Altaf Hossain, former research head at BRAC Institute of Educational Development (BIED), has published several articles on education research, evaluation and curriculum design. In an interview with Prothom Alo’s Shameem Reza, he speaks about the condition of the country’s education sector.
Prothom Alo: Can you tell us something about education research and the areas covered by BRAC Institute of Educational Development (BIED)?
Altaf Hossain: Education research can be divided into three broad categories—basic research, applied or action research and evaluative research. Basic research creates new knowledge, develops theories or general principles about how things work. It offers theories that give ideas for applied research to solve specific problems.
The role of applied research or action research is to facilitate practitioners to improve practices. It enhances the capacity to influence change and develops informed decision-making. For example, we can test the efficacy of a pedagogical model developed earlier and mend loopholes, if any.
BIED has been doing this at the pre-primary, primary and secondary school level with educational materials as well as with instructional strategy development.
It also conducts policy research. This is chiefly a joint venture programme. BIED has conducted several research initiatives with CAMPE (Campaign for Popular Education), a supra-body of about 500 NGOs in Bangladesh. CAMPE publishes a report every year under the banner “Education Watch” on specific issues of education since 1998-99.
It also conducts experimental research to validate tools to measure physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development of children who participate in the play centres established by BIED and BRACU.
BIED is involved in enterprise development research and is working on a self-financed and self-sufficient business model for the ‘learning through play’ education model for 0-5-year-olds, to make it sustainable when Bangladesh’s middle-income status dries up donations.
Prothom Alo: Will you tell us what kind of improvements BIED has contributed to the country’s primary and secondary education?
Altaf Hossain: BRAC has been working on non-formal education since 1985. The movement became stronger after the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990.
Bangladesh was one of the signatories of the proclamation that the primary education will be accessible for all children and it will reduce illiteracy by the year 2000. BRAC decided to play a supplementary role of the government by establishing non-formal primary schools throughout the country for the children who have never enrolled or who have dropped out of the early grade of primary schools.
By 2000, BRAC had established 35,000 non-formal primary schools throughout the country. The programme was widely praised. Then we thought only 6-7 per cent of the primary school-aged children of the country were being benefitted by the experience and skill we gathered from there.
In 2004, BIED was established to work and share that knowledge and expertise with the government to enrich the mainstream education of the country. Since then it has been developing learning materials to enhance students’ teacher’s training materials, teachers’ guides, student’s workbooks, assessment tools to enhance overall capabilities of the government education system and to enhance cognitive, physical and socio-emotional development of the primary and secondary school children in Bangladesh.
At the same time, it is offering M.Ed. in Educational leadership and management course and M.Sc. in ECD to develop capabilities of government’s education-related officials from the upazila and district level.
Prothom Alo: What philosophy does BIED follow in designing the curricula?
Altaf Hossain: As I said, BIED gathered experience and knowledge through working closely with children from the poorest families. It had to struggle with how to select textbook materials to draw their attention and make them understand things in a relatively easier and better way. This has always been our motto: enhancing capabilities of the children and teach them easily and in a better way.
Prothom Alo: What are the national needs today and deficiencies identified to meet those needs?
Altaf Hossain: To keep pace with the advancement of modern world we must improve our educational system. We are lagging behind in terms of achievement in quality education. Research conducted by the government and us on the competency of students came up with the same findings. There is a huge discrepancy in the passing rate and the subject-based competency of students. Finding ways to bridge the gap is the most important need.
It seems the solution is not within our reach! We must take education as a whole. Instead, we are focusing on cognitive development of the children through rote learning and assessing their reading and writing capabilities through paper-pencil test only. Political leadership and policy makers need to change their outlook regarding the present assessment system otherwise everything will be lost.
Prothom Alo: Has the government communicated with you or sought any kind of help to improve education and learning?
Altaf Hossain: In the early days, the government was hesitant to work with BIED. Things have changed a bit. We implemented the Innovation for Improving Early Grade Reading Activity (IIEGRA) project funded by USAID in 245 government primary schools in Rangamati and Khagrachhari districts to enhance reading abilities of the children of Grade I-III.
Lately, BIED has got permission from the government to extend the early grade reading enhancement activities to 100 urban government primary schools.
Prothom Alo: There are a number of different types of educational systems in Bangladesh. What do you think is relevant for Bangladesh?
Altaf Hossain: Currently there are 11 types of primary schools in Bangladesh. Those can be divided into four broad categories: Mainstream Bengali, Madrasa, Kindergarten and English medium schools. Others are just sub-categories.
There should be homogeneity in the education sector of a country as it is the most important tool for developing a common ground among citizens. Following different types of systems have been creating unwanted divisions within the society. At the same time, we must accommodate diversity. For example, there are the missionary schools or convents in developed countries.
But, there should be a core curriculum for all types of educational institutions to follow. Then different types of schools can add books and materials for their students. The same method should be followed for students of different religions and ethnicity.
Prothom Alo: In the first chapter of Work and Life Oriented Education book of the eighth grade, it has been said reading that chapter will “encourage to lead as well as to behave morally and responsibly and consider other’s opinions with importance.” How will a teacher measure the result of this teaching on students?
Altaf Hossain: This is called assessment. There is a set of learning objectives for each subject in every class, and there should have been tools to measure those.
Moral development cannot be measured and examined in traditional teaching and learning methods of lectures and paper and pencil tests. We can measure that development by using different methods, for example, using Age and Stage Questionnaire-Socio-Emotional (ASQ-SE) for kids of 0-6 years.
We can understand and measure whether a student is learning democratic values, social harmony and learning to be a team member or becoming autocratic and acquiring other attributes. Generally schools in Bangladesh, government or non-government, don’t use those methods. We just focus on memorisation. This is not a matter of schools only. Parents also want their children to acquire good grades like GPA 5. They don’t want ethical, responsible, and rational children.
Prothom Alo: Education quality is a matter of debate. What do you think of the current state of overall education?
Altaf Hossain: The purpose of education is to help students realise their potential and build them up as a complete human being. But our current educational system is not capable of that.
The question is, do we want to build a school system where all children will get an equal chance to realise their potential? I have doubts about that.
Education is the most used political tool in the world. You can build or ruin a nation using it. You can perpetuate class difference or you can build an equitable society using education.
Those who control the allocation of resources in this sector and make policy decisions usually choose how far they will allow fairness in the system. They want a hierarchy-based society supported by a flawed education system where wealth and power can easily be converted into good grades and a coterie can wield extended control.
If we were following a fair educational system, then the result could lead to suitable persons taking leading positions in the society irrespective of their socioeconomic backgrounds. But the powerful quarters don’t like this. They want to make education more expensive to screen out the potential children from lower socioeconomic background. The defective and malfunctioning education system gives the powerful group scope to exploit and fulfill their unjust goals.
Prothom Alo: Whom will you blame for question paper leaks? Have you conducted or planned to conduct any research on question paper leaking?
Altaf Hossain: I shall not single out anyone to blame. This is just a continuation of the overall picture. We have made GPA-5 a brand and are hankering after that, keeping aside the main purpose of education, as if GPA-5 is the solution to all problems.
Parents and students seem ready to do anything for GPA-5. Question paper leak is one of the many depraved things people are prepared to do along with keeping the system ineffectual to secure their position. Only a fair and effective education system with good assessment policy can prevent the question paper leaking. The problem is systemic and it is ingrained in the structure of this society. Therefore, the individuals who are leaking the question can be identified through research but it is difficult to evaluate structure of the society and judge our own thinking.
Prothom Alo: What is your vision for the country’s children in terms of their education, culture, and employability in the coming decades?
Altaf Hossain: It is very easy to say that I want to see Bangladesh doing well in every aspect and that today’s children will take the country forward and take it to a better position. But there is no simple mantra to achieve that.
I just want children to be educated equally to develop all of their potentials through a fair schooling process and take up different responsibilities in our society based on their ability and interest. Results will follow automatically. If we fail to follow the process, that also will have consequences, in this case, maybe dire ones.