Reshaping Education from the Roots Upwards

Dr Irfan Ullah Chaudhary on redefining education and challenging the educational status quo

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There is a growing concern about the continuously declining state of education in Pakistan. While numerous issues are at play in aggravating the situation, an in-depth analysis reveals that  the heart of the problem lies at the soulless education offered by commercial ‘education franchises’, which rarely promote anything but rote-learning and a blindfolded chase of grades. Consequently, the students graduate from these institutions with little in their hands (and heads) except grades.

Dr Irfan Ullah Chaudhary plans to change that. During his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — from where he did his BSc, MSc and PhD in Electrical Engineering — he noticed that the students were eager to explore new things, something Pakitani students are devoid of. After his return to Pakistan, he established Maktab,  a school which aims to provide unconventional schooling to its students. With the radical philosophy that reflects from the Penrose tiles the moment one steps into the campus building, Maktab is on a mission to equip its students with the freethinking that Pakistani students so often lack.

Besides Maktab, Dr Irfan has also taught at numerous institutions and is currently an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore.

Spectra Magazine sat down with Dr Chaudhary to know more about his initiative and his views on the current educational system.

Maktab, a revolutionary school founded by Dr Irfan Ullah Chaudary in 2012, now caters to more than 300 students (Image Courtesy of Dr Chaudary)

Lately, you have been teaching computer science courses at UET. Your doctoral thesis, on the other hand, was more about electrical engineering or rather physics. How did this change of interest come about?

I think it was just a series of accidents. I had a degree in electrical engineering, but my interest was in physics. So when I was coming to UET, I had actually applied to the electrical engineering department but they would not accept me. I also knew that the physics department there would not be a very interesting place to go to. However, I was pulled into the computer science department by its chairman.

I think there are one or two subjects in computer science that I am genuinely passionate about. My heart, on the other hand, is still in physics.

You often argue that Pakistanis are able to score perfect grades but are hardly creative. How is it possible to get a degree in the basic sciences without being creative?

There’s always a mechanical way of doing things. 

Developing a muscle memory, however, does not make one a creative person. 

This is why I am against our education system because it does not let us internalise things. Our students don’t contemplate over facts. For instance, you’ll never find them thinking about the origin of negative numbers because they don’t find it a weird phenomenon. For them, the word of the teacher is the gospel truth. Now, when these kids move to research, teachers stop telling them things as they are supposed to figure out everything on their own. If the students have been heretic enough to think over such things, good for them! If not, they can still get a PhD if they know how to mechanically work their way out of it. In fact, if you look at the research papers, most of them are not creative.

So, if you start to wonder about these things, you’re on the right track. Young children are naturally creative. Yet our culture, our parents, teachers, educational system beats the creativity out of us. Sadly, we’re not amazed by what we see. So if you’re not amazed by what you see, all you can do is write papers which are hardly creative. If you publish enough papers, you get a PhD.

Dr Chaudary, through his school, aims to support and not stifle the curiosity and creativity among students. (Image Courtesy of Dr Chaudary)

In Pakistan, most science teachers are hardly passionate about their subject. This obviously results in poor quality of teaching. How can this sorry state of affairs be changed?

Very few people pursue passions, and fewer people who pursued their passions were very good at it also. Can we have any system which would break the dispassionate cycle of mediocrity? Maybe not. Then again, I would not worry about mediocrity. I would worry about having fun. And if you worry about having fun, it’s like learning cricket – you get real pleasure from struggling to learn something new. So, I wouldn’t worry about mediocrity. But I would certainly worry about the fact that we need to enlarge the number of people who want to have fun in life. How do we increase the number of people who want to have fun? The answer lies in changing the culture.

Having said that, in my opinion, the problem [of poor teaching quality] is so prevalent in the society that it requires government attention. Government policies are more quickly adopted by the masses. In this regard, we will have to make this issue a national priority. If you consider planning and implementation, it becomes a very long term thing, say a 10-year program. Moreover, school teaching has to be made prestigious. That’s again a national commitment.

In addition to financial incentives, school teachers need to be respected in society.

Once the cycle initiates, then with proper training, maybe these teachers can prepare the next generation of people to carry the torch. Unless this happens, I can’t imagine a change occurring in the society.

Why did you start Maktab?

I’ve been thinking about the school ever since I was about 25. Once I figured out I was not smart enough to do physics, this idea of a school came around into my head.

I realized there were many flaws in my education. When I got introduced to numbers or to algebra or to the concept of mass, there was never any sense of wonder. Everything seemed obvious.

I would learn how to be an excellent circus monkey and solve all the problems very well. I could get very good grades.

So the primary motivation to start the school was that, knowing the limitations of the school system that I’d gone through, I wanted to sort of push it in different directions. But then there was some secondary motivation which came in. That had to do with the fact that when I came back, my kids started going to regular schools. In the regular schools, there were problems in addition to this problem of the way science and mathematics are taught.

Maktab, unlike the majority of private schools, is characterized by vast playgrounds inculcating an interest in sports among students (Courtesy: Dr Chaudary)

For instance, I think that kids nowadays grow up without sports. That, to me, is completely unacceptable. I can’t imagine kids growing up without sports. This is a recent phenomenon. In my age, every school was with playgrounds, and kids were encouraged to go out and play.

Please tell us about the outreach initiative associated with your school.

The [Maktab] school that I run has a community initiative program going on for three years.

The reason behind this program is a very fundamental fact that if a school exists in the community, and the community around it gains no benefit from it, then it’s an immoral place to begin with.

So if you are not locally active [in your own community], you’re not active at all. I mean, it doesn’t matter if you’re collaborating with Harvard or MIT or Stanford — you have to be locally active. That’s your first moral responsibility.

We started the community initiative program with the aim that we may eventually induct the less-advantaged kids from the locality into the regular school.

Sadly, our society is very class-divided.

So if you have somebody who’s paying 15,000 rupees to have their child sit with their driver’s son, there’s a huge uproar created by the parents. In a society like the US, it’s much easier to convince the people as they do not have a very strong hierarchy like ours. At Maktab, we will eventually move towards it, but we want to do it slowly, from a position of strength rather than from a position of weakness.

What becomes of your school when you are no longer a part of it?

I’m not sure. I hope to be active in the next 30 years of the school. I guess the school will have to survive the first 20 years. That’s a big challenge! It’s not obvious if the school will survive. Because, you see, we are fighting a whole system. We’re fighting not only the private schools but also a generation of parents who have been raised in this environment, and we are fighting a generation of teachers who have been trained in this environment. It seems like the odds are stacked against us and it is not obvious that the plan will succeed.

The library of Maktab contains a wide collection of children books. The school also started a community initiative program to educate the less privileged children besides other children, challenging the country’s class division. (Image Courtesy of Dr Chaudary)

It seems that you have had a really hard time with it. What kept you from giving up?

What other option did I have?

There’s a lot of excitement in trying to build something; building something that is bigger than you is a source of personal enjoyment.

Working on my cause gives me that pleasure, and I can’t imagine giving it up. I think the alternative is to direct my efforts to the university level – there’s very little that you can do at this level because the damage has already been done. So it’s really at the school system where my interest lies. And if I find a place where I think my energy could be better spent, I’ll surely think about getting there.

If your school becomes successful, will you be interested in scaling it up?

Yes and no. I can’t imagine it succeeding to the level that it will need to be scaled up. Moreover, it’s too hard to predict the future. What makes it very hard to scale up, first of all, is that we need people to run it. If we can’t put 10 people together to run a maths department in any Pakistani university, can we put together five people to run the maths program in a school? The answer to this question is clearly not obvious. Even if it could be done, then there are other things to look out for. For example, I don’t know whether I want to compromise the physical education part of the school as I find it integral to the school philosophy. So in an environment where real estate is too expensive, how do I manage to do this? I don’t have a good model for scaling it up until something is compromised. That’s why I feel that this [school] will probably stay as a standalone project. There may be certain parts of it that can be scaled up; however, I don’t think the whole model can be scaled up.

Thus, this school may stay as a kind of a utopian ideal that we try to push towards and possibly never get to, but continue striving towards.

The prime objective of your school is to provide unorthodox schooling to its students. How will the students fit in a system where securing good grades is the raison d’être of education?

Well, I hope that they will not fit in! And I tell this to their parents as well. This is exactly why this school was founded. Now, it is certainly true that the students will lead rather unhappy lives because they will be dissatisfied with what they find around them. I’m not justifying it as either right or wrong. However, I believe that I want to provide them with the right schooling and trust them with making their place in the society.

Physical education and co-curricular activies are an integral part of Maktab. (Image Courtesy of Dr Chaudhary)

The kind of problems that you mentioned can be solved by the government if it is interested. So would you be looking for a role in policy-making?

I would have no problem with that. In fact, when I was at MIT, I was involved with the policymakers for some time. It was there that I realised the decisions have already been taken as how things are going to be run – it was just that certain ideas had to be rubber-stamped.

The thing is that policymaking is not a black-and-white thing; the debate on an ideal educational policy can go on forever.

The more important question is whether people are willing to take the difficult decisions to implement it.

For example, we know that all the damage is done at the primary school level. Yet, we don’t want to invest in primary schools. That’s why I will be very happy to engage in the implementation of educational policies.

If you were a part of the school education department, what would be the first steps you’d take?

I think the main problem with our educational system is the level of competence of the teachers. Moreover, how do you get a teacher to be committed and passionate? After all, at the end of the day, any curriculum can work, but only if the person delivering it believes in it. If you look at Finland, they don’t have a very centralized system. They have general guidelines, no state standards. The reason they succeed is that they respect individuals’ power – they empower individuals and let them do what they want to do. That’s the way to success.

So, in my opinion, we need to empower teachers by giving them better education, by respecting them, and by paying better.

We need to make them feel good about their job so that it becomes something that they do because they want to do it and not because they are forced into the profession.

Our educational system has a structure which forces the students to fit into it instead of evolving itself to the students’ needs. Do you think it is possible to implement an educational model that moulds itself to cater for the needs and aptitude of the students?

Yes, I think it can be done. But we will need committed and empowered individuals to establish such a system. If we run the education department like a state bureaucracy with its standardised tests and strict evaluation criteria, it’s impossible to pull this off. Obviously, at a national level, we have to balance the standardization with individual freedom and empowerment. In any case, dedicated teachers are essential to implement such a system. Once that happens, there is hope.

The thoughts, views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Dr Irfran Ullah Chaudhary and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spectra Magazine.

The interview was conducted by Mahnoor Fatima and Muhammad Hamza Waseem.

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