Teachers as well as pupils at schools in eastern Afghanistan are struggling to get to grips with a newly-introduced curriculum. Some of the textbooks are far too advanced, while others are riddled with mistakes, experts claim.
Ninety million US dollars has been spent on compiling and publishing the new set of textbooks. They were distributed in Nangarhar province six months ago, though some other parts of Afghanistan will have to wait another three months to get them.
Education officials say that if teaching staff cannot handle the courses, that is a reflection on their abilities.
But some teachers say the content of the national curriculum is so complicated that they cannot even understand it themselves, let alone pass it on to their students.
Rahatullah, who teaches chemistry at the Kabo High School in Nangarhar’s Khugiani district, and says the science presented in the books is university-level material.
“The new 11th-grade chemistry book contains topics that are taught in first year of chemistry at university. And 12th-grade subjects like algebra, geometry and trigonometry include content that’s taught at university level,” he said. “That indicates that the curriculum content is set at too high a level…. How can 10th, 11th and 12th grade pupils grasp it? How can teachers teach it?”
Rahatullah predicted that teachers would leave in droves, while others might just pretend to teach.
“If someone says he can teach it, he might do so, but I’m certain that his pupils won’t learn a thing from it,” he added.”
Mohammad Seddiq, a pupil at the Abdul Wakil High School, said the curriculum was so challenging as to put him off continuing in education.
“The teachers say, “We don’t know the content, so how can we teach you?’ The old-style textbooks were easy,” he said.
Shamsurrahman Nurani, a teacher at the Separ Elementary School in Chaparhar district, complained that some of the textbooks were cluttered with information that was hard to make sense of.
“The subjects have too much detail and explanation, so that the pupils can’t understand and get confused,” he said.
Nurani said the current crop of teachers had been trained to use a different curriculum and were finding it hard to adjust.
Education officials in Nangarhar insist an extensive retraining programme is already under way.
“This curriculum suits the requirement of the times we live in,” the spokesman for the provincial education department, Mohammad Asef Shinwari, said. “The problems stem from the low level of knowledge of our teachers. We have already trained up some skilled science teachers and they are now involved in training high school teachers to use the new curriculum. We plan to [re]train some 5,000 teachers. Thus far we have trained 1,000 and the process is continuing.”
Shinwari said a lot of thought and work had gone into the revamped textbooks, with a special committee that looked at the methods used in countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and Malaysia. As a result, he said, Afghanistan’s curriculum was now better than those of some of its neighbours.
Mathematics teacher Nadira Sayeda, from the Rokhshana High School, believes that looking at other models is part of the problem. She claims that much of the content has been blindly copied from foreign publications, with errors introduced along the way.
Within the first few pages of the 11th-grade physics text, she identified 15 errors, plus mistakes in the examples used to drive home the points made in each lesson.
The teaching methods used in Afghanistan have closely followed political trends over the last three decades. The communist regime that took over in the late 1970s incorporated Soviet-influenced ideology into education. The mujahedin groups that seized power in 1992 changed the books to highlight their views, such as highlighting their militia commanders in the history texts.
Things changed again when the Taleban captured Kabul in 1996. They stopped girls going to school and imposed their own hard-line vision of Islam on schoolbooks, in the sciences as well as in the humanities.
The post-2001 period has seen significant changes for the better, notably in female education. However, problems remain. The latest history textbooks deal with the last three decades by ignoring them – a compromise made, some say, because some warlords-turned-politicians do not want too much light shone on past events.
As chemistry teacher Rahatullah put it, “Whenever a new government comes to power, it interferes in the education system according to its political tastes.”
“This new curriculum may be suited to American, British or some other western states, but not to the children and adolescents of a war-torn country like Afghanistan,” he added.
Asadullah Ghazanfar, a writer who has looked into the way the textbooks were compiled, says the work on Pashto grammar contains inaccurate definitions, in addition to explanations so poorly worded as to be incomprehensible. He found similar problems in books written in Afghanistan’s other main language, Dari.
“I can say for certain that nothing is right in those books,” he said.
These things matter, Ghazanfar says, because schoolbooks are the most important documents that any country possesses, second only to the constitution.
Another of Ghazanfar’s gripes is that one Pashto textbook includes material about 18th century poet Kazem Khan Shaida, whose work is highly regarded but is so sophisticated that the average teacher will not really grasp what it is about. “It’s particular punishment for pupils who are not native Pashto speakers,” he added.
Zarin Anzor, a writer and literary expert who wrote the Pashto textbook used for the 12th grade, defended his decision to incorporate challenging material.
“I consciously selected some general information about Pashto literature and its mystical content, because 12th grade is the door to university level,” he said, pointing out that future students needed to have a general grounding in Pashto literature.
“I agree that these subjects may be hard for school pupils – they’re difficult for teachers,” he added.
In the end, though, he said normal international practice was for education officials to decide what the curriculum should be, and then produce or retrain teachers to the required standard.
Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar, Afghanistan.