Isbah Ali Farzan – Striving for Critical Thinking

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Let me be honest, I was just another ordinary girl from a middle-class educated family in Pakistan. Nothing special. Something I have realized now as I begin to critically reflect on myself. I was actually a very typical girl in my adolescence: walking one step behind the elders, obeying and believing whatever I was told, agreeing with the arguments by elders in family discussions, and dreaming within the boundaries set for me. I do not blame my parents for that; these characteristics were considered to be part and parcel of a decent Pakistani young girl from a middle-class family. In my adulthood, I felt my basket had some successes and few failures. I was ethically correct, socially acceptable, and had a decent degree and job. Today I feel, the few failures were actually as big as adulthood is. I consider lack of courage, voice, and decision-making as the contributors to those failures. This analysis of failures thus is the major reason for me to advocate for critical thinking. Higher-order thinking skills are vital for success at every front of life – home, professional, interpersonal, and spiritual.

With all my charming and agreeable attributes, I was a perfect fit in the hierarchical society to which I belonged. My first job was as a college lecturer. It required me to explore and explain literature which I was in love with. There was no pedagogical demand except to keep the students quiet. I was unable to figure out what was wrong with that job until I came to know of theories of cognition and motivation. I must give credit to Sir Abbas Hussain at the Karachi University for introducing me to meta-cognition. The attention on how we make ways to learn excited in me a desire to observe my students’ learning skills. I found use of these skills as a distinguishing feature of smart learners. Taking this idea to the world around me, I noticed that many nerds do not maintain their success in professional life due to their ignorance to practical intelligence. The education system simply does not align the attributes required for academic success with the skills and knowledge needed in the office and on the streets.

The conviction of mismatch in academic and practical life supported my work in the first university examination board for high schools in Pakistan. The board introduced critical thinking through its examinations, syllabus, and teacher training. Being one of the founding members, I had to attempt many new things. Those efforts helped the ordinary girl to overcome the fear of unknown. While working with the teachers, I understood their limitations. They are part of the hierarchical and patriarchal society and thus faced challenges in questioning students effectively. The quest to understand critical thinking and learning also took me to Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority – one of the best assessment systems in the world. The only difference I found in their students and ours was in questioning. They responded well as they raised questions – they were taught to think.

The efforts for improving thinking skills became more challenging back in Pakistan, when on my job, we took our work to the government sector. There was no question in the enthusiasm and dedication of the government school teachers. What they lacked was the skill to teach. The district education offices were active but were working on the punishment model. They were the checkers of what was missing in school teachers and principals. Teachers were taking the checker approach to their classrooms and punishing students for what they did not know. The biggest deficiency we identified was the lack of support mechanisms for principals, teachers, and students. The public examination boards did not know how to test higher-order thinking skills. Seven years passed now, public education sector is improving. What has not improved is parenting. In middle and lower-middle class homes I find parents asking their children to be obedient, submissive, and silent-all characteristics that I attribute my failures to.

These days I am working on my PhD. I have chosen to explore educational psychology instead of educational assessment for this endeavor. The reason is simple – I want to know how students think so I can improve their assessment. This reason is difficult to understand for many colleagues of mine. It is challenging for them to link questioning by students to the quality of their answering. My life story tells me that we understand life when we question it. The best decisions are those that are based on critical thinking. And, one succeeds when one realizes and analyzes failures.


Isbah Ali Farzan belongs to the field of educational assessment. She has worked for UNESCO, American Institutes for Research, Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and The Aga Khan University-Examination Board. She is a recipient of Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship, Endeavour Executive Award, and the Fulbright Scholarship. These days, she is doing her PhD from The University of Memphis-USA.

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6 comments

  1. gohar Imam 26 March, 2017 at 21:46 Reply

    wow what a great article you have written on this important topic..you have written

    “I consider lack of courage, voice, and decision-making as the contributors to those failures. This analysis of failures thus is the major reason for me to advocate for critical thinking. ”
    This is something I am always urging our teachers to learn . In fact in my book on social issues my first essay is
    Why asking why is so important”. I think you have written what we need to think as a nation…Lacking of courage to ask question is keeping us behind in many fields.

    • Isbah 29 March, 2017 at 18:11 Reply

      I would love to read the essay. My recent realization is the impact of ‘not asking’ on our life in general. It is as harmful as is in the academic environment.

  2. Hina 27 March, 2017 at 18:16 Reply

    What an inspiring story! You have defined the attributes which hold back women in patriarchal societies very well. Wishing you lots of success in your work.

    • Isbah 29 March, 2017 at 17:58 Reply

      Thanks. Unfortunately, girls are brought up with the intention for them to remain submissive in patriarchal societies. And thanks for the wishes.

  3. Ambreen 12 April, 2017 at 11:39 Reply

    dear Isbah I am doing research on developing cititical thinking in students of elementay level . I wonder if i can get any help from you.

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