Functional literacy is a term initially defined for UNESCO by William S. Gray as the training of adults to ‘meet independently the reading and writing demands placed on them’. In essence, it asks of individuals to be simply ‘functional’, i.e able to survive, in society. Ours and the global education system has done exactly that. Students are beat down by the education system so to only be able to think within the confines of a ‘functional’ existence.

In Pakistan, ‘branding’ associated with prestigious schools is the norm. Schools and parents alike put immense pressure on children to score a ceremonious number of “A”s that they can then ‘market’. Rote learning and standardised testing persist leaving students to question their intelligence when they do not meet a benchmark. We have truly forgotten the essence of ‘learning’ which is exploring ones interests, breaking new boundaries and honing one’s own skills. No one learns how to be truly critical - how to challenge themselves, society or even the education system itself. Gender stereotypes are still promulgated and the ‘other’ continuously stigmatised - be it minorities, transgenders etc. It is baffling that parents still pressure their children into becoming doctors, engineers or corporate slaves – employment associated with high social status.

Have we ever wondered why we have no thinkers, writers or poets the likes of Plato, Isaac Newton, Margaret Fuller, Maya Angelou and John Keats? Why can’t we too breed philosophers and scientists? Why can’t the new generation be the change they want to see in this world? Why can’t our education system strive to make ‘individuals’ in the truest sense of the word?

It is because the ‘traditional’ education system has failed us.

Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Friere in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ coined the term ‘critical consciousness’ that is the ability to think and question for one’s self. Freire encouraged allowing students to shape what they want to learn and how they want to learn it for themselves; the teacher should only act as a mediator The idea is to arbitrate student learning in a way that they can think for themselves and channel their energies towards their interests and passion so that they may excel. Place based learning, student empowerment and experiential education are major ideas that educationists such as Dewey and E.O Wilson stress upon. This they call a move towards more ‘progressive education’.

Place based education is immersing students in local ideas, culture, landscapes and opportunities so that they may think and act locally and eventually globally. Students learning about a water crisis in Africa will not be able to associate as well as they will with the water crisis in Pakistan – their home country. Student empowerment is when educators take on a ‘profit approach’ or a ‘value added’ approach, i.e place an emphasis on what a student can do and not what they cannot. Experiential education, according to John Dewey, is streaming together a number of positive experiences to learn effectively. This is not to say negative experiences are not teaching moments, in fact they are opportunities to teach positively. The traditionalist education system has been a negative experience for many, but it may have taught some or channelled them in the direction they needed. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk were college dropouts. Realising this kind of education was slowing them down, they pursued their ideas and dreams instead.

It is important to recognise that intelligence in itself is complex which makes teaching and learning complex. Pedagogues have their work cut out for them as intelligence varies between each child, each child comes from a different social setting and varying family dynamics. The mark of a great teacher is to help each student strengthen their abilities and to identify a goal. Studies have indicated, that students who had difficulty in learning within closed and regimental environments, flourished after engaging in activities outside of the classroom. This is where environmental education has become a real game changer, when students are brought outside of the classroom and reacquainted with the natural world where they should be playing. It is here they develop their cognitive abilities.

The first Swedish school called the Nordic International School has established itself in Lahore, Pakistan and promotes exactly this kind of learning. Focusing on early years, they make use of progressive education that rears students to be hands on, empowered, and effectively engaged. This kind of learning they will take forth with them that should sharpen their critical thinking skills.

In open/liberal environments students can be themselves and expand their cognitive abilities. Through engaging activities, the hope is to nurture curiosity and wonderment that are characteristic to young children, and engender it amongst older children so that they might realise their interests, and pursue these to their full potential. The world has progressed far scientifically, technologically and more importantly politically and environmentally. Our children are not the least prepared for what is to come i.e they are not ‘war’ ready. It is imperative we arm them with the 21st century skills they need to survive. The hope is that children may become strong in their individuality, can challenge the system, work towards good social change, and are ambitious rather than complacent.

Encourage students to think outside the box, question anything and everything, think of solutions and become world leaders rather than simply an engineer or doctor.


n            The writer holds a Masters’ degree in Environmental Conservation from New York University.