Written By: Dr. Gulfaraz Ahmed
Instead of cramming the lesson the teachers ought to lead the children to apply their own minds and build progressively on understanding and self-learning.
Early education is generally limited to elementary level up to 6th grade. It should be aimed at promoting creativity and curiosity for onward learning and instilling awareness, love and respect for knowledge, life and environment. It should be holistic towards creating positive mannerism, sound character, good citizenry and objective scholarship. Instead of cramming the lesson the teachers ought to lead the children to apply their own minds and build progressively on understanding and self-learning.
Early education provides a foundation for learning and character building. It should cover a number of objectives like:
• Providing fundamental learning skills in a progressive manner;
• Igniting longing and quest for learning by connecting with the reality around;
• Prizing creativity and innovation by relating the lessons with every day experiences that relate to the physical environment and processes;
• Building character by individual attention and promoting self-esteem by playing up children’s achievements;
• Imparting knowledge of good behavior, polite manners, and civic sense; and
• Building awareness and care of environment and biodiversity.
I intend looking at a few important aspects of the subject to drive home the importance of the early years’ education.
Character is a crucial factor of success in life. It is often treated in an amorphous manner and variedly related only to moral and religious dimensions. Moral and religious dimensions are crucially important but character is a ubiquitous attribute of human personality. Character cannot be instructed down the throat verbally. It is energized and strengthened by promoting self-esteem of every child during early years’ education through recognizing every achievement of every child. It may be a lesson, a problem-solving, a hand of help offered to someone, good behavior, or an activity done well in the play area, athletics, drama or whatever. The self-esteem built in a child puts him on self-rolling wheels and drives him/her faster and faster on his/her own road to success in life.
A child with self-esteem charters his/her own course to excellence. He or she becomes his/her own task-master to exert the best and not to stay short of the best effort. To me this aspect is most important in early education but is often not handled effectively. Role modelling is a crucial aspect of character building and it encompasses the role of society in general but parents and teachers in particular.
Creativity and innovation are supreme attributes of mankind which have catapulted it to ever-increasing heights of knowledge and technology. These attributes need to be preserved and promoted in the children during the early years’ education. Children are born inquisitive and start asking questions from parents soon after they start speaking. Curiosity and creativity are two sides of a coin.
First blow to innate curiosity and creativity is nearly mortally delivered in our culture when parents do not answer every question rationally and foreclose enquiry by referring to the metaphysics of God’s will. In that sense the whole universe is created by God but what is observed in the universe relates to physical processes and concepts which ought to be rationally explained to the questioning children for their curiosity and creativity. It is very likely that parents might not have rational answers to all the questions a child might ask, it is better to defer the answer till they have found the rational explanation.
Whatever level of creativity remains preserved in the school entering children is commonly lost in the early schooling process. Every child may have different level of creativity and preserving and promoting it would require individual attention. Individual creativity should not be smoothened at the edges by promoting a uniform or group behavior which amounts to nearly snubbing the most important attribute of a child in the tender years.
The curricula should offer a variety of choices so that each child could resonate with what excites his curiosity and capacity to excel and acquire the self-esteem. I would like to give an example from my own observation of my school going children of Palo Alto High School conducting 9th to 12th grade education adjacent to Stanford University where I myself was a doctoral student; it had 44 choices spanning across academics, sports, practical wisdom, hobbies, skills, arts like drama, dancing/ballet, music, painting etc. which allowed ample opportunity to children to serve their creativity and excel in the chosen fields. There is no doubt that creating diversity of choices requires larger resources not only of funds but more importantly of teachers but the schools could at least create awareness for extracurricular pursuits by the students.
Jews constitute only 0.19% of global population but have 20% share in all the Nobel prizes awarded to-date. A Jewish child has 105 times more chances than a non-Jewish child to be a Nobel Laureate later in life. Jewish children ask questions like all other children, the difference is only that their parents never fail to give them rational answers. If they do not know the answer they find out and feed the child’s curiosity. I recall meeting a Jewish child Christopher of only 4 years age who played with my children. I quipped to him that Christopher Columbus had discovered America and what was he going to discover. He responded a planet perhaps and then quickly added that no, all the planets in the solar system had already been discovered. Most Jewish children are led to follow Einstein as their role model from the early childhood. As they grow up they actively start major research projects right from elementary years in their parents’ garages. Looking at the national level the state of Israel has the highest per capita innovation in the world and numerous important health related technological breakthroughs originate there. It all starts with supplying rational answers to growing up children.
Impact on National Development
Every child provides a distinct brick in the building of a nation. The individual weaknesses add up to shaky and weak structure. Although we do verbally recognize that children are future of our nation but we don’t invest in their future by lopsidedly restricting only about 2.5% of the national budget to education. That too is skewed towards higher education. We need not only to double the budget but soon quadruple it with greater emphasis on early years’ education. It will be more cost-effective given the value of human resource in the present era of knowledge and technology.
The USA was shaken when the Russians put the first ever spacecraft Sputnik in space in 1957. There were immediate calls for review of U.S. defence and national education system. Three months later they created the Advanced Research Projects Agency and increased the education budget and put a focus on early education. They introduced three lanes among students completing 6 years elementary school and joining the 7th grade in mathematics and physical sciences called Honor, A and B Lanes. Honor lane picked the gifted, the creative and those with marked curiosity in mathematics and science. They were then put on a fast track to develop national strength in scientific innovation as they grew up.
Foundation Years of Early Schooling
Foundation years of early education are of crucial importance. I shall again cite from my own experience in Australia. My son joined the Kindergarten class in Fort Queen’s Cliff Elementary School about 60 miles south of Melbourne. A few days later I went to meet his teacher and found her highly qualified and experienced with PhD in education. I curiously asked her about the number of PhD teachers in the school and her answer stunned me. They had only one PhD in the school and interestingly assigned her to the Kindergarten class. If the KG is sound, the children are put on the wheels lubricating the learning tracks. We would perhaps do it the other way round by assigning the most qualified to the senior most class. It provides a good food for thought and underscores the crucial importance of the early years’ education.
Problem Solving Motivation
I will share another example from my own experience. My children attending Stanford Elementary School used to bring a homework sheet in mathematics and science always having 10 questions. The first question was so attractively simple that the children would pick up the pencil and start solving it right away out of self-motivation. The second question had a variance but once the first question was solved it created a natural base for the second and so on till the 9th question. These nine questions progressively clarified the subject. The last question actually could not be solved and it was meant purposely to stretch children's thinking and drive home the point that knowledge was still growing at its edges and there was need for ongoing innovation.
Teaching of Science
I will say a few words about teaching of science. Science is not being taught properly during early education in Pakistan like in many other developing countries. This was the identification made by a group of some fifty Nobel Laureates who recommended that proper science teachers should be created by the developed world and sent to the developing countries to train the local science teachers. They also concluded that teaching science effectively was essential for the economic development of the poor countries.
In knowledge economy you sell the idea and make money. Most of the technology giants followed their ideas from a young age to the global fame. I want to give another example to drive the point home. Marchant Taylor Boys School in London suburbs takes 7th graders and prepares them up to high school. It has a New Design Centre with 6 workshops equipped with computer aided designing/computer aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) hub and eleven 3-D printers. They expose the 7th graders to develop robots, drones and e-cars using the edges of technology. I mentioned this to highlight the nature of the time that we are passing through where children can perform innovation hitherto unknown at an early age.
Science should not be taught as a mere textbook. Mathematics and Physical Sciences have a number of concepts and theories which need to be thoroughly understood for clear visualization of the subject. Some of the concepts intersect interdisciplinary boundaries and understanding a concept clears up the bigger field beyond the specific discipline. While at Stanford, I once picked up a book on “teaching of physical concepts of science in schools” from a garage sale. It was published in 1970. This book was specially written for training of science teachers for school level curricula. I discovered this treasure through serendipity that served me beautifully for clearing and understanding of various concepts in science even though I was midway in my PhD in mathematical physics. I had only a bookish account of those concepts but these became clearer and I developed a feel of the phenomena after reading this book. That is how the book would clear the concepts of the potential science teachers who would then pass on not only the knowledge but feel of the scientific concepts to school going children.
Living in Harmony with Nature and Environment
Elementary school is the right age to instill living in harmony with nature and environment. The last hundred years of rapid industrialization has increased stress on life. It has threatened the environment by causing climate change bringing in its wake prolonged droughts and devastating floods. The older generation is not a good model to emulate in this respect and the younger generation ought to be taught the preservation of environment and biodiversity for their proactive role. Health and sanitation are also very important. The younger generation should be exposed to the need and ways of improving health and sanitation and to become the change makers for a better future. They need to connect with healthy habits and the important role sports play in building character as well as health. The father of our only Nobel Laureate, Dr. Abdul Salam, believed that healthy body had healthy mind and the young Salam got the first prize of the healthiest baby in the whole district of Jhang when he was one year old. Good health among many other things led to the ground breaking unification of the electromagnetic and weak interactions later in his career that got him the Prize.
Exposure to Innovation
The information revolution that we are passing through has brought about a new form of economy called Knowledge Economy. The children that breathe the air of information revolution are much more at home and capable to learn the developments in technology. We need to expose them to the breakthroughs so that they move with the future of innovation and advancement. In industrial economy one makes a product and makes money by selling it. In knowledge economy you sell the idea and make money. Most of the technology giants followed their ideas from a young age to the global fame. I want to give another example to drive the point home. Marchant Taylor Boys School in London suburbs takes 7th graders and prepares them up to high school. It has a New Design Centre with 6 workshops equipped with computer aided designing/computer aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) hub and eleven 3-D printers. They expose the 7th graders to develop robots, drones and e-cars using the edges of technology. I mentioned this to highlight the nature of the time that we are passing through where children can perform innovation hitherto unknown at an early age.
Training of Teachers
In our country teaching is often undertaken less as a profession of choice but often as a last resort. Sometimes it is taken as a temporary staging activity till other plans. The quality of teachers determines the quality of the graduating students. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of teachers’ training. They need to be better placed socially in life with better terms and packages for greater motivation and converting teaching into a profession of choice.
I will briefly refer to the work of Dr. Jim Heckman, Nobel Laureate in economics, and others: They hold that the strong foundational skills built in early years education lead to self-reinforcing motivation to learn. Brain complexity is molded during childhood which has a lasting impact on intellectual capacities. Early foundation of high level cognitive processes that strengthen fluid abilities of memory, reasoning, speed of thought and problem solving are crucial for acquiring new knowledge. Dr. Heckman goes on to emphasize that rate of return to human capital development follows a steeply dipping curve. The return is highest in the pre-school and early education years. The quality of early education leading to the healthy brain development is essential for the socio-economic development of any country.
Strong Moral Grounding in Early Education Years
It is essential to lay a strong base of moral foundation in the children both at home and in the schools. In this respect role modelling is more effective than mere lecturing. It is of utmost importance to objectively design and structure the curricula to avoid stultifying the young brains before they develop the understanding of the subject. An objective view of the religious history and the need of the emphasis that Islam places on Ijtihad to understand and interpret cannons in true letter and spirit during changing times needs to be given due importance. True knowledge knows no religious boundaries and is created by God and we need to pursue it in the spirit of the teaching of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), that we should seek knowledge even if we have to go to China for learning it. This very clearly signifies the importance of knowledge disregarding the boundaries of religions.
God created humans as supreme being with the highest learning abilities compared with any other form of life. It is for this reason that the human children take the longest in achieving intellectual and physical maturity to lay a solid foundation for learning process while spared from other distractive chores of living. Early education years provide the most impressionable and formative period of the lifelong learning journey. It is well-nigh impossible to overemphasize the importance of the early years’ education. I am not a resourced specialist in this subject and my thoughts on this subject are an ensemble of my experiences and observations as an involved parent in varying conditions of various schools and countries including that of our own.
The writer holds a PhD degree from Stanford University, California USA. He is a former Federal Secretary and has been CEO/Chairman of OGDCL and Chairman NEPRA.