Myanmar and Us
(Series - 2, part - 5)
Part 4 explained how Abdus, obstinately sticking to his conviction that the Sun goes around the Earth, was not alone in refuting evidence from science. Abdus's blind belief about an internet prediction declaring angels would extinguish Covid-19 worldwide before the end of Ramadan 2020, and other people's widespread support of various conspiracy theories, including those regarding Covid-19, eschew factual information.
Abdus was internet addicted. Covid-19 stranded him in Myanmar with plenty of time to explore alternative ideas from the web. He had passed his examinations up to Class 10. But he doggedly refused to contemplate alternatives or acknowledge scientific predictions from current data. Ten days before Eid-ul-Fitr, he still insisted the global eradication of Covid-19 will occur by that date.
The internet is not a repository of facts, but a vehicle for personal opinions where bizarre stories, political convictions, scams and rumours abound. Information and misinformation are increasingly hard to distinguish online. Lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic show why - with the increasing importance of the internet for information - schools must teach students to develop a sense of critical suspicion about anything they read.
Being literate is not just knowing reading and writing, it should involve learning what to read, as well as how, in the digital age of ICT information. Did the Bangladesh education system equip Abdus to seek out impartial verifiable information and evaluate what he finds during the Covid-19 pandemic? Indeed, a desire to research informatively if the Sun really goes around the Earth?
The Bangladesh government has earlier quite rightly condemned rumours. But is the education system helping, or hindering the very thing the government condemns?
Let's particularly look at younger students today. It's not just that primary school education has a formative impact on children's thinking, but because of later school drop-outs, early schooling is sometimes the main formal influence for future adults. These adults include politicians and local leaders who determine policy and carry out decisions about Covid-19.
During the end-of-year December examination in science, one Class 3 student answered a science question asking what people can make and what people cannot make. When I enquired what he wrote, he began by saying people cannot make the ground, cannot make a hill, etc. I asked, did he write 'the Moon'. He quickly retorted it is not in the book, we have to do what is in the book.
Creativity, which answers a question correctly, leads to potentially an end-of-year class fail but narrow convergent-thought, relying purely on good memory and rote learning, helps to pass. Students have to submit to the artificial authority of the textbook, the textbook-teacher, which destroys their independent thinking and self-confidence to express their own ideas. This is not gaining knowledge or leaning science, but computer-style recall. But unlike a computer, they will soon forget it. How may that have affected Abdus?
The absurdity of using narrow memory-based tests to evaluate children's ability is aptly demonstrated when one Class 4 student showed me a text he had to memorise for a test: 'The Cow or, a domestic animal. The cow is a domestic animal...' When I asked what 'domestic' meant, he had no idea and seemed a little peeved because he could memorise the passage, which was all what it required to get marks for that question. Without understanding the meaning, he will undoubtedly forget most of what he had memorised.
But examination and test marks only count, not understanding... Within the extended family, parents and relatives admonish a child with a low roll number. They put special 'pressure' on them to study more. They compare the roll numbers of siblings and neighbours, causing poisonous division and resentment between siblings. What might any student with a high roll number wrongly assume about their own ability and knowledge? Their parents have false assumptions, too.
There was a mistake in a Class 4 English test. A question asked: 'What was Ahmed Uddin?' Ahmed Uddin didn't appear in the passage. It should have been 'Altaf Uddin' (who was included). When I asked one Class 4 student to answer the question exactly as they set it, he just kept repeating that he could not answer because there was no Ahmed Uddin in the text.
Blindly following textbooks and answering questions for examinations based on textbook memory, the education system drums out creativity, divergent thought and logical thinking from that child's mind. After 15 minutes of my relentless coaxing, the student finally said Ahmed Uddin is a man. Correct. A simple answer.
But even more worryingly, none of the teachers or the principal in that child's school could answer the question correctly. With no practice, the effort of thinking is too much for some people, sometimes a bother they avoid ("I don't know"). Can inhibited teachers who cannot freely guess, teach thinking?
Similarly, students rarely critically analyse a text: they just look for the best-fit answer, whether or not correct. In another Class 4 English test, the English teacher had inadvertently made a mistake because of his own lack of reasoning. The text about Heba from Saudi Arabia read: '... we don't drink a lot of milk in our family.' The question asked: 'e) The people of Saudi Arabia do not like ..... very much i) juice ii) eggs iii) milk iv) cereals.'
Students cannot answer this question from the information provided in the text.
Although most students wrote 'milk' unthinkingly, it was the teacher's fault to prime them to extrapolate the preference of a single Saudi family as corresponding to that of the entire nation. How might a student - later an adult - using this type of deduction, analyse data about Covid-19? You could well have heard the characteristics of a nation exemplified by the trait of an individual. It's a path to stereotyping.
Another example of teaching mistakes, which sow confusion, was from a KG school Class 4 English comprehension test. The passage contained a dialogue: 'Tania: How many people are in the race? Farhan: I think there are eight people, three girls and five boys.' Question: '(b) How many people in the race?'
What is your answer? Think critically. When fact, opinion and conjecture get muddled in Covid-19 pronouncements there are potential disastrous consequences. It's not surprising that some people see these concepts as equal if schools teach that.
In part 6 we will detail more examples of how education can hinder the very thought processes and skills that lead to science, mathematics and IT proficiency, so vital in making decisions about Covid-19 and all rational decision making.
However, it's important to end with a banal truism: the lack of a uniform education system in Bangladesh fosters many divergent ways of thinking. Is the government hypocritical if it lambasts individuals who break their Covid-19 social distancing directives or other restrictions, when they are products of diverse government sanctioned education systems that sometimes see reality, authenticity and consequences dissimilarly?
To be continued...