Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘students

An edited version of this article was published in Islamic Horizons magazine, published by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) 

Scouts - 65th IMO - 01

Murjan Hammad, 17, Senior Patrol Leader for boy scouts, walks up to the front of the room to begin the scouts meeting for Troop 1576 at the Sterling ADAMS centre in Virginia on April 17, 2012. The laughter and chatter among young boys in scout uniforms aged between 10 to 17 dies down as expectant eyes follow their leader. Hammad outlines the agenda for the meeting. They are going to play a game today. Each scout has to complete a list of 10 native plants and 10 native animals that they can find and submit it in the next meeting. It’s almost Maghrib time and beginning to get dark. The scouts proceed to the outdoors to begin their activity. They have to come back in to perform their prayers. They also play a game of ‘anti-over’ before they return to resume their troop meeting.

This is a typical day of the boy scouts meeting at the ADAMS Centre, Sterling. Similar Muslim Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts belonging to the national Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and Girl Scouts of the USA organizations, but sponsored by mosques and Islamic centers and thus having exclusive Muslim membership, can be found throughout different cities in the USA and Canada. According to the Boy Scouts of America, Scouting membership in the American Islamic community in 2010 was over 2000 divided into Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers in the approximately 91 Muslim units associated with the BSA. There are no clear statistics on Muslim membership in the Girls Scouts, but reports have mentioned a number of exclusively Muslim Girls Scouts troops existing in states across North America. Muslim boy and girl scouts can also be found in troops that are not exclusively Muslim. Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Brooklyn, Sterling, Houston and Dallas are some of the cities that have active Muslim Scouts groups.

Scouting in the Muslim community has a long history that extends beyond the borders of the USA and Canada. “Scouting is not an American thing,” Assistant Scoutmaster at ADAMS, Yusuf Rambo explains. “There has been scouting in Muslim countries for as long as scouting has been around in the world. It has been there in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for a long time.”

The Scout Association of the UK estimates that more than a third of all scouts worldwide are Muslim. According to Dawud Zwink, former Vice President of ISNA, who served as Chairman of the National Islamic Committee on Scouting from 1990 to 1993 and is currently working as Facilitator at the Canadian Muslim Fellowship of Scouting, persons with Scouting experience in Pakistan and Lebanon played a major role in the development of Islamic Scouting in the USA in association with the Boy Scouts of America.

“Brothers from the Muslim American Society (MAS) developed their own groups that are now affiliated with BSA,” explains Zwink. “Brothers and Sisters from the African American community have developed their own Scouting organizations, some originating in the black liberation movement organizations of the 60’s and 70’s with many independent of BSA. The community headed by Warth Deen Muhammad has developed Scout groups that are affiliated with BSA.”

Scouting is a unique youth program in that it engages young people in fun-filled activities that lead on to build a sound character and strong personality. The fact that it includes activities viewed as fun by the youth, beyond those limited only to the religious domain, helps provide for the youth a platform where they can enjoy and be themselves while at the same time being involved in constructive activities that help them learn essential life skills. It is also an effective means of involving Muslim children in the mosques and Islamic centers where they can build healthy friendships with other Muslims.

“The whole premise behind boy scouting is teaching our boys leadership skills through outdoor activities that test them — a leader only gets to be a leader after going through some trials,” remarks Rambo. The rank structure that is an essential component of scouting helps reinforce the aspect of challenge based learning and competition. “As you slowly acquire a new skill, they transfer you to another rank. Boys and girls have a value for accomplishment. Our whole aim is to trick the kids into teaching them leadership skills by masking them into fun and play.”

Rank advancement culminates in the Eagle scout rank. A scout must accomplish many things before reaching the Eagle rank but once the rank is achieved, it is an achievement that helps the scout immensely in the future. When an Eagle scout goes to college or in the job market, the employer knows that everything else in that person’s life is also exemplary. For Girls Scouts, the highest rank is known as Gold.

Scouts can earn merit badges in a number of activities of interest that they engage in. The BSA lists more than 100 merit badges that Scouts can earn. The subjects range from archaeology, astronomy, art, family life and chemistry to skating, swimming, painting, camping, theater and veterinary medicine. The merit badges are ways to introduce the youth to all the opportunities out there for them that could be potential career options. In addition to the regular merit badges, Muslim Scouts can earn special emblems by studying certain subjects of theology as well as by engaging in faith related community service.

Each scouting group has an activity based program suited to the needs and interests of the children that participate. Most groups meet every week or every alternative week. Perhaps one of the defining features of Scouting that distinguishes it from other youth programs is the opportunity it provides to young people to get outdoors and do things that cannot be done at home or in the neighborhood. Activities like camping, rafting, canoeing and biking are among some of the appeals of Scouting that helps attract a large number of youth.

Each Scouting group also decides its own method of action and program content. So while some centers may not focus too much on Islamic knowledge and lessons in their activities other mosques and centers might choose to keep their program religion-centric by incorporating examples from the Quran and Sunnah. For example, Faiza Rahman, Girl Scouts coordinator for the MAS Youth Center of Dallas explains how her group always uses examples from the Sunnah. “When we teach the girls about the aspect of honesty in the Scout Law we also tell them stories of the Prophet (saw) and how he used to be honest.”

Scouting is also instrumental in providing Muslim youth with mentorship in the form of positive relationships with adults that serve as good role models. Some groups also have chaplains who provide spiritual guidance to the youth on issues of concern to them.

“For me as a mom, this is the best thing you can offer to your children for friendship, leadership and fun,” says Badria Kafala, mother of 12-year-old Yosaf Omeish who is a boy scout. Kafala put her son into Muslim scouting so that he could have Muslim friends from the community. “It helps the kids especially when they are teens – they can have a group where they can spend their time. It also helps build personality and self-esteem, and they learn from their leaders who are older boys. In scouting they practice leadership at the age of 11. It also gets them involved in various activities like hiking, canoeing, community services…so many things they can’t do in their own home and family.”

Hadia Rizwan*, another mother whose 8-year-old son was part of a cub scouts den in San Antonio, Texas last year feels that the entire experience was a positive one. “They teach the kids a sense of responsibility and there is focus on physical fitness and doing your best,” she says. Her son, however, had to stop going to the scout group because he started Quran classes during the same time.

The ADAMS Scouting troops participate every year in the Camporee with 100 other scouts from different troops which include non-Muslims. “We don’t segregate ourselves. How else are we going to be ambassadors of Rasulullah (saw) unless we don’t participate?” asks Rambo. “In camps we make sure we do not miss out on our Wajibaat like Salah. We let the kids understand that they serve as an example to the community at large. If it is during Ramadan, we fast. We eat halal food. We make sure we have a presence within scouting at the national level.”

“Scouting instills in young people, values that last a lifetime and cultivates ethical character as expressed in the Scout Oath and Law,” explains Zwink. “Scouting trains young people in citizenship, service, and leadership. We also offer our members a wealth of useful knowledge and skills. Scouts have the opportunity to learn fascinating and useful information and to build skills and the confidence that goes with them, which will serve them throughout their lives. For older youth, extreme adventure provides new meaningful experiences, generally in the out-of-doors, to promote team-building, practical leadership applications, and lifelong memories.”

Girls scouts usually do not have the same high adventure activities and ranks are often different but the goals and values of the program are the same. “In the meetings, we participate in activities that are mentioned in the scouting book and we get badges for those,” says Ushna Ahmed who goes to the Girls Scouts group at ADAMS. “We volunteer in charity organizations and arrange events. In terms of religion, being part of scouting helps us meet Muslim friends and in my life, I know it just gives me an opportunity to do things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done.”

Scouting, however, is not without its share of critics. Some Muslim critics point out that it is primarily a Christian movement and Muslim participation is not acceptable. When posed with a similar question once, Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, Founder President of the Islamic Council on Scouting of North America said, “Do not see who is saying it, but look to what is being said.”

“The Scouting Law given by Lord Powell contains the same principles mentioned in the Quran,” says Naqvi. “When we are living in a country like the USA, we need to get our youth involved and this is the way. My organization has achieved a number of Dawah opportunities through the scouting activities we have participated in. We have been able to teach others about Islam and distribute pamphlets.”

The Boy Scouts of America has been working with the Islamic Council on Scouting since 1982 and has gradually made policy changes to cater to Muslim Scouts in the United States. Among the initiatives taken to cater to Muslim Scouts are the provision of halal food and a place for prayer at outdoor camping events.

The Scout Oath binds a scout to do their duty to God and to their country and to abide by the Scout Law which enunciates 12 virtues that a scout must possess including being trustworthy, friendly, loyal, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. “There is not a single aspect in the law that is contrary to Islam,” says Rambo. “If anything, the most exemplary of scouts should be Muslim scouts. Scouting and Islam go hand in hand.”

Scouting helps youth develop a positive Muslim American identity and provides a positive platform for the youth to utilize their energies. The fact that it provides a complimentary education system that can run parallel to a child’s mainstream education keeps it accessible to all Muslim children whether those attending Islamic schools, public schools or being homeschooled.

The biggest challenge facing the Muslim Scouting community in North America, according Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, is the lack of funding and human resource. Although Muslim Scouts have a number of dedicated individuals who are doing commendable service to the community, apart from the little funding that comes from the Islamic centers, Naqvi says he fears most of the scout leaders end up paying from their own pockets for participation in national events, meetings and other activities that serve to benefit the whole community.

Zakaria BenYaqoub, MAS Dallas Boys Scouts Coordinator points out another difficulty faced by the Muslim Scouting community: lack of involvement by parents. BenYaqoub states that parental participation in organization and mentorship is essential for a better quality Scouting program.

The Muslim community in North America needs to recognize and support Scouting as an effective program providing guidance, character development and constructive activity to the youth. In a world where parents are constantly worried about providing their children with good company, mentorship and constructive activities, Muslim scouting serves as a ray of hope.

*Some names have been changed upon request

An edited version of this article was published in The Express Tribune Sunday Magazine, October 9, 2011.

While harried moms in her neighbourhood rush to pack off their kids to school every morning, Sadaf Farooqi’s day starts on a relaxed tone. Her six year old daughter A’isha Irfan rises early, makes her own breakfast and starts her day unleashing her creativity using pencils, colours, water colours, scissors and paper. Her four year old brother Abdullah Irfan joins her after a while.

A’isha later switches to reading one of the books from her curriculum set, going to her mother for questions whenever she feels the need. Her younger brother pores over her work, scribbles with pencils and colours randomly on sheets of paper, experiments with lego and paper and returns to his mother with numerous questions throughout the day.

A’isha and Abdullah do not go to school. For them, home is their school – a place where they are free to learn at will in a natural setting. Sadaf, a freelance writer and blogger who has been homeschooling her kids for over a year now, prefers a lack of structure without fixed learning slots for different subjects while educating her children. She does follow the official Oxford University Press curriculum with books for Maths, English, Urdu, Social Studies, General Science and Islamiat along with daily Quran lessons, but prefers to let her children choose when they want to study what. She feels this lack of force helps hone the children’s natural inclination to learn.

The Irfans are part of a community of like-minded parents who are opting out of the mainstream choice of formally schooling their kids. Instead, these highly educated parents who have been through the conventional schooling system themselves are choosing to educate their children at home where they say, the curriculum is flexible and the efforts rewarding.

In a society where the educational rat race is so intense that parents begin registering their kids in the best primary schools even before birth, this group of parents has made the radical choice of going against the norm, deflecting doubts and criticism to do what they find is best for their children.

Sadaf says she always disliked the whole school routine which involves “ironing the uniforms, laying out the clothes, shoes and socks at night; packing the bag according to the timetable; forcing the child to finish off her homework; making and packing the lunch in the mornings, forcing a few mouthfuls down a reluctant mouth, then sending off a sometimes mildly sick, or screaming toddler with a tear-ridden face, to school with a heavy heart and a shackled mind that never ‘dared’ to question the necessity of this so-called ‘must-have’ system of education”. She didn’t seriously consider homeschooling until she met a few mothers who were educating their children at home in Karachi.

Homeschooling is not a new concept. Traditionally, before the advent of compulsory schooling systems, children were educated at home or within the community. In modern parlance, however, homeschooling has come to refer to the method of alternative education that is practiced across the world outside mainstream schools. The approach has been around in the UK and USA for several decades taking the shape of a complete movement that propelled reforms in the laws that once held the practice of not sending children to school to be illegal. Prestigious universities in the West like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford and MIT are now granting admissions and scholarships to homeschooled candidates.

The philosophy behind the concept is rooted in the works of educationist and social scientist John Holt who coined the term “unschooling” or “deschooling” and pioneered the early homeschooling movement with his works ‘How children learn’ and ‘How children fail’. His books advocating the approach of removing children from school and educating them at home through a method of natural learning based on learning-on-demand, provoked a national controversy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The concept, though relatively new in Pakistan, is gaining popularity among families who are dissatisfied with the traditional schooling system and prefer being more involved in their children’s education. Parents like the Irfans got together and formed the Pakistan Home Education group which consists of an online community with approximately 150 members comprising homeschooling parents and those interested in home education. They also launched a quarterly magazine focusing on their activities and various issues related to home education. The group, comprising roughly 20 homeschooling families, also holds regular social events where moms and children get together for combined social activities and support. Mums and Tots is held every second Monday of the month at someone’s home where kids play with each other and moms discuss problems and solutions, and Bookworm’s Book Club is held weekly and consists of interesting story-telling followed by craft activities and snacks, explains Laila Brence, pioneer of the Pakistan Home Education group and a Latvian revert to Islam residing in Karachi.

Homeschooling families can be categorised into several different types based on the factors that drove them towards home education. Many parents are dissatisfied with the standard of education in local schools, the exorbitant fees and the social environment that schools have to offer (objections like bullying, misbehavior and peer pressure are prime among them). Some have religious objections to the moral framework of what is taught and what generally defines school life, others have ideological objections to the teaching methodologies used and the psychological effects they have on children. Mostly all who opt for homeschooling believe they can provide a better education to their kids by educating them at home.

“I feel that I am more in control of what is going on in the lives of my kids than I would be by sending them to school,” says Laila, a former teacher herself who is currently in her seventh year of homeschooling two kids with a third baby in line. “Even from the time I myself went to school till nowadays, the schooling experience of children has greatly changed. Today kids don’t have time to be kids any more. Society puts so much pressure on them for becoming high-achievers that their own life gets lost somewhere in this rat race of school-homework-sleep routine. And not only their own life – the life of the entire family gets set according to the schooling needs of children: fathers have the headache of high-fees, mothers have the perpetual rush of sending kids off in the morning, getting them to do the homework in the evenings and packing them off to bed early. I am glad my kids are getting plenty of time for themselves to do the things they want to do and enjoy doing. Even boredom is a great opportunity for creativity and spontaneity – they always invent new games to play and come up with endless art projects of their own.”

Homeschooling does not come without its fair share of critics. From the incredulous stares that these parents get every time they say their children are being educated at home to the reasonable arguments in favour of formal schooling, homeschooling families seem to be up against a storm.

Critics fault the system for isolating children, reducing confidence levels and limiting their interaction to only like-minded people and groups.

“Homeschooling does not set them apart from the real world – schools do,” rebuts Laila. “In schools, kids are grouped into unnatural age-wise segregated situations, which never occur in the real world. They are made to sit, listen and follow directions for extended periods of time, which never occurs like that in real world. Rarely are they allowed to express their own opinions. And they get the chance to interact with peers only for short minutes between the lessons. I think schools handicap children, especially young children, much more in social life than homeschooling. Homeschooled kids live in the reality of this world – they deal with their family members, household issues, relatives and friends of different ages. And, of course, as kids grow older, we will look for opportunities for them to do more things outside of home – sports activities, workshops, etc. I see it as an advantage for my kids that I can choose the people they interact with. In the formative years, it is of utmost importance to have good role models around, which would help to strengthen their forming values. When they will get older, I don’t mind that they face difficult situations and people on their own – I hope by that time their own internal values will be developed enough to withstand peer-pressure, bullying and other negatives of our society.”

Atefa Jamal, the mother of seven kids of the Pirani family – the oldest 13 years old and the youngest one and a half – says her kids also get a fair share of interactions with the outside world. The four boys are attending Taekwondo classes thrice a week. The elder two also participate in scrabble competitions. During the summers, the kids get to choose from a wide variety of summer camp activities. This summer, they chose to take Arabic classes and swimming classes. “I also send my older kids out to buy groceries,” says Atefa. “They meet a lot of different people and learn to deal with different relations like the baker, the butcher, the driver or the man down the street who comes for groceries at the same time. It’s a misconception that you are isolating them, that you will choose their friends. That doesn’t happen, you can’t control your kids’ lives. My kids go out to bike and play in the park, they are attending swimming, Quran and Taekwondo classes. I think they actually end up meeting more real people in everyday roles and interact more realistically.”

The Pakistan Home Education group has also made attempts to have combined social and educational activities and trips like picnics and a field trip to the organic store Necos, in addition to the book club.

But what about the absence of a formal curriculum? Do institutes not know what they are doing when they invest great amounts of money and time in designing a curriculum? And are parents skilled in all subjects that are required to be taught?

There are various methods that are adopted by families while homeschooling. While some may prefer following a strict curriculum like conventional schools, others may prefer the method of unschooling or natural learning that lets children decide what they want to learn. For parents who choose to follow a curriculum like school or feel they are inexperienced to teach a particular subject, tuitions are always an option, says Atefa.

“There is a misconception that homeschooling means you have to do it all by yourself and that you have to do it at home,” says Atefa. “There so many books available, tuitions are also an option. It’s not that everything has to be done by the parents all the time but it just means that parents are more actively involved. If you feel you can’t do something you can always try to learn yourself and search on the internet or you can get tuitions for your child for a particular subject. It’s just that parents give the cues, they guide the process. The beauty of homeschooling is that children can do what they like. That way it’s genuine. We try not to push the kids to do the things they choose to do.”

Every few days, Atefa sits down and tries to make a plan of what she and her husband want to achieve with the children. They try to keep a time framework without imposing anything on them. Atefa is quick to say that the learning is flexible and there isn’t any fixed schedule. “The learning is more need and situation-based,” she says. “For example, when we got a kitten, we researched how to take care of it. When the kitten died which was a traumatic experience for the kids, we discussed death and souls and the Hereafter.”

At an older age, some parents prefer making the routine more structured with fixed slots for studying different subjects as done in school. Zahra Omer, who is currently in the second year of her textile design degree at Indus Valley, has passed successfully through a homeschooling experience and is in no way behind her peers. Zahra, along her with her two brothers, was homeschooled till grade 6 after which she enrolled in a mainstream school. During her homeschooling years, Zahra developed a reading habit that kept her well ahead of her peers. She ended up with seven As and three Bs in her O levels and straight As in her A levels. Asked if she had any problem adjusting with conventional schooling when she joined in grade seven, Zahra says “I didn’t have a problem adjusting. Everyone was very nice and cooperative. In fact, when I went to school it was a step back from the level I was at. Even when I gave the entrance test I faced no problem. I never felt my base was weak in any subject except for Urdu which we weren’t taught at home regularly. But I was given extra attention at school for Urdu and I caught up by the next grade. The only difference I encountered at school was the competition among students. At home, there was no competition.”

Homeschoolers say home education believes in nurturing the natural genius and prefers passion over requirement. Children aren’t forced to study subjects they have no interest in, nor are they made to feel dumb if they can’t achieve certain targets.

Maintaining discipline may be a challenge at times, but parents like Sadaf view the naughty “pranks” as disguised learning through “experimentation” with different materials. “I do not have a TV at home and I do not live in a joint family, so I have no problem in “controlling” the amount of television viewing or distractions my kids get into. Our home is crawling with children’s books, paper, materials, and toys and having neither a TV in it nor any other relatives with traditional schooling ideas to scold them (or demonize them by telling them for example that they don’t study enough, or write enough, or read enough), means that my children get to unleash their creativity with great abandon.”

Anila Omer, the mother of Zahra Omer, however, says she never had a problem maintaining discipline at home despite having a television. “I would choose which movies or cartoons to show to my children and we would watch those,” she says. “Since they were homeschooled from the beginning, there was no outside influence that would make them disobedient or naughty. They learned what I taught them.”

However, the idea of homeschooling is still unfathomable to a majority of parents. Kamila, mother of four year old Orhan and a teacher of Art and Music herself, expressed surprise when told that families were opting to home educate their children in Pakistan. “I wouldn’t choose to homeschool my child, not in this country,” she says. “Schools offer children a routine and exposure that they don’t get at home. You can’t keep your kids in a bubble. I want my kid to get the kind of exposure that school gives because life isn’t easy. When you are at school, you get different perspectives through different teachers. When you are studying from only one person your mind is stuck in a rut. I don’t want that for my child.”

Many parents that send their children to conventional schools also say they like the fact that the child goes out and that it gives them a break. Homeschooling parents say having the children at home means you have more helpers in the household chores.

Although mothers are more involved in homeschooling their kids (with many moms having given up full time careers to homeschool their children), support from fathers is considered a necessity. Atefa’s husband Azeem Pirani says his focus is to give time to his children whom he calls his “team”. The time is utilised in discussions about current affairs at meal times, regular visits to the swimming pool with them, involvement in matters relating to vacations, events etc, guidance and coaching in academic matters requiring further support and being part of the audience or judges for any presentations they may be working on.

Azeem feels the fact that homeschooling is less expensive too allows the family to spend on more beneficial things like family vacations, getting books or materials from abroad and getting memberships for clubs allowing better access to sports facilities etc. “The educational value of visiting new places is many times greater than sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher who is there just because she needs a job and not due to any desire to impart knowledge to our children,” he says.

Azeem feels the decision to homeschool his seven children has been a very positive move. “We have been able to interact more as a family.  The children are able to have their lives revolve around their family rather than around their schools.  This in and of itself means a strong and close knit unit.”

However, homeschooling is not for every family, warns Laila. “Schools are very much necessary for families that for various reasons cannot homeschool. I always advise new families not to take this step, unless they are sure they are ready for it. Excitement over the advantages of homeschooling may push families to go for it when they are not ready – this way, they may end up in disappointment. Reading about home education and evaluating the situation of your family is necessary before taking this step. It is also important that both spouses agree on this mission – if only one is for it, the tasks may prove to be very difficult. The support of the extended family is great to have. But even if it’s not there initially, once the family starts homeschooling and the extended family sees it working well and producing good results, they may change their views.”

Homeschooling families in Pakistan say their kids will be able to get the required certifications of O and A levels or matriculation by appearing for the exams as private candidates after which they will choose college for formal degrees.

If all parents homeschooling their kids in the country possess the same spirit and vision, we might just be witnessing the underpinnings of a new movement in education in Pakistan.


Published in The Express Tribune – city, June 22, 2010.

Mugs of steaming, bitter coffee are being shoved aside by the slimmer, metal cans of energy drinks. Seen by many young students and jocks as an almost necessary magic potion before important exams and matches, these drinks have slowly become more popular since 1997, when Red Bull was first introduced into the market.

While local brands have joined in, Red Bull, the current leader in the energy drink market, remains one of the favourites.

“I usually start drinking it [energy drinks] two to three weeks before exams,” says an A levels student, Hadia. “How frequently I take it depends on my pocket. A single can costs around Rs150!”

But even though Hadia feels that energy drinks are not good for her health, or her pocket, she continues to consume the sweet, canned liquid because it helps her concentrate. “It helps drive away drowsiness so I can stay up to study throughout the night.” The teenager also downs a can just before starting her exam since the drink keeps her alert.

Energy drinks are beverages that contain a form of stimulant that gives consumers a short-term energy boost. More often than not, these magical, energy-bestowing ingredients are sugar and caffeine.

Doctors and consumers both substantiate the claim these drinks advertise: a rise in energy levels. However, the manner in which the energy boost is given has caused considerable concern among health experts and researchers.

“Excessive caffeine is never good for the heart,” warned Dr Ambreen Aamir, a general physician. “It narrows down heart arteries, increases blood pressure and has also been linked to hypertension.”

There have been reports of heart attacks and risky behaviour after excessive use of energy drinks. Health officials in various countries have voiced concern over the uncertainty about the effects of the interaction between various ingredients of energy drinks, which include caffeine, an amino acid called taurine and glucuronolactone, a type of sugar that is produced by human cells and used in metabolism.

Energy drink companies however point to the fact that these drinks have been safely consumed across the world for more than a decade. According to one expert, it is not the energy drink, but the excessive habit that can be harmful. He discounted negative claims about energy drinks, saying that if doctors and researchers had a chance, they’d be gulping down energy drinks like everybody else.

Another student, Abrar Ahmed, had similar views about energy drinks. The hockey player prefers Booster above all other energy drinks. He said that these beverages could only be harmful if consumed too much and too regularly. For Ahmed, it is not so much as the taste but the adrenaline rush, which makes him drink it.

“I just take them before a game because they give me the energy I need and prevent weakness and stiffness of the body during or after a game,” he said.

While media managers of the energy drinks attribute increasing popularity of the beverages to aggressive marketing strategies, bigger, bolder billboards and electrifying ads, critics feel that it is the addictive nature of the drinks’ ingredients that have youngsters emptying out their pockets to buy more of them.

Energy drinks provide a temporary burst of energy, but as Shaheena Naz, assistant professor at the Food, Science and Technology department at the University of Karachi, puts it: “It may be okay to use such drinks when you need instant energy temporarily… energy should be acquired through proper metabolism.” According to the expert, it is better to use wholesome foods as a source of energy. “If a person has the right diet, he or she will never need such drinks,” Naz added.

An edited version of this article was published in Dawn Education page, February 3, 2008.

Sarah was a second year university student, well known among teachers and fellow students for her active participation in class discussions. Be it Sociology class or an Economics lecture, Sarah always had something to contribute. She also had a good academic record throughout her school and college. However, things had been a little different this semester. It was as if she had been bit by the ‘lazy bug’. Although, she had been active in class discussions, Sarah had not even touched her books and handouts throughout the semester. Now, with exams approaching Sarah had much to worry about. She had to complete the required readings for five courses and prepare for the exams.

As she quickly skimmed over books, notes and handouts, one particular subject remained neglected, so much so that just a day before the exam she had not even started reading the material. She sat for the exam nonetheless, and came out unsatisfied with her performance. She would be grateful if she even passed the exam. However, Sarah was in for a great surprise.

When the results were announced, Sarah found out that she had scored the highest percentage in that course, more than all the other students who had poured over books, handouts, notes etc and had made painstaking efforts to achieve good results.

The above scenario highlights one major aspect of our educational system—an aspect that is more pronounced at universities, where the teachers teaching students will be the same people checking their exam papers. The fact that teachers know the students whose papers they are marking leads to an almost inevitable bias in grading.

Most university teachers stress on the importance of class participation as a vital criterion for evaluating students. In some cases, class participation is one of the most significant factors leading to this bias. Generally, participation in class discussions is seen as a method whereby students learn to develop their speaking and persuasive skills, engage in active thinking and gain confidence. Therefore, many universities as well as schools set out a certain percentage of marks in each course for class participation.

When contacted, a few teachers and students voiced their opinions about class participation. For Saman Munawar who teaches secondary and ‘O’ level students, class participation holds immense significance. “It is an important tool for a teacher to appraise whether the class has conceived the lecture delivered,” she said. “It also plays an integral part in bonding the teacher and the student, which in turn helps the teacher to connect with the mental level of the student, and to adopt various methods to develop a better understanding in the child. As a teacher, if I have an active class during a lecture, I feel highly motivated.”  She is of the view that at least twenty percent of the total grading for a course should be allocated for class participation.

Sadat Jabeen is a teacher at the Department of Psychology at the University of Karachi. She feels that class participation is an indication of ‘active thinking’ among students. “A healthy class environment is one where students ‘think’ actively rather than passively listening,” she explained. “Class participation indicates this active thinking. Since it is one indication of student effort and, possibly, learning, credit may be given for it.”

Azra Ismail, a business student, also feels that class participation is a ‘healthy way of learning’ “It is important as it helps make the class more interactive, moving it away from monotony,” she said

However, a trend that has been observed in many schools and universities is that teachers tend to judge a student’s skills, abilities and understanding entirely on the basis of class participation. This is then reflected in how they grade student exam papers.

Class participation helps greatly in improving a student’s image in front of a teacher. Students who are active participants in class are often seen as ‘bright’, ‘able’ and ‘intelligent’ by teachers. This eventually leads to the ‘typing’ and ‘classification’ of students into good-student and bad-student categories. An interesting study about ‘typing’ was carried out by Hargreaves and colleagues (titled ‘Deviance in Classrooms’) on how pupils come to be ‘typed’ or ‘classified’ by teachers. Among the seven main criteria they noted upon which teachers initially ‘type’ students were: students’ appearance; how far they conformed to discipline; their ability and enthusiasm for work; how likeable they were; their relationships with other children; their personality and whether they were deviant. Although this does not explicitly include class participation, it can be assumed that ‘ability and enthusiasm for work’ are seen by teachers, to be reflected in class participation.

But, is class participation really such a reliable criterion for judging a student?

“Not always,” replied Sadat Jabeen. “Some intelligent students don’t feel the need to ask many questions or to share their views aloud, although they should. There are many components of being a good student and participation is just one of them.”

There are many students who have a great deal of knowledge and ideas about the topic under discussion in class but they are reluctant to participate orally. There may be a number of reasons for this. For one, they may be shy or lack the confidence to speak up in class. Or, they may be afraid of making mistakes, or of ridicule and criticism from classmates or teachers. On the other hand, there are some students who are naturally quiet and prefer listening as a learning strategy.

Hence, the practice of some teachers to judge students entirely on the basis of class participation may not be justified. Class participation is not the sole characteristic of a good student. In fact, in some cases, otherwise ‘invisible’ students in terms of contributions in oral discussions may be the brightest students of the class.

Nida Iqbal, a medical student, does not think that class participation is a reliable criterion for judging a student. “You can only judge a student’s confidence and ability to speak by it,” she said. She gives the example of a position holder in her college who never speaks up in class despite being such a good student, to illustrate how quiet students do not necessarily have to be lacking in knowledge or abilities.

“Some shy students do not participate in class in a frank manner, so their grasp of knowledge should not be judged entirely through class participation,” pointed out Ali Ahmed, an engineering student at a private university.

At times, students who have a great deal of knowledge and ideas are shy to speak up in class, while others who may not know as much gain in this area since they are good speakers. “Most of the students who speak out in class do not necessarily have the required knowledge,” said Madiha Sheikh, a university student enrolled in a social science degree. “Many a times they say irrelevant things. For example, I suffered in one course because I did not speak in class. I got only passing marks. Those who spoke in class got the highest marks, although they did not always have something fruitful to say when they spoke.”

Keeping in view the importance of class participation as a reflection of learning and the means to develop important skills in the student, it is acceptable that universities, colleges and schools set out a certain percentage of marks for class participation alongside other things. But the practice of teachers of judging a student entirely on the basis of class participation and subsequently placing them in good-student and bad-student categories because of it, is indeed unfair as it ignores the very purpose of education. Education is not just about gaining confidence and improving spoken communication skills, it is also about hard work and striving to gain new knowledge.

At the same time, teachers must make an effort to distinguish quality participation from participation that is repetitive and irrelevant. Quality participation is only possible after readings have been completed and lectures attended. In other words, after the student has made some effort at trying to understand the subject. It is important that contributions in class reflect prior preparation to avoid scenarios like the one mentioned in the beginning of this article.

In the end, it is important that a teacher make clear to the students what s/he expects from them at the beginning of a course. They must make known to the students what proportion of their marks depend on participation in class discussions and what proportion on written assessment, projects etc. Additionally, students must know that studying and working hard are essential to gaining good marks for any course.

An edited version of this article was published in Dawn Education page, November 25, 2007.

As semester exams approach in most colleges and universities, tensions begin to mount and warning bells ring in the heads of many students. Those who were known as ‘party-animals’ lock themselves in their rooms and burry themselves in their books day and night. Worse still, many students will spend the night before each exam sipping coffee or tea, in an attempt to force themselves to stay up in order to complete the syllabus.

This phenomenon known as the ‘Pre-exam all-nighter’ is a fairly common study technique used by students today. Students deliberately deprive themselves of sleep before exams and stay up all (or most part) of the night studying, revising and cramming their heads with information. This lack of sleep is rarely made up for even in the day time, because a major part of their day is spent commuting to and from the exam venue, giving the exam and then maybe preparing for the next, if they are among the unfortunate ones who have consecutive exams in a row.

So, why is it that students resort to this method of preparing for exams?

Some students find night-time to be the best time to study, primarily because it is peaceful and tranquil then and there are no distractions like a sibling coming up for some help in his homework, a ringing phone, unexpected guests and the ever-so-attractive-at-exam-time family conversations. For Reema Dada, a student at a reputed business institute and one of the top students of her class, staying up till late night during exams or in order to meet deadlines is a common practice. “I find it quite effective, especially because in the day there are a thousand other things to do—people to talk to and lots of distractions!” she says. “It works for me. A couple of hours of sleep is good enough. But, despite that, the mornings aren’t all that great. I have to come back from the exam and sleep a couple of hours.” she adds further.

However, the benefits of studying at night-time is not usually the reason why students stay up at night preparing for an exam the very next day. Had it really been so, they might have used it throughout the semester and given themselves some more hours of sleep than they usually get before exams. Many students go without much quality sleep throughout the period exams last. And this is not just because they prefer studying at night, for, they could very well make up for that sleep during the day. It is more because they feel overburdened with work, since they had been procrastinating studying till the last moment.

“I hate staying up for studying primarily because I am a morning person and I can simply not study at night. But since I am also a procrastinator, hence I do end up studying at the end moment, which leads to fatigue in the morning and I usually end up forgetting whatever I had studied,” admits Aasiya Abdul Rauf, a graduate of one of Pakistan’s top most business institutes. “Personally speaking, I am not in favor of this technique. But, this works for my friends, so I guess it varies from person to person. I would not recommend it. For me, the best time to study is after fajar prayers, as I retain more at that time.”

Being disorganised, procrastinating work and studying and just having no concern for studies until the exam date-sheet knocks them into their senses are among the popular attitudes of youth in our country. Many students spend their entire semesters or academic years being completely aloof from studies, having fun and just ‘chilling out’, only to wake up in to a world of havoc just before the exams. Naturally then, they have to spend their days and nights studying to make up for all the precious hours they wasted.

“I don’t use this technique often, but sometimes I do have to stay up the night before an exam. When I stay up the night just before the exam, I am a bit stressed about it. This helps at times, to speed up my work. Sometimes, I get the work of several days done in one night, though the quality of the work isn’t always the best,” says Hina Salim, a university student enrolled in a social science degree. Although she does not recommend it, she is of the opinion that it works when the student has spent the entire year sleeping and just before the exam realises how much work he/she has to do. “I am forced to use this technique when I don’t do my work on its proper time. The reasons for this delay in work include either being busy with other important stuff or just laziness,” she admits, summing it up quite aptly: “I think doing work at the eleventh hour is a loser’s way of doing things, but if for some reason you have to do things this way…well, then you just have to stay up the night!”

While staying up all night may be effective in helping a student complete the syllabus or assignment on time, how effective is it really in bringing good results?

For Ahmed Saya, who is studying privately for a professional degree and teaches at various schools in the morning, a pre-exam all-nighter is an absolute ‘no-no’. “I once used this technique and it was a bad experience since I was drowsy during the day and could not fully concentrate in the exam,” he says. “I strongly recommend my students never to stay up all night before exams. This method does not help, instead it causes drowsiness and clustering of thoughts during exams. Instead of being helpful, staying up the whole night becomes a burden. It is bad for health, both physically and mentally. I believe this practice should be stopped immediately!”

Ahmed’s views are supported by those of many doctors and psychologists. Researchers have found that lack of sleep impairs the brain’s ability to store new information in memory. Sleep is vital for consolidating recently-learned material in memory. The organization or reorganization of memory or the conversion of learned material into more permanent memory has been found to be taking place primarily during sleep. Therefore, students who take-off for the exam after an intense period of all-night study without any sleep are in great risk of forgetting or missing out in the exam on what they have so laboriously learnt.

And that is not all. Recent research has found that sleep prior to learning is just as important to sleep after learning. So, there goes students’ hope for staying up studying for a long period only to have an hour or so of sleep just before the exam.

The journal Nature Neuroscience published a research conducted by Matthew Walker and colleagues (2007) on the importance of sleep prior to learning. The study compared the performance of two groups on a learning task. One group had slept the previous night as usual and the other group had gone about thrity-six hours without sleep. They were shown a series of pictures of people, landscapes and objects to remember. After two days, when everyone had had two nights of normal sleep, the participants were shown more pictures and they had to identify which they had been shown two days earlier. The group that had not slept before the learning task recognised nineteen percent fewer pictures. The researchers concluded sleep prior to learning was very important to retain learned material for later.

Therefore, burning the midnight oil to complete their syllabus is not such a good idea for students who want to succeed in their exams and learn something from their degrees. Education is supposed to be continuous process that adds to a student’s knowledge and experience. It is not just about passing the exam and resorting to any method to do that. In order to truly learn something students must read, study and practice consistently throughout the semester. Nida Iqbal Umer, a medical student at a private college sums it up quite aptly: “I don’t think this strategy is effective for the long term. It might work for the day of that exam but you don’t gain anything from it. To learn something you have to work continuously all the year round and study side by side. I think it is better if you sleep well and wake up early and revise. And this will only work if you have been studying all the year round and not just before exams.”

So, perhaps its time to banish all-night study and replace it with quality and consistent study all the year round.

Published in The News, Educationzine, May 19, 2006.

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the things that you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.”

—Thomas Huxley

If students learn to manage time properly then time, which often works against them, may well become their greatest asset

Around the globe, students face a common dilemma: whether to give time to their studies or their social life and other activities. They enter into a new semester, fully motivated to put in their utmost efforts for achieving their goal of good grades. However, as the days progress, certain activities seem to clutter up their lives, pushing their previously planned goals into oblivion. It is only when exams approach that they wake up from their peaceful slumbers into a world of havoc and stress and find themselves unable to manage their tasks in the time left. This is when they realise the importance of time management.

Time management is a key skill that each student should be taught. Many schools and universities abroad have taken up this task by counselling students in the skills of time and stress management. Unfortunately, in our schools the emphasis is still on imparting just academic knowledge and not on giving life skills. It has been observed that most of the successful people in this world have a balanced lifestyle. They have time for work, rest, fun, family and friends. What puts them on the road to success is planning and proper management of time. This is because the main aim of acquiring time management skill is to allow us to do maximum number of things in minimum amount of time. As Golda Meir has said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”

At the heart of proper time management lies goal setting, prioritising and planning. To manage time, it is essential to set goals towards which you are going to work. You can then sub-divide your goals into manageable pieces so that you know what your short-term priorities are. This, according to Stephen Covey, who is the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is beginning with the end in mind. This kind of approach gives you the motivation and direction you need to achieve your targets. Some say that the palest ink is better than the best memory. Therefore, time management experts often recommend writing things down. The most commonly used and successful time management technique is the daily ‘to-do list’. However, many people find such a technique as unnecessary and a waste of time, failing to realise that time spent planning is time well spent. Just taking out 5 minutes at night to plan for the next day’s activities can do wonders for your success rate. The best thing about writing things down is that you don’t have to waste time in trying to remember them.

After this, it is imperative to prioritise your activities, setting the most important tasks for the time when your productivity is at it’s highest. Studying requires a lot of effort; so the best time to do it would be when you are most active and fresh, for example in the morning. Also, it is very important to take breaks after every hour or so of studying.

Another important part of time management is rewarding yourself for your success. Every time you achieve a goal, reward yourself by doing something you really enjoy. This will help motivate you to achieve the remaining objectives faster.

Often our lives are so cluttered that it becomes impossible to accomplish all our planned things. While it is essential to plan realistically and thus not over-schedule, an important fact remains that we often have small chunks of time that we don’t notice and are, hence, wasted. For example, a free hour between classes is enough time to read the day’s lectures. Resist the temptation to always spend this time chatting with your friends. Another example is the time that is spent during commuting. If you spend between one and two hours commuting everyday, in a week that would add up to 5 to 10 hours and in a year it works out to be around 250 to 500 hours! Over the course of 4 to 5 years, your commuting time equates to attending all the required lectures in a 4-year university degree! An easy and wise way to spend all this time is to read while commuting.

However, the biggest hurdle in the way of effective time management is procrastination, a problem to which many students fall prey. To overcome procrastination, one technique is to divide your work into smaller tasks that might last for only 15 minutes, and then focus on one thing at a time, rewarding yourself as you complete each task. This helps reduce the fear that otherwise accompanies large projects.

If students learn to manage time properly then time, which often works against them, may well become their greatest asset.

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