Even in our time, the main source of learning in schools is the textbook. No, I do not reduce the teacher to be less important, both in transmitting knowledge, values, skills and being the motivator and organiser of the learning process and its outcome. Sometimes, audio-visual materials are included, as well as excursions, practical and vocational activities, group discussions and other things. Yet I believe that the written text is still the most important source of learning, and the written exam and tests too-perhaps overshadowing it all.

This is the situation in the classrooms in schools worldwide, and it is even more so in distance learning, where what we earlier called correspondence courses, we today call much of it E-learning. It is organised by virtual organisations, schools and universities. In some ways, the written texts have become more important in our internet time than ever. If we don’t know something, we look it up on the internet — we ‘Google it’, as we say, instead of asking somebody, one or more persons, whom we believe might know. True, to go and check on the internet is not entirely different from using hard copy books, encyclopaedias and other reference books in libraries, at home or in workplaces. I maintain my point that the written text still ‘rules the world of learning’.

It should be added that some of the written sources that we use today are more dubious than printed books, newspapers, magazines and other sources that have gone through the scrutiny of editors or other ‘gatekeepers’– not withstanding though, that at no times could neither the written nor the spoken word be entirely trusted.

These were some of the issues discussed at this year’s Islamabad Literature festival, organised by Oxford University Press last weekend. I am sure we will come back to them in future literary, media and educational conferences, talk shows on TV and radio, newspaper columns, and so on – and indeed in written studies and research reports.

I was a bit surprised that we place such emphasis on the written books and other written texts in a time when we have a variety of media sources for learning. And I found it particularly interesting because just last week, the education minister in my home country Norway, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, had presented a report to parliament about key aspects of the future of the 10-year compulsory primary education and the 3-year secondary education in the country, with emphasis on content.

Isaksen said that he wants to reduce dramatically the number of themes that are studied, and the volume of texts to be learned, which also means texts and textbooks. Maybe one-third can go? The curriculum is very overcrowded and students cruise over a range of topics without being able to learn things properly before they must haste to the next topic, the next tests and the exams – in our competitive world.

The proposals include three key areas for basic education: Firstly, environmental issues and sustainable development, and how we must take responsibility for being good stewards of the world we live in. There is ethics and moral aspects in this, too. Secondly, students must gain a thorough understanding of democracy and nationhood in a modern and changing world, where immigration is likely to be a lasting trend affecting all countries. Students must learn how to live in such societies, keeping own identity and learning from others in mutual respect. Thirdly, students must learn how to look after their own health throughout life, including how to handle and live with mental health challenges, affecting many; how to think about various existential and religious issues; how to organise practical things, such as how to plan and manage individual and family finances.

When the education minister, nowadays known as a ‘knowledge minister’, presented the report and its proposals, he said that he expected a lot of trouble and turbulence. But he invited the debate to take place, and he seemed not to want to rush it to reach conclusions — he thought it might take several years. Studies and research will also be needed to consider what the school’s main focus and themes should be, and the content, of it all. It is no lesser task than to review the whole purpose of education.

It seemed that Isaksen had had enough of the typical conservative and technocratic demand in education, notably focusing more and better knowledge in education, with tests and competitive exams. The left side of the political spectrum has always questioned this, and has felt that the demands on children and youth have gone too far. Yet, the political left has not defined exactly what content education should have and how the learning methods should be in a better education for the future.

Generously, a leading left wing politician was quick praising the conservative minister for his report and the minister himself for his original and brave thinking about education.

As an observer nowadays, but with my career and research mostly on educational issues throughout my life, I indeed welcome Isaksen’s report and thinking. Interestingly, the minister’s own master’s degree included the sub-area of philosophy called ‘history of ideas’, in addition to political science and media. He has also had teaching and journalism experience, like I have myself. Well, I have more and broader experience since I have lived much longer than the minister; he is a few years shy of marking his 40th birthday.

I don’t think somebody with a teaching background only, even research in education, would have been able to think as much outside the box as the minister has done. He has earlier been named ‘political talent of the year’ by VG, Norway’s newspaper with the highest circulation. Now it seems he has indeed lived up to expectations.

What can we learn from Isaksen in Pakistan?

We can learn to take bold steps in reducing the curriculum and focus on some core issues, values and skills. We have an overcrowded curriculum, where we just keep adding themes and topics. I think this is a habit everywhere in the world. If we focus on core issues, then government schools can also do well. They will need fewer books. But we must ensure that all students have books, and trained and respected teachers.

Pakistan is a country with beautiful and kind people. Let the schools focus on the right things so that we all can let the schools be good in the children’s formative years. Knowledge and skills are important, but overcrowded curricula and textbooks do the opposite of what they should do. Students and teachers become stressed and unhappy. We need happy learning environments with confident students and teachers.

Most attend government schools. In future, the government should be proud of their policies and plans, the textbooks they recommend, the budget they allocate to education and the way the system works. Often, private schools do well, but they may many times put too much burden on their students to perform well at tests and exams. They, too, must learn to focus on the most important content and values.

Since I began my article today writing about the recent Islamabad Literature Festival, let me end by underlining that in my thinking about education, I believe that textbooks are key to learning in schools. But they shouldn’t be too many and curricula must never be overcrowded. The teachers must have guide books for how to use the textbooks and how to work with their pupils, parents and communities. The books are not more important than the teachers, but it is difficult or impossible, to organise good education without books. In addition, schools should teach children to love books, read other things than just textbooks and rehearse for exams.

Overcrowded curricula and too many textbooks discourage reading and learning, the opposite of what we want.