My recollections as Vice President and Dean about ensuring the learning outcomes of English courses at PAF KIET from 2002-2012.
Around ten to twelve years ago in our academic discussions with the President of the institute where I was working at that time, we would often worry about raising the English skills of our students. President of the Institute was Air Commodore (R) Khalid Husain who hailed from the Engineering Branch of PAF and who had been in senior positions in training and development wing of PAF. One day he mentioned that the new inductees in PAF are mostly from rural areas who have never been to English medium schools, and have had no or little exposure of English speaking environment. However, within a few months of their joining the PAF training academy, they are speaking fluently in English. How can we ensure that students of universities also start talking and writing in English within a few months? We agreed that there was merit in this expectation, and we need to try to design systems that can ensure a similar level of outcome.
Initial Discussions: Defining the Scope
Our initial discussions with the faculty focused on the differences about the intent of the two institutions, military academy vs university; where the culture of one is focused on obeying the orders, but the culture of the other is focused on developing thinking and reasoning. Whereas in military academies, verbal humiliation and physical punishments are allowed, the same techniques can not be used in universities. In military culture questioning the Superior’s order is unthinkable:
Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. [Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson]
This does not mean that functional English can not be imparted in a few weeks. We have several examples of call-centers that enable the trainees in a couple of weeks to start talking on telephone in US accent and US English and start selling to consumers in USA. There are also institutions like Berlitz with well defined level-wise programs that enable the trainee to progress in well measured steps every few weeks. Interviews were conducted with some call center trainers and trainees and also meetings were held with Berlitz to evaluate the feasibility of using their services. There are some academics who claim that reading, writing and arithmetic can be learned in 100 hours .
The challenge was to design the techniques and systems to achieve the desired outcomes of a university. The post below describes several initiatives and their results:
Challenge of Providing Immersion Experience
Our first conceptual challenge was to ensure that the teachers know the difference between “knowledge” and “skills”. Knowledge can be acquired by observation and by attending lectures of a teacher or by memorizing information. However, skill is something that you only acquire through “learning by doing”.
The above paragraph describes a simple conceptual distinction. But, implementing this in a class room is difficult. It is difficult for a conventional teacher to leave the podium and the central position on stage and let the students do the conversation among themselves. Or let them write without intervention. Or to let them listen without interrupting. Designing an environment where they can immerse themselves in an English speaking, learning and writing environment is what is required. Learning by doing, experiential learning or project based learning are concepts that I have found really hard to convince the teachers to adopt for the structural reasons that are highlighted later in this post. Later because the learning that “structural changes are required” was the result of a decade of trying and failing with the usual techniques as described below first:
Administrative and Organizational Changes
In early 2000s, the institute did not have an English department as there were few programs and few hundred students. But as the number of programs increased, the number of students also increased. When the number of sections and the number of students studying English courses became sufficiently large, establishment of a separate department of English became feasible because we needed a head who would be able to manage the English courses. He would be better able to analyze the contents of English subjects and their teaching methodologies. Hence, we engaged a full-time person with vast experience of managing English teaching at the schools network of PAF. He was Air Commodore (R) Khayyam Durrani, who was in the education core of PAF, and whose specialization had been English literature, and who was also associated in administrative capacity at Air War College. Later he would join Indus Valley School of Arts as an executive director. During his stay for a couple of semesters at KIET, the department of English got established. One of his initial recommendations were to increase the number of mandatory English courses in the bachelors curricula and to gradually switch to faculty with English background in masters of linguistics or literature. Later the English Department became part of a full-fledged College of Humanities and Sciences, which was a supporting college, dealing with courses such as English, Mathematics, Islamic and Pakistan Studies that supported the curricula of multiple degree granting colleges such as CoCIS, CoMS, and CoE. Mr Khayyam Durrani was succeeded by Mr Khalil and later by Mr Ajmal Khan. Their contributions would be described later.
Number of Mandatory English Courses in Each Program
Around 2003, we had two courses of English in the four-year bachelor programs of business (BBA), computer science (BS) and Engineering (BE). Our first instinct was to add more English courses to improve the skills. We first increased the number of English courses from two to three and then from three to four. Around 2007 we had four English courses in BBA, BE as well as BSCS. In the BE programs, switch from 3 to 4 courses had to be reversed back to 3 courses to make room for some PEC mandatory requirements that called for adding some other courses. During PEC’s inspection visit, they did not buy our emphasis on English and told us that 3 are sufficient. Actually, their recommendation was even less than 3, but we stuck with 3 courses. Programs other than Engineering continued to have four courses till I left KIET in 2013. As the table shows that the number of courses were progressively increased, however, later cost-benefit analysis indicated that increasing the number of courses is not contributing directly to improvement. An English course had to be dropped from the BSCS program as well as the BBA program as the inclusion of the fourth English course could no longer be justified in order to make room for other courses whose inclusion was considered to be more important. As it currently stands there are only three courses in each of these bachelor programs.
of English Courses
English Courses in
BS, BE and BBA Curricula
Communication Skills and
Communication Skills and
Communication Skills and
English-1 (Real Life
English-2 (English for
English-1 (Real Life
English-2 (English for
English-3 (Business Presentations)
Initial Preparation of English Teachers
Once we have increased the number of courses, our focus shifted to the initial qualification of English teachers. Earlier we were engaging teachers who were functionally good in English, both in reading and writing, and whose qualification had to be an MBA. An MBA with prior degree in linguistics or literature was considered a plus, but not a mandatory requirement. The assumption was that a person with business background would be better at teaching “Business Communication”. This also used to be the operative paradigm at IBA when I was there during 1995-2000. The assumption according to Dr Abdul Wahab, who used to be the Director and Dean of IBA for a long time was that in technical professional degrees, we should not attempt to teach literary English, but should instead focus on functional English, which is more important for communication in formal business settings. He used to say that English teachers who are without business background often emphasize areas in English that are not driven by the business objectives.
Nevertheless, the switch was made from hiring teachers with a mandatory business background + good functional business English skills (with formal English degree qualification only an optional plus) to formally engaging teachers who were required to have a formal degree; MA/MS in English, Linguistics, or Literature. However, the mere changing of the primary degree requirements did not produce any immediate visible change.
Medium for Teaching Non-English Courses
We knew from the start that just the increasing of the number of courses would not be enough. There are only 3-4 English courses in a bachelors curriculum of around 40 courses. We had to use other courses for increasing the doze of English. Our analysis then moved towards the environment and use of English medium in technical (non-English) courses. In the business area we focused on courses such as “financial management”, “cost accounting” and others. In computer science area we focused on courses such as “data structures”, “automata” and others. In the engineering courses we focused on “amplifiers and oscillators”, “signals and systems” and others. As we started compelling the teachers to use English medium in their classes for teaching technical courses, we met with fierce resistance of teachers. Their first argument was that when we try to teach technical concepts in English, the students do not understand, but when we teach these concepts in Urdu, the results are much better. “We can not trade-off the learning outcomes of the course with extraneous English related outcomes.”
Irrespective of how much we tried, how much we forced the teachers, and how much we tried to use the carrot and stick of the yearly evaluations, the situation on the ground remained the same. Teachers would start the lecture in English, but would simply switch to Urdu the moment they had to explain any technical or complex concept, or when they found that the students were not responsive or not paying attention. Some teachers wholeheartedly accepted the challenge and started using English as a medium. But, soon student grades started suffering. As the “bell curve”  started shifting, the teachers dynamically adjusted their medium of instruction to improve the understanding and the grades of the students. Despite our vigorous campaign for a few years, the results were not encouraging, and the initiative lost its intensity and fizzled out.
Use of Local Languages for Enhancing Understanding
The resistance that we met in trying to compel faculty members to use English for teaching technical courses was not our institution specific. I had encountered similar issues when I was at IBA earlier as Deputy Director and looking after the CS and MIS degree programs at the Center for Computer Studies. I have witnessed similar debates in other institutions as well. A good faculty member teaching a technical course would always try to prioritize the demand of making the students understand the technical concept over and above the demand for ensuring English as a medium.
In 2010, I conducted several professional training sessions for corporate participants in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Based on my interaction with these participants, and based on the requirement in these training sessions to hold the attention of the participants for three full days, session after session, not allowing them to doze off, and to keep them connected all the time, I am now forced to admit that a good trainer is like a stage performer and his class lecture is like a stage performance. Like a good actor, a good teacher choreographs the entire lecture in his mind and responds to the moods of the audience with extemporaneous improvisations. Switching of language and moving across different dialects is an important element of a teacher’s arsenal. This also introduces a bit of humor especially when he moves towards “more picturesque speech” using the local dialects, which reduces the tension in the air and also creates a connection which is not witnessed in English-only lectures.
You can observe this in seminars and training programs in Pakistan. Just see the expression of the audience, their attentiveness and their responsiveness when a speaker is only speaking in English versus another speaker who comes in and starting punctuating his talk with local language. I have experienced this phenomenon in auditoriums full of highly qualified faculty members having full command of English. [The change in the expression and responsiveness of even highly anglicized faculty needs to be recorded and analyzed formally.] I had fellow faculty members in other institutions such as NED, SZABIST, UET Lahore etc who also corroborated this experience. My own experience of later conducting a few session at LUMS in the course “personal effectiveness” in 2010 indicated that my connection with the students increased and got better when I was using mix-mode than when I was using English-only lecturing.
Course Names vs Intent of Course Contents
We also considered Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies courses as a potential vehicle for the improvement of English. Organizational change that was made to cater for this requirement in addition to some others was the establishment of a separate College of Humanities and Sciences that was given the charge of managing not only English, but also other areas such as Maths, Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies. Initially the idea was to give the control of these two courses to the English faculty so that they can use teaching of Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies as a vehicle for English improvement. The objective was that through a careful selection of teachers for Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies we will try to use English as a vehicle to improve the learning outcomes of these courses.
There is an interesting academic issue related to the name of a course and its relationship with the contents of the course. The name of the course always trumps the intent of the course contents and the methodology irrespective of what we may write in the outlines about the learning outcomes and what we specify as the contents or pedagogy. Once a new intent of the course is defined under an existing name, the intent quickly loses its spirit once the initial drive and focus is gone. We started out with the intent of using Islamic and Pakistan Studies for additionally complementing the English teaching, but in a few semesters as the focus of the academic heads moved to another area, the courses began to be conducted with the intent as encapsulated by their names. This brings us to the interesting philosophical debate of the name determining the structure and, in turn, influencing the contents and even the intent of whatever is included in that structure .
Use of Text Books and Functional Illiteracy
We also noticed a very interesting phenomenon. Many of the students were not buying books. They were simply using the copy of presentations used by the faculty. The presentation slides and their contents formed the perimeters of what the student would study in a course and also what they would expect the teachers to examine them. The use (actually abuse) of presentation slides by teachers merits a separate case study that will highlight on one hand the dependency of the teachers on the slides and their inability to develop their teaching skills and enhance their knowledge, and on the other hand would impact the students in constraining the scope of their study to the few sentences written on the presentation slides.
It was interesting to note the comments of students when asked how can you do home works if you do not have the textbooks. Their reply was that they typically do a group study and that’s where the book from one of the group members suffices for other members! This raised another interesting issue of students simply copying the home works. But, then when I insisted of what would happen before the exams, when several of you are unable to come together for one reason or another (hartals, closures, electricity breakdowns). Especially the girl members can’t go to other’s places and stay there for late. This alerted us to the issue of either students doing (copying) their homework in the institute, or there is no need felt by them to read the books at all! The latter refers to the issue of functional illiteracy described elsewhere on this blog .
Our administrative impulse was to make sure that each student has a text book for each subject that he is taking. We designated the first week of every semester for this campaign. The first week was spent in executing a relentless campaign to have the teachers check whether each student is with his own book with his name printed on it. The students were found to be borrowing the book from their friends when they feared that the checking would take place. Although the books they were supposed to have were pirated and available in the market for a couple of hundred rupees, but our observation was that they were not buying the books. They simply do not think that reading the book was important for passing. This problem is much more prevalent in the non-business areas than in the business area courses. I did an informal survey of other Engineering institutions and found a similar situation. The students were reading from notes but not the book. In fact, I found that there is a particular term that is used in UET Lahore. There are a couple of smart students in each class who are termed as “theta“. These thetas take down the notes for every lecture, and soon enough, these notes would appear in the local photocopy shop for the rest of students to buy and follow. A similar culture seemed to be prevalent every where. For several semesters, we had the director of colleges and me going to the classes with surprise visit to make sure that each student in the class had bought the textbooks.
Simplification of Learning Outcomes and Pass/Fail Criteria
I still remember distinctively a Board of Studies Meeting of the College of Engineering where the CEO of Aero-Car company Mr Hasnain left all the faculty and the other industry participants of the meeting spell bound. After listening patiently for about an hour about the list of technical courses and their contents for Electronic Engineering program, he said something like the following: Gentlemen, all this discussion about details and technicalities of amplifiers, signals, electrical machines and what not are fine. But, I am more concerned about two things. This is what I do during hiring in my company. The first thing an applicant is given is a plain paper to write a few paragraphs about himself and his ambitions. Those who are unable to write those paragraphs are shown the door immediately. Then the second assignment that I give to these applicants consists of a scotch tape, scissors and two A4 plain printer papers. They are asked to put the two papers side by side so that their edges are perfectly aligned and are just touching each other. Then they are asked to tape them together so that when the taped sheets are held to the light, one should not be able to see any light creeping in from the crevice and the paper should also not be crumpled by the stretching of the tape.
We tried to simplify the mandate given to the faculty teaching the English courses by simplifying the learning outcomes to two:
- Firstly, to ensure that the students passing the courses should be able to write one page in English that should not raise any eyebrows. Our objective should not be to aim for hi-fi English, but plain functional English necessary for meeting the entry requirements of most organizations.
- Secondly, students should be able to confidently express their ideas in an interview and in a presentation. The objective here was to ensure that students overcome their shyness and are able to express their ideas coherently.
I now feel that these requirements are better implemented using a pass-fail criteria than the grading system. Letter grades starting from passing 2.0 to 4.0 are counter productive for the objectives of language teachings. Either you are able to communicate or not. Either you can communicate orally or not! Either you can express yourself in writing or not! Grading objective should be to categorically tell us whether they meet pass/fail criteria or not.
Ensuring a Consistent Quality Across Several Sections of the Same Course
The easiest way to resolve this complexity is to use the same teacher for teaching all the sections of a particular course. But, this will only be possible if the number of sections is five or less. It becomes difficult for a faculty to do justice with six or more sections simultaneously. There is also the issue of boredom and fatigue when a teacher is expected to repeat the same lecture in five or six different sections every week. Furthermore, this option can only be maintained for a few semesters. I have often seen situations arising where this logistical convenience has to be forcefully traded off with some other pressing requirement.
As per the spirit of the semester system, execution of a course is primarily dependent upon the person teaching that course. A teacher has a lot of liberty to tweak the course irrespective of the outline and even while remaining within the confines of the outline. It all boils down to our communication with the teacher and a consistent hammering of the intent of the courses and their linkage with the overall curriculum objectives, vision and mission. But, still bureaucratic invasion of the class room is not a good idea for maintaining a healthy learning environment .
From Meaningless to Meaningful Tasks
A major problem in English teaching had been the use of Wren and Martin legacy by our teachers of English. Teaching English through grammar had long been discarded but it remains often ingrained in the psyche of the teachers belonging to the old school. Conversion of language instruction to class activities that are meaningful has always remained a challenge in schools . The major impediment to the use of interactive and mindful learning activities had been the class-size and the reluctance of the teacher to use teaching assistants and to encourage group activities. Finding faculty members who create a good rapport with the students that encourages an environment where students can freely express themselves without fear and without humiliation remains a challenge.
Communication takes place when a student wants to passionately express his point of view on a subject about which he feels strongly. The topics on which the students need to be involved should be relevant and meaningful and the student should feel that his small effort would make some contribution. Designing such engaging activities is a challenging task. Importing topics from alien cultures and alien issues typically will not work.
Projects Presentations as Platform for Oral Expression
System of Teaching Assistants for Encouraging Participative Sessions
There were several advantages of this arrangements. Students who would feel embarrassment in making mistakes in front of the teachers were much more forthcoming in front of senior student TAs. As the TA session typically did not have the threat of grades, the sesssions were more participative. Also, commnication and interaction with TAs had a greater richness. TAs would also go out of the way in helping these fellow students. There were secondary benefits from this arrangement too. The TAs effectively acquired greater confidence and also assumed leadership positions in various student societies and activities. The system also provided some stipend to the TAs on a per-hour basis and for good students it became a source of some support.
Overall, the mechanism led to the development of greater social interaction for English communication purposes as students found it easy to go to the TAs than to the teachers for their problems and remedial issues. The system was then also tried and produced excellent results in computer science lab courses and was crucial in the development of hands-on programming culture .
Prescribed Dozes and Structural (Credit Hour) Changes Required for Immersion Experience
As I look back at the various options tried by us over the last several years, I have come to the conclusion that the real culprit in not enabling us to realize the outcomes of the English courses is that the dozes that we administer are of lesser potency and their frequency is too low to create any impact.
What is required is that we need to rethink the credit hour for courses that require Experiential Learning content. Our standard university format dictates that a 3-credit hour course can only have a 3-hour session in a week and a minimum of 45 hours in about 15 weeks of a full-length semester. The English classes sandwiched between other courses lose their efficacy especially because managing all the faculty and driving them in a particular direction is also difficult. A doze of 3 hours per week is too low a potency to be effective in language learning.
I think we should concentrate the English courses in time and space. We tried, at least once, to have a particular batch take two English courses simultaneously during the six weeks of the summer crash semester. The format that we used need to be tweaked and further improved.
I think we need to design a format on the following lines: 5 hours daily for 9 days will give us the required 45 hours during two weeks. There should be two 2.5 hours session every day with a couple of hours of tutorial and lunch break sandwiched in between. Learning sessions to be conducted by teachers and tutorials and break to be supervised by TAs to ensure that the language used during this time is also English. Third week should be for experiential learning exam as well as preparation. The second course follows immediately after the first one for couple of weeks; 5 hours daily for 9 working days followed by a week of exam and preparation.
In this design, both courses should run simultaneously from morning till afternoon in a secluded part of the campus which is restricted to the students taking the English courses only and which should also have a small cafeteria so that the time for informal lunch can also be used as part of immersion experience. The environment should force the students to eat, drink and study nothing except English during the stipulated weeks and the scheduled timings.
I think if we can somehow come with a structure where students for the entire semester could be given this kind of an immersion experience where all interactions across five-six stipulated courses are conducted in English, then this framework would provide excellent results. This means that we need to identify 3 English courses and 2-3 other courses that are conducted by a selected bunch of faculty members tasked with ensuring the English learning outcomes.
Afterword: First Language vs Foreign Language Assumption
The issue of trying to compensate for the lacking in the foundation of English  at the school level through the introduction of a few courses at the university level, reminds me of this Momin Khan Momin’s couplet:
Umr sari tu kati ishq e butaan mai Momin –
Akhri waqt mai kya khaak musalmaan ho gay
Umr sari tu kati ishq e butaan mai Momin –
Akhri waqt mai kya khaak musalmaan ho gay
Pondering over the above thought, I feel that this assumption is the single biggest reason of why students have not been able to learn English as Foreign Language in Pakistan. The assumption in all English medium schools is always that the students ought to know English as a native Britisher from Oxbridge does. They are reprimanded from the very begining as if they should have the competence of a born Britisher. They are shown contempt for their most trivial pronunciation mistakes as if a born Britisher has made that mistake. Our schools and universities treat the students as if they should know English, they should understand English and they should speak English as if it is their mother tongue and also their first language. Starting with this assumption, our curriculum outlines, our dealing with the students raises the stakes and makes it hard for our students at different levels of competency to gain much from the English classes in schools and especially so in the universities. Hence, techniques of Berlitz and many of the call center company training programs are much more effective.
 Dumbing Us Down by John Gatto: In chapter 1, The Seven Lesson School Teacher
 Guzara and Pursuit of Excellence: How to teach through everyday examples
 Anti-National Language Policy leads to Rule by Rich and Corrupt Elites
 Insult to Intelligence. Bureaucratic Invasion of Classrooms. By Frank Smith.
 The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer.
 Bell Curve Evaluation of Students: Ideological Perspectives
 Formative Assessments.
 Authentic Assessments
 How to Learn a Foreign Language in Three Months
 From Illiterates to Functional Illiterates: Futility of Our Education System
 Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords by Andrea Cornwall and Deborah Eade.
 Why Project Based Learning: An Experiential Learning Case Study of Language Teaching
 How to Create Impact on Society: A Case Study of Experiential Learning Intervention in a Course on Social Advocacy
- Managing English Teaching Outcomes in Universities: An Experiential Learning Case Study of ESL/EFL
- How Language Acquisition is Made Difficult for Children: Eight Lessons from Urdu Acquisition Case Study.
- Anti-National Language Policy leads to Rule by Rich and Corrupt Elites
- Managing English Teaching Outcomes in Universities: An Experiential Learning Case Study of ESL/EFL
- Why Project Based Learning: An Experiential Learning Case Study of Language Teaching
- Most Effective Way of Cutting a Nation from its History – Imposing a Foreign Language
- Capitalist Transactions Replacing Traditions and Values from Istanbul to Makkah
- Georgia – Lesson in Preserving Language, Religion and Culture
- TED Talk: Suzanne Talhouk: Don’t kill your language and your nation