The hegemony of exams

2010-04-28 00:00

IN the past two years, I have conducted workshops for teachers of life sciences, specifically focused on topics for which teachers have received little training, such as evolution. The workshops are interactive, hands-on, and related to the content of the Grades 10 to 12 life sciences curricula.

The workshops have been well received by the teachers who attend them, but they have not been as well supported as they should be, given that many teachers have knowledge gaps in these topics. At one workshop, I discovered that my audience was predominantly primary school teachers, many of them Foundation Phase teachers. I asked why they had come and they said it was for personal enrichment. That’s great, but it meant that my workshop completely missed its target, which was to inform and assist life sciences teachers in senior secondary schools.

I asked some secondary school teachers whether the workshops were helpful. They were guarded in their response — actually, they wanted to be taught exactly what is going to appear in the exams. Personal enrichment was not particularly valued, all they really wanted to know was how to coach the children so that they pass the exams.

This is so sad. What are we doing to our teachers and our children, if all that matters is the exams? Where is the value of learning for the love and enjoyment of learning? This does not augur well for the agenda of lifelong learning. We learn and teach in order to pass exams, period.

In the Eastern Cape recently, I conducted similar workshops and found in one centre that the subject adviser took it upon himself to emphasise my role as an independent evaluator of matric exams. He urged the teachers to take note of what I was saying, because he was sure I was dropping hints about what would be in the matric exams. I was doing nothing of the sort, but he was using my connection to force teachers to remain for the duration of the workshop when they wanted to leave. I was shocked at the level of ignorance about basic biology among this group of teachers, yet there was very little enthusiasm for learning.

I reflect on my experiences of conducting teacher workshops, and wonder what has happened to the culture of learning among our teachers. If the only source of motivation is this big stick called exams, we are indeed in a sad and sorry place. The effect of overemphasis on exams is that “teaching” is replaced by “coaching for the exams”. The hegemony of matric now pervades all three years of FET, because exams for each grade are set centrally and distributed to schools.

The whole performance of the education system is judged on the matric results each year. Pressure to improve the pass rate is enormous, and has resulted in practices such as holding back risky candidates in Grade 11 to promote a higher pass rate. Subject advisers whip teachers into producing the required assessment tasks at the right times and to submit their marks on time. But where is the space for learning new ways of teaching? Where is the motivation for teachers to become lifelong learners, and to learn for the enjoyment of learning and teaching, without the threat of assessment?

In this context, teaching is no longer a profession, but an occupation where the stranglehold of exams stifles our creativity and innovation. I lament the loss of the vocation of teaching, where teachers did not have to be “held accountable” by means of the big stick of national assessment.

My colleague, Iben Christiansen, wrote in The Witness earlier this year that tests for Grade 3, Grade 6 and Grade 9 spell trouble for learning. She cited the experience of the United States, where more testing means more time practising for the test, and less time engaging with the content and laying foundations for future concepts. We know of Pietermaritzburg schools where almost the whole Grade 12 year is spent answering past papers and memorising the model answers. It’s time for this madness to stop. Let’s make a real effort as a society to de-emphasise the exams, and put the focus back on real learning, and yes, let’s see if we can get children and their teachers learning for the love of learning.

• Dr Edith Dempster is a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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