A conversation with Dr Zaheeruddin Asif – FLP Episode 3

A conversation with Dr Zaheeruddin Asif – FLP Episode 3

Full transcript of the podcast is available below:


Adnan: Hello and welcome to Funoon Learning Podcast episode 3. My name is Adnan and today on the show we’ve invited a very special guest, Dr Zaheeruddin Asif. Dr Asif is a professor of Computing Studies at IBA (Institute of Business Administration), Karachi. He is an outstanding person, a dedicated academic and someone with 2 decades of experience in learning and teaching. Asif, welcome to the podast.

Dr Asif: Thank you very much Adnan, very happy to be with you.

Adnan: Would you like to introduce yourself to the audience, and give us some background?

Dr Asif: Yes, I started off my career in the early 90’s by joining IBM. However, very soon I discovered that my passion lies in teaching. So I left IBM and came to IBA to start my teaching career. In 2000, I went to US for higher studies, and spent about 8 years there. Since then, I am dividing my time between Australia and Pakistan. In Australia I do research work at Monash University. So yeah, I have accumulated a lot of teaching experience now.

Adnan: So you’ve seen the education industry from different angles, as a student, then as a teacher, as a graduate student, being a professor, and teaching abroad. How do you see the industry today in Pakistan?

Dr Asif: There are two ways of looking at the industry. As an industry its growing very fast, lots of new business schools and technical schools are coming up. And student population is growing as well. At IBA our student count has gone from 300 to 3000 in the past ten years.

But the areas that need attention are universities in regional areas and primary education sector. Research in universities also need a lot of attention.

Adnan: What I’ve observed is that, universities need research to be done because funding is associated with it. But teaching requires a different type of personality than a researcher, or perhaps a different set of skills. How do you balance these two objectives at the university level?

Dr Asif: Universities balance this differently, according to their circumstances. However, I’d say that research was limited to only a handful of Pakistani universities up until very recently like 5 to 10 years. It was after Dr Atta ur Rehman took over HEC, that more universities started thinking seriously about research and started encouraging it. He introduced incentives for research, and several quality control programs that helped universities get going in research. This is evident from statistics, as research coming from Pakistan has doubled and tripled in the last 5 years.

Adnan: That’s great. Also I wanted to discuss the difference in quality of education in Pakistan’s universities. Some regional universities seem to dish out degrees with no emphasis on actual education. In a recent incident, a student from a regional university in Punjab hacked their website, and protested about the quality of teaching meted out to them. He said the teachers are simply not interested in teaching or not capable. Why is there such a huge gap in quality of education in Pakistan’s top tier and second tier universities, and what can we do about this?

Dr Asif: Before this recent 5-10 year revival in Pakistan’s universities, the quality was really bad. I don’t have statistics, but by virtue of being in Academia and social contact, I know that the quality of education was low and conditions were bad, not just in universities but in educational boards and other government controlled institutions.

The cause of this was lack of accountability, lack of transparency, lots of corruption, same as what happens in a lot of other government institutions. The problems are still there, although in the past 5 years things have started to change. Social institutions have an inertia of their own. The incident that you’re referring to, unfortunately belongs to that part of our educational institutions. Those universities are operating on the prior paradigm, just existing there, and not really producing anything worthy.

Adnan: So a kid who just graduated from high school, could make an informed decision about joining a local university in a regional area, or going for a big university in the major cities, only if he knows the actual performance or ratings of the teachers and professors at each university. I don’t know how could that be made possible, unless there’s a public database of teacher ratings. As a student I won’t know which university to join. Financially they’d probably be the same. So those kids who have a choice, don’t have the knowledge about their future universities.

Dr Asif: Currently we don’t have a system where we could go and rate teachers. But I’d say we are a step behind that stage. Traditionally, a Pakistani kid is told to either choose engineering or medicine as their career choice. This results in a huge crowds trying to get into medical or engineering schools. To other universities, the students go very reluctantly, as they think that even if they graduate, they won’t be able to find a job.

I won’t say these impressions are correct. The job market is improving. CS graduates are in demand, and so are business graduates. So many other careers are in demand as well. But the cultural mindset specially in our rural areas has not changed, where the majority of our population lives.

So Pakistani students choose schools, instead of choosing a teacher in a college. That’s how they compete.

Adnan: So the awareness about professions is very limited.

Dr Asif: Yes.

Adnan: When we talk about teacher performance, the question that comes to mind is how to incentivise teachers to perform better. In government schools, teachers don’t teach well because they want their students to do private tuitions with them. It makes economic sense for the teacher, but not for the student. There are exceptions where we find personally motivated teachers but their numbers are small. I’ve experienced this myself as a student in Pakistan. Is there a way to incentivise teachers at all?

Dr Asif: We need to work on multiple levels to solve this problem. First we need to look at the image that a teacher carries in our society. Its considered a third grade profession in Pakistan. If you couldn’t get into an engineering or medical school, could not get into business school, or couldn’t do well in any other field, then the last choice available is to become a teacher. Either in a government school or university or in private ones.

So the young population of our country has no internal drive to become a teacher. The society doesn’t deem a teacher to be a very esteemed profession. People don’t carry a passion to one day become a teacher or a university professor. Those who come to this profession are mostly reluctant. I can’t generalise because I don’t have data, but the common widsom is that only those become teachers who can’t do anything else.

Secondly, government salary structure for teachers is pathetic. If a teacher has a class fellow who joined a private company, his salary would probably be lower than the private company employee’s driver. That’s why teachers resort to private tuitions. So we’ll have to work on improving the salary structure and also their image in our society.

Adnan: Yeah we’ve seen our cricketers improve recently, because they are also the superstars of our country. Social problems are hardest to solve, but I think we should at least define our direction. The Scandanavian countries prize the position of a school teacher, they value it a lot and only their best and brightest become school teachers. I don’t know how it would come about, but at least we can recognise the need.

Dr Asif: Certainly. We should recognise this and start taking small steps. The media can play a role here, by highlighting the role of teachers in our plays and dramas. Interview great teachers and let a new generation get inspired from them.

We have to build the image of a teacher in the eyes of our society, making it a financially viable profession. Also we can elevate it from the religious angle, where education carries a lot of importance.      

Lets see if our government and the champions of change in our country come forward to bring about this change.

Adnan: I also wanted to discuss something of importance to me: intellectual need. Among my cousins who are currently in primary or high school, have a single question in their mind; why study this? What’s the use of studying the quadratic equation? We tend to teach kids things that will be of some use in the future. Can’t we reverse this?

Dr Asif: The new generation is very different from us. Our older methods of pedagogy don’t work on them. I am fully convinced that most of our teaching methods are obsolete. Our 6 year old kid is so exposed to knowledge, that our older methods of teaching don’t work. Its not just in Pakistan, but all over the world. Lots of research is being done on this. The digital natives of our age find knowledge all around them. What’s the teacher’s role in all this? She’s no more the only source of knowledge around our kids. Now the times have changed. Its time for peer-to-peer and collaborative learning. We need to move on to an on-demand learning paradigm.

We need to get them involved in projects where the student is able to ask intelligent questions, and they should be given instant answers. So we really need to adjust our teaching paradigms.

Adnan: That’s great insight. We’ve just been joined by Ghulam Murtaza.

Murtaza: Thanks for the invitation, and hello!

Dr Asif: Welcome Murtaz, and thanks for joining us.

Adnan: Murtaza also had his PhD convocation last week. Murtaza, how was it?

Murtaza: It was very nice, and more emtional for my wife Saba than for me.

Dr Asif: Congratulations, its a big milestone to achieve in life.

Adnan: Murtaza we’ve been disucssing intellectual need for learning. We’ve all been there, we’ve been taught something, leaving us wondering why was this taught to us. Do you think project based learning reverses this sequence? Where we define a particular reason why something must be learnt, specially when building or making something?

Murtaza: I am a very strong believer in this. When you’re designing a course, you should design it based on projects. In my current role, we have to do researcher training. We have some research questions in there. For example, Sydney Met office has recorded minimum and maximum temperatures of Sydney since the 1950s. We show a couple of graphs that need to be produced on the basis of the available data. Looking at the end result makes a huge difference in building that motivation to learn.

Adnan: You know, like you’re playing a game. You go on and pick up a key because you came across it, and in the back of your mind you know that you’ll need it to open a door very soon. We’ve been conditioned into this after playing a lot of games. But someone who’s new, would probably ignore the key at first glance. There is no established need for picking up the key.

Similarly, we teach kids at the fundamental level, something that will be needed later but its not obvious to the child. How could we establish that need?

Dr Asif: Shahana, my wife, is actually a school teacher in Melbourne. At her school they use progessive methodology for teaching. There isn’t a set agenda for teaching, instead the students are asked what they want to learn on a particular day. They could go to a nearby park to study nature, for example.

This way, they basically let the student’s needs evolve, instead of the teacher dictating what project they must do. The students are asked what project they’d like to do. The curiosity of the kids increases even more this way.

There are different pedagogies that are being applied in schools around the world. The percentage of schools who do these bold experiments are lesser, but we really need to encourage and do this more.

The word ‘teaching’ is itself getting obsolete, being replaced by learning. We don’t have to direct a kid’s curiosity, we have to guide it in the right direction. We have to nurture their curiosity, so they become independent learners.

Adnan: In Pakistan, private school education is pretty good. The contrast with public schooling is stark. But this private schooling comes at a price. There’s a woman leading a social initiative to get these private schools to cap their monthly fees, so more people can afford them.

To counter this difference, we can have helper classes for public school students, encouraging these kids to do a project, for example. But is it even possible for a kid who goes to school full time, needs to do their homework, and also get involved in making a project?

Dr Asif: I think the schools should do this themselves, or help promote it. They can make a timetable for their kids, and give them a realistic workload. Our culture of rote learning puts the creativity of kids on the back seat. Even at universities, some times students get a lot of free time, at other times, they are totally cramped. I think teachers need training in this area, so they can manage their students well.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan we don’t have many sports facilities available for public use. For example, in Karachi a park probably serves 4 to 5 thousand people. the case of swimming pools is worse.

Private schools are given a permit to run a school in a house, without any sporting facilities and having cramped spaces. We need to solve these basic issues.

Murtaza: Adnan you said private schooling is pretty good in Pakistan. Do you think they’re appliying any innovative teaching methods there?

Adnan: The private schools at least give the kids some freedom of thought. They are given topics to research on, and they don’t have to do rote learning. I don’t think they are employing any innovative teaching methods, but there are good spaces for physical activities and kids can form and hold an opinion.

Dr Asif: I’d agree, the traditional teaching style dominates in Pakistan. Very few schools would dare to experiment with innovative pedagogies.

But I’d also say that some people are doing innovative things. For example, The Citizens Foundation (TCF) provides high quality education free of charge in low income areas of Pakistan. And they are employing innovative teaching methods. Their teachers are also great and very motivated.

For example, their teachers go and spend 3 to 4 hours in slums. They don’t particularly teach anything to them, but just spend time there with those kids and talk to them. This forms a pedagogy that is specific to Pakistan. There are millions of kids in the slums of Pakistan. The parents of these kids are reluctant to send them to school. So what can we do in this situation? Well, we can go there and spend time with them wherever they are!

This makes a huge difference for those kids, because in the usual scheme of things they don’t get to interact with members of the upper echlons of our society.

While the general atmosphere of education is quite pessimistic in Pakistan, there are some bright spots which I view with great optimism.

Adnan: I’ve been following the work of TCF, they’ve now reached a 1000 schools, and their work is simply outstanding.

We are running out of time guys.

Murtaza: I want to mention Dr Ashraf Iqbal, he’s one of the my teachers who uses innovative ways of teaching and learning. In the algorithms class, he would say, “I am not going to teach algorithms. I am going to enable you to learn algorithms”.

His style was very different. He created an institute in NUST, ITU and now in NUML. He has created a course for teachers where he teaches them how to employ these innovative teaching methods to teach their classes.

Adnan: We had a great discussion with Dr Asif and Murtaza. There are so many things that we don’t have the time to discuss today. May be next time we will, when we sit together again. All the best guys, and thank you for coming on the show.

Adnan Khan is one of the team members at Funoon. He's a life long learner and believes its possible to ignite a passion for learning in Pakistan. You can reach him at adnan.k@funoonfoundation.org.