Making social capital

By Zubeida Mustafa

WHAT should be a matter of concern for educators, parents and civil society in Pakistan is the failure of our education system to produce social capital.

The public sector institutions that cater to the needs of the majority leave much to be desired in terms of quality, access and performance. But the private schools, even the upscale elite ones which produce academic achievers, do not necessarily teach their pupils the skills of community living.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGiven the direction in which the neo-liberal globalised world is moving, this should not surprise many of us. Competitiveness is encouraged. Students are exhorted to raise the bar and set their goals higher. The emphasis is on individual excellence, the assumption being that if each student can perform well individually, she/he can perform equally well collectively. What is not realised is that this generally works the other way round. If the community does well the individual is better equipped to achieve more.

Hence children have to be taught to work together as a group which has common goals, the main one being that of realising the common good of all members. That is what social capital is all about. A society rich in social capital has its focus on the group or community rather than on individual members.

How can this be taught? Most schools pay lip service to the concept of civic sense and social responsibility but it is not clear if any of them has actually succeeded in inculcating in the child the spirit of acting collectively. The fact is that the strategy of giving sermons on the importance of being kind and ethical has backfired. Even the ideological basis of our education policy — to teach all students the tenets of Islam — has got us nowhere.

Corruption and violence have grown in direct proportion to the emphasis on religiosity and piety. Unsurprisingly, this approach has had no impact in a society that does not practise what it preaches. A child imbibes more from its surrounding environment than from verbal exhortations.

In this context, my visit to a private school in Toronto — the Bishop Strachan School — was quite an instructive experience. With 900 girls of a diverse background on its rolls, the BSS has a strategic vision statement that focuses on “creating an environment that celebrates innovation” and adopts an “approach that integrates each student’s intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, physical and ethical growth”. The focus is on building leadership skills and critical thinking.

How is this done? The strategy adopted is the key to producing social capital, although the school doesn’t describe it explicitly as such. What is significant is the emphasis on socialisation and interaction among the girls cutting across the grades. Any issue that is taken up in class is discussed threadbare by all the students and the projects they undertake are assigned to a group — sometimes as big as 20 girls. Thus they learn to cooperate and respect one another’s opinions. The idea is to make education inclusive and any growth or development that takes place is expected to benefit the group rather than the individual.

This calls for teaching to take place in an atmosphere that is participatory, with the students being encouraged to talk to one another to reach an understanding on subjects under discussion. This is facilitated by highly qualified and well-trained teachers. There is attention to detail and seemingly trivial things count.

For instance, take the furniture arrangement in the classrooms. The primary grade students are seated around circular tables in groups. The teacher sits with them and blends with the class. She does not emerge as a superior transmitting knowledge to subordinates but a facilitator. Knowledge and research are produced collectively by the group.

In the senior grades the furniture arrangement takes the form of bigger desks placed in a horseshoe shape (reminding me of our newsroom in the pre-computer days). The idea is to enable everyone to face each other so that when one speaks she can be seen and heard by all the others.

Another way of teaching the children empathy and compassion as well as leadership is to encourage the intermingling of students of all ages. At lunch time it is common to see a senior student sitting with the younger children to eat with them and guide them through the meal. Or the junior class children are accompanied by an older girl when any of them visit the library to help them choose and locate a book. This also helps create leadership qualities in the older child, thus enhancing the academic performance of students as was first observed by Dr Maria Montessori according to whose philosophy environments (classes) of mixed ages enabled the older children to play a nurturing role that comes very naturally to the child.

In Finland, a country that was ranked in the top three of OECD’s Programme for International Students’ Assessment list of 2009, the state school system also adopts the group approach and children learn faster and more effectively.

One would definitely have something to learn from the BSS approach which focuses more on the collective human dimension rather than seek to produce efficient machines. Needless to say, the teachers’ ability and skills in assessing their students continuously and providing them support in the area where they need it is crucial to the success of the whole enterprise

Source: Dawn

6 thoughts on “Making social capital”

  1. This is a great article .

    "—-Competitiveness is encouraged. Students are exhorted to raise the bar and set their goals higher. The emphasis is on individual excellence, the assumption being that if each student can perform well individually, —"

    The competition is so high and encouraged to peak at the graduation and post-graduation levels. This is evident in a simple reaction : one spends years helping boys and girls to become high academic achievers; as soon as these "students" whom we have nurtured go a bit beyond the senior-secondary/under-grad stage , they just forget their old teachers.
    Teachers are no longer intinsically respected for "scholarly input ", they are * used and discarded *. It becomes a total memory loss.

    About the innovation of * circular tables and horse-shoe tables * . Our/my experience is that in 3rd world countries, because we have to admit 35 ( and a bit more ) students in every class, such furniture occupies space . Generally , class rooms are not that spacious.

    Further, " most " teachers prefer the ancient school -blackboard -platform and desks arranged in rows & columns, in class.
    That is what they have been taught. They are resistant to new adaptations. The result is that they lecture rather than doing group-teaching. It is the chalk and blackboard style.

    About this : " —-Corruption and violence have grown in direct proportion to the emphasis on religiosity and piety. Unsurprisingly, this approach has had no impact in a society that does not practise what it preaches. A child imbibes more from its surrounding environment than from verbal exhortations. – –". I agree to this, completely. The entire society is to blame all over South Asia. There is no harmony because what we think, wahat we say and that which we actually do, does not match.

    Given the conditions and ground realities of the Government Schools ( some of the private schools ), duplicating what is done in Canada and Nordic Europe is a dream which we may never realis. Look at our growing population of school going kids.

  2. Mrs Mustafa I agree with you a hundred percent….my daughters (triplets) were forced (to the limit of being ridiculed) by their previous school teachers to just concentrate on better grades…and no community participatory programmes or activities other than the mandatory ones that the school had introduced for children to get admission into a higher school (A levels that is). Now my children are going to a school that practices the things that you mentioned and I can see that my daughters have evolved….especially my daughter who stuttered a bit…she has achieved a sense of belongingness and of course the confidence to speak up….the approach to learning with a newly found social skill set has made her a confident girl from one who was shy and confused:)

  3. how can schools in the public sector produce social capital should be the topic for your next column. presently these schools are churning out hordes of illiterate boys and girls with few exceptions.
    few private sector institutions do involve students in collective activity while collective activity for government schools students is limited to lining up for reception of 'dignitaries'( lately this has been replaced by closing schools when a native dignitary was on a visit to a punjab district ) and singing national anthem and listening sermons delivered by head master or some teacher.

  4. Private schools always produce private communities breeding elite nepotism who
    have been philosophically loyal to the United British Monarchy and their aristocracy
    ignoring, rather undermining, the very communities and country. Every country must
    have good public education system which would constantly evolve to meet sustainable
    development and economy enjoying cultural and religious freedom with devotion
    respecting all sentient being.

  5. t was a real pleasure to see Zubeida Mustafa’s advocacy of cooperative learning in schools, Making Social Capital, Dawn 2/10/13. It was even more encouraging that she asked schools to go beyond exhorting the students to cooperate to actually requiring students to learn together. But she need not have gone all the way to Canada to find cooperative learning in action.

    More than 50 secondary schools in Pakistan are supporting more than 5000 young students through cooperative learning tasks exercises set by the Aga Khan University Examination Board. They work on real life problems for a month at a time in groups of four or five so that each member has a lead responsibility. They rate each other’s contribution including their own and, this being Pakistan, there is a handsome certificate at the end. This Middle School Assessment Framework may already be in operation in a school near your readers. If it is not, and they care for the social development of Pa kistani youth they might ask the school principal, ‘Why is it not?’

    1. Thank you Dr Christie for letting us know about this project. Frankly I didn't know about it. and would like to visit one of the schools and observe the group at work. But isn't a group of four or five too small? Besides, is it an on-going approach. You say it is not integrated in the schools teaching method but is undertaken for a month to win a certificate. Can you facilitate a visit?

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