Debating Education Changes

Regular assessments and tests, followed by examinations, will rob pupils of their education and create greater alienation for both pupils and teachers. Regular and frequent testing of heights does not make us taller

Debating changes in the educational system is usually welcomed and is a healthy exercise as it helps to uncover the prescriptive policies of governments, the expectations of political parties, the aspirations of parents and classroom practices. However when such discussions hinge on logical reasoning they run the risk of remaining abstract and academic with little bearing on what goes on the ground.

One can easily argue that the prospective changes in the educational system are devoid of any educational philosophy, that they lack coherence and are rife with contradictions and that the objectives are undefined and imprecise. One may even add that implementation is being made on a piecemeal and ad hoc basis, which reflects the absence of deep reflection, and will amount to a leap in the dark. Others may rebut such arguments by seeking refuge in equally abstract concepts and reasoning without providing any strong evidence to the contrary.

We are reminded that the changes imagined will provide for everything – access, quality improvement, equity as well as efficiency. It is even suggested, though implicitly, that the situation will not be so different from the past. There will be forms I – VI state colleges, forms IV – VI as well as vocational centres just as there were in the past.

Some time back, there were Forms I – V colleges, Form VI colleges and Forms I – VI private colleges as well as similar institutions in the private sector, or more recently state colleges from Forms I to VI with the choice of admission on a regional or national basis. We are also told and being reassured that the Technical wing of the Ministry has a solution to all the emerging problems that might crop up or simply that we’ll cross the bridge when we come to it.

The reality is in stark contrast to the rhetoric. Rhetorical flourishes can be expected from politicians as these constitute the stock of their trade. If we go beyond the rhetoric and look at the evidence, both anecdotal and otherwise, disturbing elements emerge at all stages. One cannot and should not blame the technical staff of the Ministry or the MIE or even the MES for being asked to do the impossible when being foisted with prescriptive policies by the government. It is well known that reforms in education entail vast financial and human resources and even when these are available, time is necessary to bring about meaningful reforms.

Let us take only two examples. Teachers are required to do the profiling of Standard I pupils. Teachers who had followed a one-week course at the MIE know, and lecturers are well aware too, that proper profiling of pupils is a complex and difficult exercise for anyone including the lecturers themselves.

There is nothing wrong with baseline assessment. It is legitimate and a useful tool; when properly crafted, it can enhance learning. Normally it is best done unobtrusively by observation but this has not been the case. Filling of standardized forms for all standards I irrespective of the diversity of our schools is an exercise in futility, the more so given that there is no follow-up.

Most teachers have preferred to pay lip-service to it, and rightly so, to avoid traumatizing and stigmatizing pupils in their early weeks in primary schools. Lecturers know it too well how often, after two years of training or more, students who have been sent to observe classrooms come back reporting that they have not observed anything meaningful.

Observing and profiling require specific skills and competencies which draw on many social science subjects including sociology, psychology, ethnology and even anthropology. We are not equipped with specialists in all those fields to train our teachers properly and we should not be surprised that such an exercise is just a one-off thing and does more harm than good.

Have we not come across cases of teachers making the wrong diagnosis or drawing wrong inferences? A teacher finding that a pupil could not spell a word hastily reached the conclusion that the pupil had a problem with his eyesight and called his parents whereas the true reason was that the pupil had learnt at his nursery school to identify and a read a whole word and not the alphabets.

A major consequence of profiling in Standard I, especially when it is hastily done without adequate preparation, not even pre-testing the standardized forms which teachers have to fill in, is to tempt pre-primary teachers to prepare pupils for the profiling exercise. This is completely wrong as the curriculum at the pre-primary level in these early years has been prepared to suit the developmental needs of the child and not for profiling at Standard I. The worst consequence is that pupils have been subjected to unnecessary trauma and those who could not answer the questions will feel the stigma of failure.

One may go on investigating the various proposed changes as they unfurl, but already disturbing signs are evident which have caused many anxieties to parents. Parents will be anxious to know how personal bias that may come into play in the assessment of speaking skills will be moderated and how it will impact on the overall results of their children. They would also wish to be enlightened about how the variable ‘proximity’ will affect pupils’ chances in obtaining regional colleges of their choice. These burdens will no doubt be shifted to the MES. But let’s hope that these questions will not remain unanswered.

Moreover we are not told whether, behind the grade, overall marks will be taken into consideration; instead we are told that it is not the policy of MES to reveal marks. One can absolve oneself of responsibility by pointing out that the harm being done is and will be the result of the unintended consequences of the changes but, in reality, these will nevertheless be devastating for pupils.

Let us take a second example. The term examination has been replaced by the euphemistic term ‘Assessment’. But when is an ‘assessment’ not an ‘examination’, will be a matter of dispute. There used to be an informal examination at national level for standard V. Now this informal examination may be converted into an assessment at the same standard V level. There will also be an examination in standard VI, another in Form III, yet another in Form V and finally one in form VI.

If the avowed aim of government policy is to reduce examination pressure in our system of education and to allow pupils to benefit from a broad-based curriculum, the increasing number of formal assessments/examinations will simply achieve the opposite. Pupils will still have to compete for what they perceive to be the best regional state colleges and later the National Academies.

Further the end of the primary cycle assessment, if we are frank, is not merely an achievement examination but has the function of selection. Parents’ anxieties will not go away and the pressure on pupils will be more intense than before. In the end we would have achieved the record of doing exactly the opposite of what we set out to do.

Regular assessments and tests, followed by examinations, will rob pupils of their education and create greater alienation for both pupils and teachers. Regular and frequent testing of heights does not make us taller.

We can expect more rhetoric about other changes which will be improvised as we go along, but we all know that the greater the use of rhetorical devices to present the contemplated changes, the more determination there will be to obfuscate the truth.

* Published in print edition on 13 May 2016

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