When I was 19, I became a school teacher at a lower secondary school in the industrial town of Sauda on Norway’s west coast. I had myself just completed upper secondary school at Bergen Cathedral School, and then I went on to teach at three different schools for two years before beginning my higher education in social sciences, first in education and later in development studies and media, with emphasis on distance teaching and developing countries, or Third World countries, as was the term that time. I am glad I had the opportunity to get that practical background at a young age; at certain times, up to ten percent of Norwegian teachers were such secondary school graduates, often having done well at school, eager to test out the profession, before beginning their formal teacher training a year or two later. Such substitute teachers helped out especially in small towns and remote villages in West and North Norway, where it was difficult to recruit fully qualified teachers. We were paid well, just slightly less than fully qualified teachers.

Did such teachers do a good enough job? Yes, I think we did, and we were not so many years older than our students, in many ways being their role models as well as teacher. It would have been more difficult to teach lower primary students. True, we may not have had the formal reflective background in pedagogy, psychology and teaching methods, but we copied from our own schooling, using the ways our best teachers had taught us. Often, I think our students did as well at exams as those having been taught by the ‘fossil’ teachers. Besides, we had trained colleagues and could ask them for advice and ideas.

This was otherwise at a time when even trained teachers were not always all that reflective. In several ways, I think that youngsters from secondary school added to the ideas and atmosphere of the schools, yes, partly because teachers were (and still are) quite conservative and less innovative than people in other professions; also, many women were teachers, and they were often as busy in their roles and duties as housewives and mothers. And many men, too, had other part time work, maybe as farmers and fishermen in the rural areas. Some were active in political parties, local politics, civil society organizations, and in sports. Teachers were important people in the local communities, more so than just being academic specialists. We can draw some lessons from that today when the academic aspects are given so much focus.

Recalling all this, and learning from it, let me mention that at that time, 40-50 years ago, it became common that teachers took further training along with full jobs in order to receive better a salaries and have better chances for promotion, as principals, municipal school directors, or other posts. Special education was one important course that would take one year if studied full-time, and it would take two or two and half years, if pursued along with a full post; the summer vacation time, and some weekends were used for lectures and seminars. Throughout the further training, there were correspondence material to read and assignments to submit. Today, that would be called distance education, and the communication would include E-learning. If a teacher took another one-year course, in one or two other subjects, they would have the right to use the title adjunct, which was considered prestigious and being well paid, also allowing for posts at upper secondary schools.

I am writing about all this because Pakistan is at the crossroads in the field of education. We need to permit some ‘shortcuts’ both in qualifications of teachers and the duration of the time students spend in class. With over 22 million school-age children out-of-school, and several times that figure of youth and adults not having gone to school at all, we need to allow new and unorthodox ways. There are plenty of alternatives if we want to look for them.

I believe that one such alternative is distance education, using the postal service, radio, TV, mobile phone, social media, and ‘old fashioned’ books. The problem is no longer technology; the challenge is to organize the teaching-learning process and select relevant content. We don’t always need teachers with yearlong degrees; we need eager parents, community members, and older students, like those secondary school graduates that we had in Norway in my youth. The possibilities are many and it is a matter for the educational planners and policy makers to decide what to do – and get on with it.

Recently, I came to learn about Sabaq Foundation in Islamabad, which is building on the American Khan Academic in California, offering free secondary school courses online, often used at tuition centres, and sometimes also in the classroom. They have no less than 11,000 short lectures and programmes which millions of students watch in Urdu and English, mainly in science subjects. In Pakistan, Sabaq say they have more than one and half million new students hitting the push button and joining every year. It can reduce the parents’ already sky-rocketing expenses for school fees and tuition, and improve quality for government and private school students. Such programmes can never replace a teacher or a peer group leader. We all need social contact when we learn, otherwise it gets boring and we may also misunderstand content. I also believe that such online programmes are mainly good for the learning of facts and figures, definitions and other formal knowledge. But they certainly help students preparing for exams and tests. When it comes to deeper understanding and the learning of concepts, we need the teacher around, too, and we need good, traditional textbooks.

On that note, I would like to underline something I often state when writing about education, notably that we should soonest reduce focus on memorization and route learning. It isn’t important to know ‘everything’, and much information will be outdated in a few decades. We need certain skills, indeed literacy skills and some basic knowledge, for example, in languages. But beyond that, it is the ability to reason and understand that is essential, put information and facts together, look up and find new information, and be critical to what we hear and read. If we slash the content and curriculum in schools, we will actually get better candidates!

To give basic education to all children, including those 22 million who are today deprived of it, must be done urgently. Let us recall that Pakistan’s founders over 70 years ago said that the country should provide primary and secondary education for all children at the earliest possible time. Since that hasn’t happened yet, there is a need for giving youth and adults a ‘second chance’. They should become literate, get basic knowledge, life skills, and vocational training courses, and more, later in life. There is nothing complicated about it, is there? It is just a matter of doing it, reallocate money from other fields, collect more taxes, and initially, get the donors to do what they should have done long ago; help with implement the fine words about Education for All.

Will it happen? Yes, I have trust in the new government; it is the only way to create ‘Naya Pakistan’. So, as soon as they have sorted out the basic debt and other economic issues, they will come to education and health. They will give attention to many other key fields, such as population, job creation, water, climate change, security, and more. Education is part and parcel of all the other fields.

I have said it in earlier articles, but will repeat it today: Pakistan can and must soonest provide universal primary education (UPE), and second chance literacy and other basic education to youth and adults, including vocational and skills training. Maybe some of the ‘shortcuts’ I have drawn attention to today can help us reason about it in more practical and sober ways. It means getting a political and social debate started, establishing serious commissions and working groups, undertake concrete planning and calculations, and so on, to get the whole country focused on education and up-lift of all in the new Pakistan.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.