By Muhammad Ali and Reshma Parveen
The phenomenon of dealing with diversity through education has received increased attention throughout the world particularly in countries where diversity was realised as a part of society.
It has been observed that education can play an important role in bringing peace by making space for differences. For instance countries like South Africa, Ireland, etc., where conflict arose due to differences, education played its role to create harmony and peace in society.
In Pakistan, diversity is a basic fabric of society in terms of varied ethnicities, cultures, languages, faiths, interpretations of the faiths and so on. It is something, which cannot be overlooked easily. Ignoring or suppressing such a reality has sometimes created challenges in the form of conflict and unrest.
It is therefore imperative to first realise and recognise the diverse cultures, languages, ethnicities, religions, faith and/or different interpretations of our society. Then we need to take steps at multiple levels to transform the society’s diversity into strength by owning, respecting and celebrating the differences among the communities. Multidimensional measures are required to transform the practices in education at multiple levels such as policy, textbooks, school management and classroom teaching, learning and so on.
According to Kabeer (1994), policies play an important role in determining the dynamics of power and distribution of roles and resources among the different people in educational institutions. Therefore, the education policy needs to be sensitive towards diversity of all forms such as culture, ethnicity, religion, region and so on and so forth.
Pakistan’s education policy (2010) aims to promote national cohesion by respecting each others’ faith, religion and culture. However, it is not clear how this objective would be translated into practice. It also lacks guidelines for the educational institutions about how to implement it at the grassroots level.
It is observed that most school heads and teachers are not even aware of the existence of the educational policy. Hence they cannot be expected to have a know-how of creating harmony in society. Therefore, the policies should provide clear pathways for the schools on dealing with diverse students in a multicultural society. Furthermore, the implementation of the policy must be ensured by conveying the same to the schools through textbooks, policy documentation and other sources.
In our educational institutions, particularly in schools, textbooks are viewed as the major source of knowledge for the teachers and students. However, Ashraf (2009) argues that in Pakistan the textbooks are not balanced. Rather they are dominantly one-sided in terms of gender and culture education. Most illustrations and text in the books are focused on the prominent areas leaving the ‘different’ out. For example, our textbooks highlight the four cultures of the four provinces of Pakistan. In reality, there are many sub-cultures within the provinces that are neither clearly mentioned by the teachers nor given space in the textbooks. There are places like Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, which are seldom discussed in the textbooks. Similarly, only a few languages are highlighted in the social studies textbooks but there are hundreds of languages spoken in the country.
This kind of an approach proves useless in informing the children about the rich and diverse cultures of their country. Our textbooks need to be revised in order to provide a balanced and sensitive education to our children. In this regard, the authors of social science textbooks must be oriented about the cultural and anthropological approaches.
The teaching/learning process is also important in shaping the concepts. But the teachers here come to class with their own baggage of perceptions about a culture that has been carried on from their own schooling. Literature has highlighted that teachers expect a different behaviour from students coming from different backgrounds. It has been observed that the teachers label students and treat them differently based on their background, ethnicity or faith.
Many teachers also believe that they should stick with the material in textbooks only. Hence they do not make an effort in teaching about cultures other than what is given in the textbooks. Such kind of teaching approaches towards diversity also influences the negative attitude of students towards their fellow students. Consequently, the graduating students do not accept and appreciate the differences in their practical lives.
Teachers in general and social science teachers in particular need to learn about the background of students. Teaching a class of students with diverse backgrounds is not an easy task but these days almost all classrooms in Pakistan are full of students from different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, teacher education institutions must include a component on teaching children with diverse backgrounds.
The overall environment and practices are also very important for dealing with students from diverse backgrounds in the school. Schools need to develop such cultures, which are sensitive towards the diverse needs of their students. It is observed that admission policies at some educational institutes are discriminative towards students belonging to some particular religion, culture and/or ethnicity. Similarly, some of the students also face difficulty in gaining marks, if their religions, cultural and/or ethnicity or other related element is known by the examiner or paper checker. The school leadership needs to be sensitive towards such issues in order to treat all students equally.
Pakistan is a country with diverse cultures. The citizens of this country should learn how to accept, tolerate and celebrate the differences rather than reject each other. Therefore we need an education system capable of nurturing mature citizens who can coexist peacefully. The educational institutions here should have the capacity to positively influence society rather than get influenced by the stereotypes and prejudices existing in it.
The writers are educators at private educational organisations. firstname.lastname@example.org