A Crisis of Reckoning: Put Learning First 

This piece, written by Dr. Arshad Ahmad, Vice Chancellor, LUMS, was first published in Dawn on May 29, 2020.

COVID-19 presents a crisis of reckoning for all of us. The enduring lesson for the 200 universities serving Pakistan’s 1.4 million students is that we must put learning first.

Nobel laureate Herbert Simon summarised the essence of our challenge, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only from what the student does and thinks.” Universities need to help students learn how to learn, how to unlearn, and how to relearn.

Simon’s truth forces universities to recognise that the current, dominant instructional paradigm undermines student learning. Whereas our education systems have sanctified teaching, quality learning is an afterthought. It’s time to discard instructional practices based on one-way transmission of disconnected and obsolete facts, memorised by disengaged students.

By shifting from an instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm, universities can create conditions for quality learning. These conditions should resist prior patterns of standardisation and do more to encourage variety. They must recognise that one size never fits all. The conditions for quality learning compel students to actively engage with their university as partners, co-designers, and co-creators of their own learning experiences.

Putting learning first also requires that universities reconsider their entire approach to assessment. Universities are rife with poorly designed assessment systems that value rote memorisation at the expense of quality learning. Exams that test what wasn’t taught are common. Such exams act as silent killers not only of learning but of the desire to learn. If our goals are to develop analysis and critical thinking skills, why are we stuck on assessing memorisation? Instead, effective assessments are fit for purpose to help students achieve intended learning goals. Assessments, therefore, provide feedback to students on their progress on a variety of learning goals and on the gaps in their learning.

As is evident during the current pandemic, shifting to a learning paradigm requires that universities look beyond their campuses for critical issues that impact students and their learning. This past month students have spoken not only about the lack of technology access but also about cognitive overload and mental health challenges. Inadequate learning conditions at home have become acute for female students burdened with additional caretaker responsibilities. The pandemic has amplified serious questions about the conditions needed for effective teaching and learning.

In this regard, COVID-19 has reminded us all about the importance of empathy as a powerful determinant of student learning. Teachers who demonstrate a deep sense of caring lift student learning to new heights. Research now confirms what we intuitively suspected: empathetic teachers are the most effective teachers. How can we weave empathy into the fabric of our educational curriculum and pedagogy? How can we embrace the student as a whole person and not merely as a ‘student’? The pandemic has encouraged teachers to personalise learning and model empathy in ways that could not be more important.

The positive impact of empathic behaviour and appropriate assessment metrics is not limited to higher education. Business leaders who listen and give applicable feedback to front-line employees, model empathy and their organisations and society reap the benefits; so too with government and civil sector leaders.

The instructional paradigm unfortunately privileges the power of those seen as all-knowing experts. As is evident today, past expertise has its limits — no expert exists who knows how to safely end the pandemic, nor how to return society and the economy to prosperity. Similarly, not even networks of the world’s best experts know how to reverse environmental degradation and return the planet to heal­­th. If such expertise exists, we have yet to learn how to use it. This is a significant lesson of the COVID-19 crisis.

Everyone, including our leaders, has been returned to the role of a learner. Humility guides the most powerful as they publicly and privately show the courage to admit, “I don’t know. But these are the questions we need to ask. This is what we must do together to learn.”

To address complex challenges, society needs to draw upon and integrate expertise from multiple disciplines. Universities can play a role by partnering with the private and public sectors to combine expertise in the face of persistent, societal challenges.

Fifty years ago, Pakistan joined other countries in becoming a signatory to the United Nations’ covenant that recognises education as a human right. However, rights require action. How do critical measures of societal well-being, including nutrition, sanitation, numeracy, and literacy, supersede Pakistan’s educational reform agenda? Could a learning-focused system that attends to these priorities enable the country to become a better steward of its 50 million students, 1.8m teachers, and the 23m children who are not in school?

Education is the greatest equaliser and the most powerful engine for Pakistan’s economic development and societal well-being. While COVID-19 has paralysed most sectors, we cannot allow that to happen to education. In fact, the lesson from the pandemic is an invitation for all to learn how to learn, to unlearn and to relearn. As a society we must put learning first.


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