When a friend described her classroom experience at the Institute of Development Studies, more commonly known as IDS in Sussex University, a group of us had a good laugh over how easy it was for her to earn her Masters degree. While the rest of us slaved away, writing research papers in libraries and working on technical simulations in labs, she was sipping coffee and having marble cake with her classmates, sitting around in a circle and having candid discussions on ‘development’.

The structure of IDS is a delight in itself; comfortable leather sofas form circles, a shiny grand piano lies in the corner of the room where someone would be playing a Sonata of Beethoven and a cafe at one side where people would stand in groups sipping coffee throughout the day. In short, it’s the perfect, most conducive environment for your usual intellectual to voice their thoughts and opinions. But what do we, the ones so obsessed with structure, think of this seemingly aimless education? An utter waste of money and time.

This is why Pakistanis have been unable to produce any groundbreaking ideas, innovation and discoveries in the last decade with very few exceptions. Anyone you know on the verge of finding the answer to end poverty? Nope. We simply do not foster creativity in any form. Math, add math, Science and more Science. This is what defines the priorities of your average O and A level student. Let me correct myself. This defines the priorities of the parents of those students. These kids are forced to take up subjects they do not have any interest in. Endless tuitions, past paper practice and thousands of rupees later, the child ends up with acceptable grades that will, maybe, land them in a reputable university. Where are the dreams of curing cancer or perhaps stumbling upon a new constitution for this country? Lying in a box somewhere, locked away behind the obsession with structure and conformity.

Let me rein my thoughts back to this particular teaching methodology that is practiced by the IDS. Yes it is an actual method of learning and not an utter waste of time. And yes it is extremely popular amongst the very expensive private schools in the US and the UK, slowly making its way into the mainstream educational institutes. This particular method is better known as the Harkness learning: an approach to education that inculcates a culture of enquiry, driven by students in dialogue around a table, with minimal teacher intervention. At this point most of us would completely write this method off as too radical and ineffective. Minimal teacher intervention? What does that even mean? What is the point of sending your child to school and pay exorbitant amount of fees, if the teacher does not play a proactive role in imparting the knowledge to your child?

Let me point it out that the Harkness method has existed for a very long time and is by no means a new or radical approach. In 1930 at the very prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a philanthropist Edward Harkness gave a staggering amount of $5,840,000 to Exeter. He was a great educational thinker who understood that the traditional method of teaching-in which the teacher stood at the front of the class and lectured to students, who then recited the lessons-did not do enough to encourage true critical thinking. Harkness was particularly concerned about the shy student who did not jump into conversation and therefore did not learn as much as he could otherwise. He helped rebuild the classes so that a large oval table could fit in each like a boardroom and could seat 10-12 students per table.

This method has the following foundational assumptions that (a) dialogue is good for learning, (b) personal provision is good for learning, (c) it’s easier to ask questions in small groups, and (d) conversation with a subject authority allows for the acquisition of knowledge. In practice, Harkness learning is not madly liberal, allowing students to say whatever they want about whatever topic they want, whenever they want. It works within a disciplined framework with prescribed content, high expectations for reading and writing, and a demanding pace for course progression. So, the framework is tough and strictly delineated, but what happens within that framework is truly open-ended. Teacher planning is for possibilities, not outcomes, in that Harkness learning simply enables students to have an intellectual conversation. It is planned that all the students will have to read a certain text, or write a certain paper, but what then happens around the table really comes from them.

Schools like Phillip Exeter produce alumni from journalists to music directors, senators to physicists. While one can argue that this education method caters to the rich and they have endless opportunity in life to pursue their dreams and passions, regular people have to worry about bills to pay and feeding their families and hence it is simply not a fair comparison. Be that as it may, by not giving our students the chance to self-evaluate and critically analyze the topic of discussion we are robbing them of the chance to truly change their lives by stumbling upon the next great idea since Facebook (Mark Zuckerburg is also an Exeter alumni).

Education needs to evolve with changing times. These are times when highly qualified graduates are applying for menial jobs and are grossly underpaid. Times where Pakistan is in dire need of technological and scientific advancement. We need to foster creativity, focus on critical evaluation and appreciate the unorthodox. We should encourage our children to step out of the fixed patterns of science and business and take up new and interesting subjects for they might discover a passion for a certain subject at an early age and cause them to excel at it. Sharing and discussing ideas not only brings out the best in children but also teaches children to work together as a team. Methods like these make space for the introverts of this world, to encourage them to be comfortable infront of a small group before having to face the world. It really is a time to reevaluate all that is wrong with our system and what we can do to make things better.