Sunday, 15 May 2011 02:30
By Dr. Jerry Simon
Several times this season, I have watched the inter-school Science Quiz competition. While I must commend those third form students for their knowledge of science (even giving answers to university level questions) I am left disappointed by what goes on in the second round.
In this round, the students are asked not just to give a one or few-word answer but they are asked to explain the same. And what goes on here leaves a lot to be desired.
Even for teams that score a high number of points overall, the second round, across the board, is downright poor. Bright science students are just finding it very hard to express themselves. And unfortunately, this seems to be endemic amongst our nation's students.
I can already hear someone asking if I am not being harsh on the students. And as a former Science Quiz participant (I was in the first ever encounter in the history of this competition) I know nerves can get the better of you. But the consistently poor performance in this section exposes our students' inability to express themselves. And if we go on the premise that these are among the best students at that level, then it is not looking too good.
However, the purpose of this article is not to condemn our students, but to hopefully help us to identify what may be causing the problem and what we can do to rectify it. Of course, this article may only be scratching the surface.
Firstly, I think we have to take a hard look at students at the lowest levels. By this, I mean our children from age zero to five years old. Are we communicating with them, and are we teaching them to express their ideas?
Are we getting past baby talk, cartoons and "educational" gadgets? Of course, education has to be age specific, but I wonder if we underestimate the importance of actually talking to our children and in turn listening to them. While cartoons and gadgets may be helpful, nothing can beat having a child repeat what he or she has learned, or express what he or she thinks.
A child might be more inclined to express him or herself to someone speaking back, rather than a limited preprogrammed gadget. Likewise, someone talking to this child can prompt or correct as needed, thus preventing the formation of bad habits. It indeed puts pressure on us as parents, teachers, and society at large to learn to express ourselves.
Instead of our students just regurgitating what comes off the television (and internet), we should be encouraging them to make their own dramatic presentations, poems, songs, and other works of art. It might just be one or two words or one or two lines at a time, but every great novel started with one word, every great painting with a single brush stroke.
The oral (and I might even add, the African) tradition cannot be ignored. Many of the renowned Caribbean writers have often spoken of listening to stories from parents, grandparents, or even by village elders. Telling our children a story (even a familiar one) in our unique style may help them develop their own unique style as well.
Another cause of the problem may rest in our relative inability to read. It was not very long ago that we saw the dismal literacy figures of Antigua & Barbuda. While I doubt the total veracity of the report (not the low figures in Antigua but the very high figures I saw from some of the other islands) I have no doubt that our students are not reading as well as they should be. As a result, it makes it hard for one to discuss something that he has little information about.
Time and time again, I hear teachers talking of how students at all levels do not read well. Quite often, I wonder if it is not the way our primary students (five to 11 years old) are being taught. Is there enough emphasis on reading in this age group?
When I look at my five-year-old son's report card, I see about 12 subjects being done in kindergarten. While it is admirable that there are taught so many subjects, could the method to achieve width be causing a reduction in depth?
Imagine a child in a class doing 12 subjects, most of which are taught by one teacher. It becomes somebody telling him something, rather than any discovery on his part. He learns just what is put out in class, and learns to pass an exam. But is he learning the skills that will eventually make him a scholar as opposed to just another student?
Is the system encouraging him to really learn to read, to discover, to analyze, to reason, and to express? Or are we just short- changing our children's abilities. Some level of spoon-feeding is necessary, but is it too much at the primary school level, to the detriment of discovery and expression?
Children at those ages are already like sponges; they naturally learn things very easily. The next step has to be to teach them to learn more than just "class work" and help them to express what they learn. Maybe it makes more sense to teach them to read, write, and count (do math) and incorporate more of the other subject areas under these headings in creative, exciting, and interactive ways with the efficient use of available technology.
But what appalls me even more is what happens (or does not happen enough) in secondary and tertiary institutions. When I taught Spanish briefly at the Antigua State College, I explained to the students that for the first five weeks of class we were not going to use any books (at least not in the classroom), but we were just going to converse. Even for those who did Spanish at secondary level, this was like a cardiac shock. How can we learn Spanish without a book?
The concept of oral questioning and answering was just never developed in secondary school. Hence, you ask a question, and the students knows the answer but cannot express it. Some students just freeze when they have to say anything in class. Imagine when they have to talk outside of the friendly confines.
When I studied in Cuba, not only was oral testing a big part of every course we did, but in some courses it went a longer way to determine passing and failing than any of the other forms of testing. As a physician, you have to be able to express yourself to patients and colleagues alike, and especially in emergency situations, time is of the essence.
In fact, it was taken a step further where every student had to give lectures, organise and conduct teaching sessions and seminaries, and prepare papers that the other students would have to use to prepare for final exams. In short, we learned to express ourselves.
In this country, our inability to adequately express ourselves carries over in the way the interviews are done, in our pageants, our radio discussions, and even the way our news is read. How often do we see a regular news anchor struggle with names or terms when asked to read the sports news?
We already have exposed and have been exposed; now is the time to express.
Dr Jerry Simon (NSA Medical Surgical Rehab Centre, 268 462 0631,