Rebuilding Schools—and Happiness—in Pakistan

AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini

When the Taliban ruled in the Swat Valley, from 2007 to 2009, it set up in enclaves in the mountainous terrain. In better times, this area was a vacation destination that drew many to its hilly hamlets. Visitors often left with apples from the orchards or jars of locally cultivated honey. People here were known for their folk music and dance, but those traditions quickly faded into the background. Taliban fighters enforced their own brand of draconian Islamic law, requiring men to grow beards and forbidding women from going to the market. Pakistanis watched as the region's famous “Green Square” turned into “Bloody Square” when the Taliban meted out punishment to those who dared cross its authority.  More than two million fled the conflict, and many have since settled elsewhere, not daring to return.

The region shuddered in thunderous bomb blasts.

Some of those blasts were aimed at schools, and the Taliban destroyed 200 of them throughout the Swat region. Maulana Fazlullah, who headed the Taliban in Pakistan, decried many girls’ schools as pro-Western and anti-Islamic in fiery radio addresses broadcast during the violent occupation. It was in Swat that now-15-year-old Malala Yousafzai became an icon for advocates of girls' education. And her fearless activism nearly cost her life late last year, when Taliban gunmen shot her in the head.

But the Taliban didn't just destroy girls’ schools. In February 2009, a blast took out a boys' school called the Government Higher Secondary School in Swat's Charbagh district, where the Taliban gained footing in the mountainous tracts between small villages. Eventually, the army took action. Just 100 miles from the nation's capital, Islamabad, in the spring of 2009, it began a campaign to oust the militant extremists from the region. To keep civilians out of harm's way, the Pakistani security forces imposed a curfew. In retaliation, the Taliban took aim at government-owned property, including the school in Charbagh, which taught arts and science courses to nearly 1,000 students in grades 6 through 12.

The powerful blast left the 21-classroom school a broken and blackened mess of concrete. Before the battle was over, 15 of Charbagh's 22 schools would suffer the same fate. 

Although the Pakistani forces largely drove the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, occasional bombings and targeted killings still persist. With the help of reconstruction efforts by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the government, a significant part the area's infrastructure has since been restored. Still, much remains to be done to ensure that Swat residents' quality of life—and education—is not just re-established but rejuvenated. Education experts are working to capitalize on the opportunity to rebuild by moving the education system away from a rote learning model to a style that emphasizes more creative problem-solving. It's this type of instruction that Pakistan's schools were missing before the crisis, and many hope it will strengthen an emerging sense of critical awareness and civic responsibility in Swat.

During the dark days of the Taliban occupation, administrators and teachers at the Charbagh school tried to keep students from being completely cut off from their education—and from the sense of normalcy that it provided as the scenic Swat Valley resounded with bomb blasts and gunfire. Fazal Khaliq is a math teacher who continued to work throughout what he calls simply “the crises.” “For two or three years, we would hold classes in a nearby girls' school in the afternoon, but it was very hard. Instead of teaching for five hours, we could only teach for three, so of course the students’ education suffered,” he says.

“A lot of students were forced to leave,” Khaliq recalls. “Our school closed down completely during the height of the crises because we were forced to seek shelter in various places.”

It took years before the Charbagh school was rebuilt into a boxy structure with whitewashed classrooms. It opened last April, and like other schools in the region, is once again teeming with students. More than there is space for, in fact.

“Now our school has been rebuilt, but it still doesn't have the capacity for all of the students who we've enrolled,” Khaliq says. He's had to remove dozens of desks that once lined his classroom to bring in mats for his 90 or so students to sit on as he teaches.

“The largest class I've ever taught was 40, and even that drove me to the brink,” says Shahrabano Alavi, a teacher flown in from Karachi to facilitate a workshop on an inquiry-based model of instruction. Alavi was eager to offer her insights on pedagogy when asked to do so by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), a Pakistani NGO running a teachers' training program in Islamabad this winter, which has drawn about two dozen teachers from five schools in Swat, including Khaliq. But she felt at a loss when she learned of the realities that make government schools in Pakistan's northwest so different from the higher-end private schools in the port city of Karachi, where she's taught for the last ten years.

Organizations like ITA saw the reconstruction of these schools as an opportunity for the students to take a fresh approach, but Alavi says, “You can't just sort of waltz in and do activity-based learning if you have 100 students in front of you, or if from class one through five their coursework has all been in Pashto and then suddenly in class six it’s all in English.”

Another issue is that many students have been promoted to higher grades, despite the intermittent education they received during the Taliban occupation There was simply not enough room in most public school buildings to hold children back, so teachers must now cope with classrooms made up of students of dramatically different skill levels and advance a rigorous curriculum to prepare them for the board matriculation examination at the end of tenth grade, which will determine what sort of university track they can pursue.

Despite these issues, Alavi has been made some progress. During the eight-day training, which is held in a spacious guest house in Islamabad, teachers take time away from teaching to learn their own lessons. Alavi passes out large sheets of white paper and asks them to prepare a presentation through a concept cartoon that will illustrate a scientific principle.

She smiles from the back of the room as a group of teachers use a sketch they've made of a shirt hanging from a line to present a lesson. “What makes a shirt dry?” one teacher asks. “Does the moisture get burnt away by the sun? Does the water drip off the fabric and into the ground? Or does the water diffuse into the air?”

This is just the type of lesson Alavi wants them to teach. “For the most part, these teachers walk into their classrooms and tell students what they're supposed to be learning,” she says. But her model gets teachers to move beyond telling students what's right and wrong to instead elicit information and insight that will lead them to make logical conclusions.

Baela Raza Jamil, director of programs at ITA, is counting on this pedagogical shift to bring about broader change in Pakistan's most conservative areas. The initial spark for this program came when she learned of efforts to rehabilitate young people who had been indoctrinated by the Taliban. “Many of the schools in which we are working now were first occupied by the militants and then by the army. The youth in Swat became very demoralized,” she says in English that borrows its melodic cadence from her native Urdu.

Through training teachers, introducing computer labs and libraries, and offering summer camps and vocational programs, Jamil's organization is hoping to create a community-wide shift. Currently, ITA is facilitating these efforts in five public schools across Swat and reaching about 4,000 students.

Still, Jamil insists, “This is not a numbers game. It's about changing cultures in our own society, in the way schools have become oppressive sites. … Children should be able to enjoy [school], and it should be a journey of happiness. Pakistan has had enough unhappiness.” Her own education set the tone for her work as an educational reformer. Jamil beams as she explains that she was “thrice expelled from school on points of order”— the first time was at the age of four when she protested the religious nature of her textbooks.

Jamil is 57 now and says that the battle to create a neutral curriculum and welcoming classrooms is ongoing. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Swat. “I don't think I've won it,” she says. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 3.5, and I hope to see that change by the end of my life, I think it will.”

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