What if better quality teaching made a bigger difference?

Have we reached the end of the tether making the system irredeemable towards the purpose for which it was designed, notably to equip the upcoming generation with the skills it is in need of?

Unlike several other countries, Mauritius provides free education from pre-primary to the secondary level. The provision of education by government cost around Rs16 billion or 14% of total annual government expenditure in 2015. Some 30,000 children were enrolled in pre-primary schools, 103,642 in primary schools, 114,311 in secondary schools and 10,660 in pre-vocational institutions, in all 258,613 or a little over a fifth of the total population.

More than half or 50.8% of total government expenditure on education for 2015/16 was allocated to secondary education, 26% to primary, 1.6% to pre-primary and 7.8% to tertiary education. 8,370 teaching staff were employed in the secondary schools while 5,351 and 2,284 taught in primary and pre-primary schools, respectively. Whereas most of government education spending goes to secondary schools – almost twice as much as what is spent on primary schooling – it is the primary school system which has borne the brunt of public criticism for under-performance.

Certain members of the public claim that there is a significant rate of drop-outs at various stages of the schooling system. Others blame the elitist approach – the “rat-race” system associated with so-called born “star” teachers – adopted by the education system which streams out the highest performing students in exams for special treatment. The proliferation of a system based on extensive private tuition in the quest for the best educational results is blamed.

Still others consider that the required attention-bias which should have been given to children coming from disadvantaged low-earning families has been absent, aggravating their social disadvantage. An increasing spate of violence in schools – along with now a spread of synthetic drugs in schools — is also attributed to shortcomings of the school system. The same is said of the seeming mismatch between skills acquired by students at the end of their studies and skills in demand on the jobs market.

Not only has the government thus assumed responsibility for providing a quasi-free local education system. It is also blamed for not managing it efficiently enough, given the numerous undesirable outcomes, as mentioned earlier.

In answer, successive governments have made ad hoc changes: school curricula changed over the years: new layers of teaching establishments added, e.g., pre-primary, pre-vocational, additional linguistic media for teaching introduced, ZEP schools set up for disadvantaged locations, a cap put on the elitist drive of our best performing schools, and so forth. The latest has been to revive the 9-year schooling program which is being spoken of since the early 1990s in its different manifestations. This initiative has already attracted criticism for disguisedly perpetuating the intensive competitive system in our education system.

Have we reached the end of the tether, therefore, making the system irredeemable towards the purpose for which it was designed, notably to equip the upcoming generation with the skills it is in need of? For one, it would be unfair to attribute all observed failures to the educational system.

To balance the argument, one needs to bear in mind that a country like Mauritius, being exceedingly dependent on the quality of its human resources for economic success, needs to keep providing the best in education and training to be able to vie not only against a locally fast-changing social environment but also against a world leaning increasingly towards improved teaching methods. We need to propel our younger generation into becoming skilful performers in a rapidly globalising world to which our local teaching must perforce contribute.

Many of my generation will recall lecture classes we would come out of, enthusiastically discussing among students the fantastic insights the last lecturer opened up to our minds, continuing to debate or explaining to each other so many things we were either not properly grasping earlier or had apprehended irrationally. There was a magnetism inculcated in the learning process.

Of course, not all lecturers would enthuse us in the same manner, but most of them had the merit of keeping us thinking ever more deeply about the subject they introduced or discussed. Not that we always accepted what had been taught. We would challenge it, weigh it and even bring it into tomorrow’s conversation. So fulfilling were the sessions that we would keenly look forward to how tomorrow would unfold.

The question one may therefore ask is whether the question pertaining to several of our woes regarding our education system will not be answered by putting the quality of our teaching once again at the centre of our development. Will not teachers in another richer garb hold the solution to several problems currently confronting our education, social and economic system? It seems so.

For, the ancient mode of teaching is and has been reforming itself continuously in successful places as far distant from each other as Finland, Singapore and Shanghai, with results to show in terms of higher cognitive skills of the student populations in those places. In the most advanced of these places, teachers no longer emphasize the “stock of knowledge and theory” they inject into pupils’ minds. They prioritize instead the development of pupils’ problem-solving critical thinking ability, not only the ‘what’ of things taught but more the ‘why’ and ‘how’ in a bid to confer a deeper understanding of the practical and applied environment we live in. They don’t, as in classical instruction, teach a subject; they teach rather how each subject should be learnt.

Moving to this novel classroom-intensive mode of production cannot be done off-hand. The new generation of such transformative teachers need to be inculcated collaborative and sharing skills, working cooperatively with peers about better classroom management, just like medical doctors learn skills performing on bodies in clinics. So that they don’t perform in isolated self-contained silos, as it has been the custom, they will need to embrace shared “structural changes”, in a mutually collaborative framework of peers and leader teachers to guide them to better teaching in the open classroom.

The called-for continuing professional development of teachers in this context will not only make teachers’ work more fulfilling; pupils not having homework to do and thrashing out issues with them in full class instead will also make it rewarding for both sides. Teaching expertise will have to keep improving in this new context – which is far better than limiting it to a past stock of expertise.

The outcome will be seen in increasing numbers of their “thinking” pupils, not learning by rote as in outmoded systems. The modern system aims at improving teacher focus on issues thrashed out extensively in front of the class with not a student left out of the discussion. Students, in turn, will leave the classroom happier for having learnt things the way they should, equipped with how they should sort out issues for themselves.

Today, the stage is changing in places which are the best performing in matters of education. Talented pupils are not limited to those who have financial and other material advantages over others. The better the quality of teachers, the more the system is improving the performance of those coming from weaker backgrounds, as surveys are showing. Social boundaries are breaking down. Higher skills and talents are no longer inborn in particular classes of society under the new system of teaching. Everyone can be an achiever, no matter his/her background provided the teaching is focussed.

We’ve shown this to be the case in Mauritius of days long gone by and, with appropriate application of modern improved teaching, we can show the same level of success and, this time, at the globalised level.

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