The sheer existence of man is under threat amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. It is not the first time that the world has seen disruption in life on this scale. Stories of diseases sweeping away entire nations are rampant in literature. Justinian’s Plague swept off around 36 percent of the world’s population, bringing the Byzantine empire on the brink of collapse. Likewise, the Flu pandemic of 1918 took the lives of 50 million people around the world and caused massive economic losses. However—the show must go on—life moved on and the human population grew at an unprecedented level and is looking strong to hit the 8 billion mark in the near future.

It is crucial that we prepare adequately for challenges but most importantly, the opportunities that COVID-19 has brought with it. One key opportunity, often viewed as a problem, is the shutdown of educational institutions around the country. This is providing much-needed fusion of modern technology and methods of teaching into the system that has been long neglected since independence. The education system in Pakistan traces its origin in the methods and policies of the British empire. It was not until Charles Grant, with his strong inclination towards evangelical Christian views, gave the go-ahead for missionaries to enter the subcontinent and bring in their arsenal; the epitome of cultural diffusion, the English language. The language with it introduced new cultural and social ideas into the educational system of the country.

Soon after that, East India Company worked her way to develop a new educational system to be introduced in the subcontinent with the aim that it would create a better control of the masses and create a clergy that would help in establishing control over the region. To take the mission forward, Thomas Babington Macaulay was tasked with preparing the educational framework. Macaulay soon came up with a plan to create a buffer class of Indian people, well-versed in English culture, education, etiquette, and morals, that would be subservient to the British, but be the masters of the masses.

To establish that, reforms and policies brought secular education, vocational skill development schools, performance-based reward mechanisms, and the graded school system to replace the then existing education setup.

After independence, Pakistan adopted the same educational system without giving much consideration to the appropriateness of the British-infused educational methods practiced pre-independence. Though, strong considerations were made to base the education system on Islamic values, however, there was little effort made to change the nature of the educational system to produce independent thinkers that can lead rather than just be slaves.

There were voices raised from different quarters to put the education system on hold and redevelop it from scratch. A rather brave voice at the infancy stages of the country, but soon the voice was muffled as being unrealistic and irrational.

Likewise, much of the later policies on education have focused on improving the poor infrastructure and developing greater capacity to increase coverage of the educational network. Still, there is little thought given to studying the relevance of the century old educational system in creating the skills needed for a country like Pakistan to progress.

The education system of the west has moved forward and incorporated new techniques and methods for producing critical thinkers; for example, gamification and experiential learning methods in classrooms. On the other hand, Pakistan is still miles behind. The criteria of evaluation in schools still revolves around the reproduction or regurgitation of information, an evaluation method that was used by the British to judge the ‘Englishness’ of ruling Indians. There is little to no attention paid towards developing independent thinking.

The situation is highly alarming. A country of 212 million has shut her eyes towards 60 percent of her population by providing them with a century-old, run-down education system. COVID-19 is a blessing in disguise for the optimists with a vision. The system is shut, and there is room for positive change. The voice of change, like it ran around the nation in 2018, needs to gain momentum in the corridors of power to reform the education system. An immediate step would be to redesign curriculum teaching methodology across all levels of education. The brilliant works of Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal, or Sir Francis Bacon become only letters on the book if a student is not given the ability to think and reflect on the message. We need to engage students to ask the “why” questions long enough so that they begin to interrogate the authenticity, validity and relevance of the concepts. This brings us to the next piece in the puzzle. The teachers. The question to be asked is not how many teachers we have, rather what the quality of teaching is. Unfortunately, we lack capacity building as well. However, the new wave of adoption of remote learning is an opportunity to train teachers on a mass scale across Pakistan. The use of technology can bring novel methods of teaching like gamification or experiential learning to the children in villages of Pakistan. It might seem a bit ambitious at first, but, with 161 million active mobile users in the country, internet adoption for remote learning can be increased drastically if the right policies are put in place.

The COVID-19 lockdown is an opportunity that cannot be missed. A lot of decisions need to be made about reforming the educational system to suit the needs of the population of the country. Presently, the system has paused, and it is time to hit the reset button. Sooner or later, someone has to be the Guevara of educational reforms. The environment is ripe to make those hard decisions now. Someone has to put the foot down and do it for the country. Is it going to be sooner, or will we miss the opportunity again? This, only time will tell.

Omar Ashraf

The writer is an educationist, a business coach & training and development consultant. He is currently working at Minhaj University Lahore as Programme Manager for the Executive Education wing.