards.

Another dilemma is the lack of emphasis and resources for improving primary education. To produce critical thinkers, we need to train and develop the mind and skill set of our children from childhood during their primary education. Nurturing them at an early stage, teaching them the necessary problem-solving skills and the practical implications of their general abilities and skills can yield a more sensible and professional workforce in the future. At present, Pakistan only spends 13% of its education budget on Primary education while a major chunk is allocated for tertiary education. 25 million children are out of school while 65% of students already enrolled are not able to retain their education after 5th standard. Politicians are more interested in announcing the opening of new universities rather than new schools. Unless the government devises policies and initiatives to improve education at grass root level, our higher institutions will remain factories of producing unemployed graduates. These graduates will have the same specific narratives instilled in their minds regarding history, society, culture, and religion, who are highly intolerant, possess a confined mental capability and are susceptible to new horizons of thinking and development.

Similar study, conducted by Schweber in 2010, explains his experience at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of the most highly ranked and reputed institution in Pakistan. He stated that students showed unfamiliarity with questions regarding their critical skills and felt perplexed and confused.

Unfortunately, the HEC’s draft of vision 2025 also possess the same drawback; quite generic and functional. The draft has no mention to improve critical thinking among students and in educational institutions. The draft entails aspects such as producing more engineers, technicians, doctors, and managers of the future while having no mention of promoting open discussions, new ideas and problem-solving skills. Teachers training regarding how to respond to students’ questions in class and how to promote healthy discussion in the class is also non-existent in the draft. More emphasis has been placed on producing maximum graduates in every field while giving minimal thought to general skills and abilities.

Lack of critical thinking is not only confined to our education sector; the problem also finds its roots in the society. There are very few safe topics for discussion left in the society. Conversations among friends have shrunk drastically. Individuals refrain from expressing their sentiments and beliefs in public. The lynching of Mashal Khan is a glaring example, where merely an expression of his own beliefs took his life. A blind adherence of religious and cultural belief is expected and any criticism on questioning these beliefs is strictly prohibited. Rights of minorities are curbed, making it difficult for them to preach or exercise their beliefs. Presence of religion is ensured in all spheres of life. Religious interpretations govern economic, social, political and even personal space. Land reform debates are banned as it’s deemed un-Islamic by the Sharia court. The leadership of a woman is unacceptable, not because she is incompetent, but because religious interpretations say so. Underage marriage is not discouraged because the interpretations do not allow for it.

Read more: Can education be decolonized in Pakistan?

Any discussion on the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ is also discouraged. A state narrative is to be acknowledged. The journey from Muhammad Bin Qasim to the independence of Pakistan is muzzled and censored. Any opportunity for discussion and investigation on it can land you in serious trouble.

Similarly, any criticism on state institutions, especially the army is also not allowed. Not only on defense and security-related issues, but also, on their influence in other domains of society – their lust for land, commercial interest from housing schemes to cereal manufacturers, interests in banking and insurance, their active role in Pakistan’s politics, missing persons, the Baluchistan issue and their efforts to curb freedom of expression by harassing journalists.

Thus, the system is bent on producing dummies and people with state-engineered narratives, who can be easily convinced and led to any direction, and made to believe any account or story, which the state wants them to believe.

In this regard, a collective effort is needed, and drastic changes are needed in state policies and our education system. To promote critical thinking, it needs to be implemented within all realms of society. Without effective implementation within the society, it’s hard to expect positive changes in higher education..

Taimoor Khan has completed his Masters in Business Administration (Global Business) from Coventry University, England. His bachelors in Business management is from University of Bedfordshire, England. He has a keen interest in domestic and global affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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