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Developing a culture of learning

Staecha Goulbourne

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

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I am of the view that the idea and the function of education has lost its way in translation and has yet to be decoded by the younger generation — and I dare say many of our adults as well. To many, the edifice is a place where we come to learn, but what exactly does it mean to learn?

Sadly, learning for many means passing. What we fail to get, though, is that passing is not an indication that one is learning. Many of our students, parents and, sadly, some educators conflate the two terms and often conclude that learning means passing an exam. I submit that because we lack a true understanding of what it means to learn, we continue to manufacture passing students who are inept, ironically in the subject areas in which they quite often score high marks, rather than learners. Too many students have mastered the art of passing exams by 'swotting' and coming up with ingenious ways of cheating, as opposed to spending sufficient time to become intimate with the knowledge and internalising it.

The said practice has been stagnating the progress we should be making as a nation and will continue to be debilitating to our workforce and its productivity. Students are leaving high school and/or university with qualifications, however they still lack the knowledge and the skill set needed to apply themselves to the job at hand, despite the fact that they have successfully gone through the process of undertaking a course of study that was meant to prepare them for the job title they currently hold.

The lack of critical thinking skills and basic common sense, which to me is no longer common anymore, is a cause for concern as an educator. Simple instructions, given in what I believe is layman's terms, is oftentimes incomprehensible to students.

Perhaps the education system has made it easy for our students to pass, or it could be an indication that the education system we now have cares only to see students pass rather than learn. Some time ago I was in one of my grade eight classes interacting with my students, as we normally do. We were brainstorming ideas about the topic: Homework in schools should be discontinued. Students were asked to offer possible points, for or against the topic, that could be used to persuade their audience. Students passionately expressed why they believe their stance was valid and sought to rebut the points raised by their opposition.

During this very robust and heated discussion, one student was adamant that homework doesn't necessarily fulfil its intended function. She, quite honestly, confessed that many students merely copied the answers from their peers instead of doing the actual work, because they only care about getting a high grade. By now, you can imagine that I had relinquished my role as a facilitator and was now fully a part of the discourse.

I proceeded to ask students about the rationale of getting high grades but not being able to construct a sentence that requires application of the content covered. After much back and forth, I asked students to define what learning is, and how they internalise the concept. Having done all of that, students were challenged to become actual learners rather that students who only aspire to pass.

The takeaway was that our students need to be resocialised. As it is right now, they have recognised that they do not need to know for themselves. More importantly it is indicative of the fact that, somewhere along the line, we have communicated, intentionally or otherwise, that getting a high grade is of supreme pertinence and that internalising the information isn't important.

As an educator, I cannot deny that I get gratification from seeing students achieving and maintaining consistently good grades, but I am grossly perplexed when students fail to show long-term changes in grammatical and communicative competence.

The truth, however, is that we will continue to have those sorts of disparities when examination bodies continue to award students with a grade one in English A, for example, despite the fact that some candidates lack both the grammatical and communicative competence deserving of a high grade. Quite often, many of these students struggle to demonstrate any mastery of the fundamentals at a higher level.

This is a prime example of how our education system has been facilitating mediocre performances, and how many of our students are oxygen deprived. There must be a set standard for education, and teachers must ensure that they employ strategies and approaches that will necessitate learning over passing, and work hard to change, as best as possible, the attitudes of our students.

Staecha Goulbourne is a recent graduate of the school of Education of The University of the West Indies. She currently serves as an English language and English literature teacher at the high school level. Send comments to the Observer or staechag@gmail.com.

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