Arguing over Juice in the Subcontinent: Do We Need PBL

By: Romesa Khalid – Class of 2015

I want to tell you all a story. This is a short, simple one.

In August 2007 I was attending high school in Pakistan, busy being trained in chemistry, biology and advanced mathematics (they don’t believe in normal math in Pakistan). This particular day, however, I found myself being schooled in a very different way.

It was 42 degrees Celsius (I remember because it was a little cooler than usual for this time during a South Asian summer). Our chemistry teacher walked in with purpose. We stood up in unison, said our greetings and waited for permission to be seated again. For the next hour or so we proceeded to be taught the history and mechanisms behind DNA fingerprinting. Now, DNA fingerprinting has been around for a while and naturally, our curriculum included case studies of some real life instances where it had played a major role.

Mrs. C announced the page number, we flipped to it and she proceeded to read the case aloud.

“The case of American basketball player O.J. Simpson.”

What? I squinted at the page, to read the phrase again. Yes indeed, they really had referred to O.J. Simpson as an American basketball player. Now, to put things in perspective this was a private high school in Pakistan being taught a British curriculum written by British education planners sitting somewhere in Cambridge. Did I blame them for confusing O.J. Simpson’s profession? Of course not. Not everyone is well-versed in American sports (surprising, I know). But I am the daughter of an avid football fan who has all the Chicago Cubs’ games recorded on his now extinct cassette tapes and even made me watch one particular game with this particular football player. So, it stood out to me but I ignored it

Later as we walked out of class into the heat wave, I casually referred to O.J.’s football career. My friend, who for this article’s sake we will call Sarah, stopped in her tracks.

“You mean basketball player.”

I turned around to face her. “No, I mean football player.”

“Romesa,” Sarah said, very kindly, very motherly. “He’s a basketball player, it says so in the textbook.”

“No. I’ve seen him play a game with my dad. It was football.”

“But the textbook says he’s a basketball player.”

“Sarah.” I swallowed hard and gave her a thin-lipped smile. “I. Saw. Him. Play. Football.”

“But…it’s in the book.” Sarah was genuinely baffled at my lack of reverence for the written word.

I nodded. “I know. The book is WRONG.” Both of us were losing our cool. Her, for my insolence in doubting the sacred textbook. Me, for her absolute knuckle-headedness in assuming the book to be infallible. We dropped the topic there and then. I made my way home, angrier than I should be.

It wasn’t the error in the textbook. It wasn’t the fact that someone disagreed with me. It was the sheer lack of logic behind this girl’s statements. This smart, young woman, on her way to completing a secondary education and aspiring to be an engineer someday, could not, even if she tried, fathom a world in which textbooks could make mistakes. In which knowledge could be disputed by thinking individuals. A world in which education meant reflection and critical analysis, not rote memorization from a pamphlet of facts listed in no particularly useful way to be consumed for the purpose of successfully passing an exam. This girl, the product of an education system that had gone to the dogs simply because it failed to allow young minds to analyze the information being presented to them and to reject it if they had reason and evidence to justify doing so. Even hard evidence, like a first-hand account on my part fell defeated to a silly little line in a silly little book.

That was education.

I had bothered me ever since I had moved back from the sheltered suburbs of Oakville to the each-kid-for-herself world of Pakistan. After this particular encounter, I had had enough. I understand; a blog written with angst will not solve a problem plaguing colleges across the world. But it’s a useful way to express gratitude, opinion and hope. Which is why I will say this: I am happy now to be a part of a program that emphasizes in-depth analysis and evidence-based practice. It encourages us to actively seek information, rather than passively receive it. It is tailored to elicit in us, a drive to search for the source of knowledge, and to evaluate it on its merit. It allows room for peer collaboration and contradiction. It cultivates a sense of “lifelong learning”, that buzzword that no longer rings hollow in my mind, but refers to an actual philosophy that I have committed to.

It is by no means a perfect system, but I believe it is crucial to our development not just as professionals but as people. It is not fair to hamper a person’s imagination, creativity and intellectual curiosity. Nor is it right. It is easy to take for granted the world of opportunities we have at our disposal. I have seen what happens when you reduce learning to a method and what happens when you realize that it’s a process. One that requires invested thought and freedom to refute. So does the McMaster curriculum do that? Does it create individuals who can tolerate contradiction and objectively evaluate information? My personal experience would respond with a resounding “yes! (for the most part).”

What do you all think?

One thought on “Arguing over Juice in the Subcontinent: Do We Need PBL

  1. So does the McMaster curriculum do that? Does it create individuals who can tolerate contradiction and objectively evaluate information? My personal experience would respond with a resounding “yes! (for the most part).”

    I think so too. Yes, for the most part.

    But I’ve been thinking about this more and more as we come close to the end. I think McMaster is two medical schools in one. The first school is the one that extracts non-traditional students from their otherwise non-traditional lives and says “giv’er” but please also attend these 8 hours of lecture every week, please go to six sessions of whateverthehellthatwas, relearn most of the basic tenants of how to be and please jump through all these non-learning related hoops to prove that you’re mature kthanksbye. The second school extracts a much more expected group of people at a much earlier point in their lives and with a more narrowly defined set of pre-existing skills. Both groups bring smart, driven and good people to the table but one group is still really used to didactic learning, prescribed tasks and clear objectives and one group is much more experiential, much less risk-averse, much less formulaic.

    I don’t know that McMaster is aware that they have two medical schools and that the turbulence of the merge is quite something to experience.

    What do you think, Romesa? Am I just an ageist griper?

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