Asia-Pacific, Headlines

EDUCATION-PAKISTAN: ALIF Spells Open Sesame For Pre-schoolers

Nadeem Iqbal

ISLAMABAD, Apr 11 2000 (IPS) - ALIF, the first alphabet of the Urdu language is also a neat acronym for a Pakistani non government organisation (NGO) which runs an innovative electronic media project for pre-schoolers.

Funded by Pakistani expatriates, the project aims at bridging the learning and skill-development gap between privileged and underprivileged children without being dependent on donors as so many projects in the social sector are in Pakistan.

Launched in September, last year, ALIF (Active Learning Initiative Facility), is the brainchild of Safi Qureshi, a former member of US President Bill Clinton’s export council.

Now in his mid-forties, Qureshi was also cofounder and former chief of AST Research Inc., a personal computer firm that once ranked as the fourth largest computer manufacturer in the world.

ALIF’s key visual literacy project is the popular Khul Ja Sim Sim (KJSS) programme — basically an Urdu adaptation of the ‘Open Sesame’ series broadcast in 23 countries and itself a version of ‘Sesame Street’ produced by the US-based Children’s Television Workshop (CTW).

Open Sesame is currently broadcast in 23 countries, while the Sesame Street series as a whole (including English version and co-productions) is viewed in 88 countries including Pakistan.

KJSS familiarises children with the puppet characters and concepts of the Open Sesame show within a thoroughly Pakistani frame of contexts.

Dr. Tahir Raza Shah Andrabi, director of ALIF describes the 104-episode KJSS series as an effort to enrich the pre-school children’s environment, which has been invaded by Indian film tunes meant for older audiences.

“Talk to any school-going child. First he will recite some poem to you and once on his own would start singing popular Indian movie tunes,” Andrabi, recalled from visits to villages to assess the impact of his TV show.

“We are targeting children of the 3-7 age group from lower middle class families which form the backbone of society and many of whom are probably the first generation going to school.”

Telecast twice a day, 75 programmes of KJSS have so far gone on air since launch in April last year and is due to continue until July 2000. Home videos and audio cassettes will soon be available for Urdu-speaking people around the world.

To supplement the TV programme, a nation-wide campaign ‘View- Do-Read’, involving book publishers, community organisations and schools is being launched.

Andrabi, a research associate at the London School of Economics, thinks that differences in cognitive abilities, logical and analytical skills between haves and have-nots appear as early as the primary school stage.

In his late thirties, Andrabi is currently associate professor of economics at Pomona College, Claremont, California as well as research associate at the London School of Economics (LSE).

His academic credentials included a degree from Swarthmore College and a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“Another factor calling for early-age intervention is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are late starters — some do not even enter school until age 7,” Andrabi added.

In Pakistan more than 37 percent of households have one or more TV sets and that figure is expected to double in six years. In rural areas, TV-set acquisition is twice as fast as in the urban areas and this offers great potential for the future.

KJSS revolves around the concept of multiple intelligence — which is based on the assumption that each learner is intelligent and talented no matter what the background or exposure.

The theory proposes that all individuals possess several different kinds of intelligences which could contribute and enrich the classroom environment.

To fulfill the learning needs of such diverse groups, teachers are encouraged to view the overall social and physical environment as a vast learning resource. Parents and communities actively participate in the learning process.

Multiple-intelligence acknowledges that there are sources other than the conventional class room where the learning experience occurs — including watching TV, visiting places and ordinary interaction with parents and elders.

ALIF requires teachers in conventional classrooms to include TV programmes in their curricula to standardise and enrich the pre-school environment of all children in the country — in a way similar to the pre-school movement in the US.

KJSS shows have around 12-13 explicit curricular messages with goals including numeracy, communication and language, critical thinking, environmental concerns-ecology, health and hygiene, character-building self-development, and social awareness.

Going on air on PTV for 30 minutes at 6 pm and at 11 am and also on PTV-World at 4 pm, KJSS has no commercial break because ALIF pays its way.

A preliminary impact assessment carried out on 400 children in both rural and urban areas showed the programme to have captured the attention and curiosity of not only the targeted group but also older children in the 7-11 age group.

Mehnaz Akber, principal advisor to ALIF and education specialist with the federal Ministry of Education said, ALIF offers a conduit for a growing number of Pakistani-Americans to participate in societal and development activities in the home country.

“Since the mid-90s there has been a feeling among overseas Pakistanis that the better they do in foreign countries the more their home country was going down. So a man who has earned a lot wants to build a school in his home village.”

ALIF taps on the sentiment and asks expatriates to contribute money to their programmes — which could well be extended to the building of schools.

“There is a space for overseas Pakistanis to invest in because Pakistan is no more on the priority list of international donor agencies,” she said.

Experience showed the attitude of international agencies towards Pakistan to be fickle and linked to political exigencies. “Which is wrong because a change in the government does not mean a change in the needs of the community,” Akber added.

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