The main research tool for this study was the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate’s Report on the CPE examination for the year 2000. This yearly report usually gives an idea about how students have performed in the different subjects, excluding the Asian language. It contains all the examination papers for the year and a detailed analysis of the quality of answers for each question. The percentage of pupils giving the right answer is specified. This allows an evaluation of how the candidates perform in the different types of questions, especially in terms of ELCs and DLCs. The analysis of the CPE text-books for the core subjects allows one to check whether information to answer the questions asked at the examination can be found in the text-books. Additionally, some primary school teachers were interviewed in a group and others individually and privately. I must add that I have gained a good insight into primary school teaching through my own past research experience and through my interaction with primary school teachers during the course of my lectures where they usually talk freely about their classroom practice. I also asked a group of teachers to answer a short questionnaire but I was not too satisfied with the answers as they seemed to think that they should be answering in the ‘right way’.
They said that they practised all the teaching strategies which they had learned about during their training and this is in complete contradiction with what they say during classroom discussions when attending lectures at the MIE. The analysis of performance of the core examination papers reveals a striking common feature: a high percentage of the CPE students are not successful in Section B. Section B tests the DLCs, the higher-order thinking skills of primary school children. According to the MES report (2001:5), this section is used for discrimination purposes and is meant to be more difficult than Section A. An analysis of the answers to the questions in Section B speaks volumes about the ability of our children to tackle questions testing higher-order thinking. The number of children who can tackle the questions in Section B dwindles dramatically. Few candidates make a really successful attempt and although more able candidates start answering questions rightly, only a minority produce complete and correct answers. Emerging Issues An in-depth analysis of the CPE examination results of the year 2000, raises issues about the quality of teaching and learning in the primary school.
Children show the following deficiencies: l Low skills in analysis and synthesis l Weakness in creative writing Poor performance in Section B, testing DLCs l Difficulty to think divergently (divergent thinking allows for several different and correct responses) l Poor problem-solving skills l Poor literacy skills Low analysis and synthesis skills Analysis and synthesis are two higher order intellectual skills which most of our primary school children do not seem to possess. This is demonstrated by their failure to answer questions set to test DLC in Section B of the papers correctly. After studying a diagram showing the ‘water cycle’, students are called to answer a question like: 8.2 Why does water vapour condense to form clouds at point X? 8.3 WhyWhy is the sun important in the water cycle? Pupils’ understanding of the processes in the water cycle depends considerably on the quality of teaching if the answers are not directly answered in the textbook. Their inability to answer shows that they do not have higher order skills. For question 8.2, only 1.5% of pupils could answer correctly while for number 8.3 only 7% of students were successful (MES Report P.47) Even when answers to questions can be traced back to the prescribed text-book, when there is a question which demands divergent thinking, the students get stuck.
In the French paper, it is again reported that easy questions on the identification of details (e.g. a place, a character, a definition) are generally correctly answered. However, questions where answers need to be elaborated or interpreted prove to be difficult and pupils are unable to make a summary and to pick out the key idea of the passage. In the English and French papers, the cloze test proves to be very difficult for the students. Even children having scored more than 70% find it difficult to guess the appropriate words to fill in the blanks of the text. They are not able to predict how a story will develop. They are unable to anticipate the progression of the passage from sentence to sentence. The ability to predict is a higher-order intellectual skill, which the students evidently lack. Weakness in creative writing Our primary school children show their general inability to be creative by the fact that large numbers are unable to write a composition, whether in French or in English and consistently a high percentage of children scores D. When about 40% of our primary school students cannot write an original text in a language which they have been studying for the past 6 years, we are facing a clear case of functional illiteracy. The fact that a very high percentage obtains less than 50 means that the children find it very difficult to be creative.
They have not been allowed to be creative in our educational system. They also do not possess the intellectual skill of ‘synthesis’ which is essential for essay writing and this can be supported by the examiner’s report (2000:7) The question was poorly done both from the point of view of content and language. The organisation of ideas into a balanced whole was another major problem noticed. Difficulty in thinking divergently The candidates do much better in the multiple choice than in the open items. The inability of most children to answer open-ended questions correctly is alarming. This would imply that the children are unable to think for themselves or do divergent thinking. They are mostly trained to think convergently whereby a question has a single correct response. They are being trained to give one correct answer. Where the question in the 2000 English question paper tests the ability to write a few sentences, using the information given on an application form, only 60% of the candidates reached an acceptable level. 23.4% of the candidates scored 0 in this question as ‘they could not use the information given to write a simple sentence without making more than 3 major mistakes’ (p.5).
The 2000 MES Report on CPE says that responses to one of the questions showed that many candidates did not take the time to think but reacted immediately to the first clue they saw! Poor problem-solving skills A detailed scrutiny of the results for Section A in the Mathematics paper shows that in questions where candidates have to demonstrate skills of reasoning and problem-solving, large numbers fail lamentably. Even for a seemingl y s i m p l e q u e s t i o n such as ‘Find the value of “0 x 12”, 4 out of 10 did not know the correct answer. What this easy question reveals is the inability of our children to reason, and is the proof that they have been brought up in a culture of rote learning. No multiplication table found at the back of copybooks contains the multiplication table by ‘0’. Poor literacy skills Even though 75% of pupils pass in French, the MES report (2000:21) acknowledges that a high percentage of the candidates have not acquired the basic competencies in that language. When they leave school, many of our primary school children are illiterate in two languages, (English and French) which they have been studying for six years.
Children do not show the ability to read through a text carefully with understanding. When answering multiple-choice questions, they are led astray by distractors. The relationship between assessment and pedagogy The most striking feature of an analysis of performance at CPE is that our primary school children at the end of six years of schooling, are poorly endowed with such skills as analysing, synthesising, making inferences and generalisations and writing creatively. The primary school children’s lack of training in reasoning and complex thinking is proved when most of them are unable to tackle real higher-order questions in the examination papers, that is, ‘unseen’ questions, the answers of which are not directly in the prescribed books and which could not have been prepared by the students and teachers before the examination. The fact that the vast majority of children fail in questions testing higher-order skills means that they are being drilled into answering questions that only require lower-order thinking skills. Pupils can locate and name all the rivers and mountains of Mauritius on maps but are not able to recognise them in real life.
Whenever the answer to a question does not come directly from the prescribed text-book, a large number of candidates have difficulties. Even when questions can be classified as lower-order ones for which answers can be obtained directly from the text-books, few students tackle them correctly. When questioned about such a situation, some of the teachers say that such questions are too difficult or that they have not had time to go through all these questions in the book as the syllabus is overloaded. Is it that the teachers assume that their students are not able to tackle such types of questions and neglect to teach them? Teachers’ expectations certainly also play a role in the way our pupils are being taught! Teaching in our primary schools is on the transmission model aimed mainly towards memorising. Instead of guiding pupils towards higher-order skills such as explaining, synthesising and evaluating, the teacher goes through all these processes in an expository manner. In this transmission model, the purpose of asking higher-order questions in Section B is defeated by the primary school teachers’ classroom practice, that is that of giving the answers in their ‘explanation’ of the lessons.
Some of the teachers even go to the extent of giving the answers to the scientific experiments proposed in those books without going through the process of experimenting and demonstrating in front of the whole class (this has been reported by Teacher’s Certificate Primary students who have witnessed classroom practices of some class teachers. The transmission model is one where teachers prepare and transmit information mainly for the purpose of examination so that our students acquire mainly lower-order intellectual skills which will be sufficient to make them pass their examinations. Assessment seems to mean reproducing, during the examinations, what they have learned by heart. The MES report repeatedly draws our attention to the fact that students are most of the time answering in a mechanical way. One of the reasons why teachers teach mainly lower-order intellectual skills may be because of the way the CPE question papers have been set. We must ask ourselves whether ‘Essential Learning Competencies’ must necessarily mean recall of facts and comprehension.
The fact that 70% of the papers caters for such skills has encouraged teachers to merely transmit knowledge by ‘telling’ and “explaining”. Emphasis is not on learning but on performance and competition and, therefore, teachers teach as far as possible the precise content for the test. Knowledge and skills are taught in the same format as the test papers. Assessment from Standard I to Standard VI therefore emphasises mostly lower-order thinking skills. If the educational system wishes to produce a labour force possessing the complex skills required by the Information Age, a new pedagogy has to be adopted in our primary classroom. The assessment system also has to reflect the new pedagogy. Counter-reform forces If teachers are not able to change their practices this may not be because they do not believe in the importance of innovative practices. The truth is that the teacher’s actual practices are swayed by the requirements of the assessment system that is, the CPE examination. Given the importance of the CPE examination in the educational career of the Mauritian child, educational administrators as well as the wider community of parents and other interested stakeholders do not generally support teachers in innovative practices, as their main concern is the ‘percentage of passes’.
The reputation of a teacher is made by the percentage of passes scored by his/her class. This applies to the school also, the higher the percentage of passes, the better the reputation. In such a system there is considerable pressure for the teacher to complete the whole syllabus within the two first terms, the last term being devoted solely to practice and drill by working through past examination papers. The syllabus is such that teachers complete schoolwork during tuition time. The teacher’s main concern in the primary schools of Mauritius is to ‘finish the syllabus’. Private tuition is a continuation of schoolwork. Many teachers of Stds V and VI (CPE) start class at 8.00 hrs in the morning instead of 9.00 hrs. This practice of private tuition reinforces the transmission model as the teachers literally spoon-feed the students to make sure that they pass their examinations. How far this spoon-feeding makes learning effective has yet to be proved. However, the negative impact of spoon-feeding on the child’s intellect is felt by the system right upto Form VI. Rote learning is reinforced through the use of model answer books sold on the market and which are full of drill exercises.
These books are prepared by serving or retired teachers who write for profit. There are about 10 sets of books on the market. Most pupils possess at least one set, and children from well-off families may possess 2 or 3 sets as they may be tutored by different teachers. Conclusion The core of many of the problems in our primary education sector may be traced to the nature of the CPE examination. It would seem that most of the practices, whether pedagogical or administrative, seem to revolve around this summative evaluation at the end of six years of schooling. Our teachers find it difficult to shift to a teaching paradigm which would have developed higher order thinking among our primary school children. They are reluctant to change their approach to teaching as they believe that their present method of ‘chalk and talk’ is the best technique in the context of the CPE examination (this is what seems to come out during interviews with primary school teachers). At the same time, this belief is reinforced by a strong primary school culture whose most prominent features are the well entrenched practices of private tuition and the use of model answers.
In such a context, our schools are producing generation after generation of young people whose ability to think in a complex manner has been terribly restricted. The future development of our country in a knowledge-based economy depends to a large extent upon the intellectual capital of its labour force. As long as the CPE examination retains its current format of putting emphasis on lower-order thinking, it is difficult to imagine that teachers can adopt strategies which will help to enhance the thinking of our primary school children. Our schools will not be able to produce the citizens who have the knowledge and skills required by the 21st Century worker.
BROADFOOT P. (1996) Education, Assessment and Society, Open University Press FISHER R. (1995) Teaching Children to learn, Stanley Thornes Comments are welcome. Please write to Director, MCA, Réduit. Email: [email protected] A Mauritius College of the Air publication. Tel.: 403 8200 Fax: 464 8854 Email: [email protected] Website: http://www.mca.ac.mu ©MCA, 2007. No part of this material may be reproduced without prior permission from Shakuntala Payneeandy and the MCA. Designed and printed by MCA.