Learning or schooling?
As students return to their studies, Sandy Calleja Portelli asks what motivates them. Are they eager to quench their thirst for knowledge or simply racking up information to be regurgitated come examination time?
There is a significant difference between the two; when we learn something we internalise the knowledge and are able to draw upon that information almost unconsciously when we need it. Thus, once you've learnt to drive a car you do so without having to concentrate on the mechanics of the task, you automatically change gears as necessary without conscious thought.
Then there is that information that is only retained in our short-term memory; and promptly forgotten once it has lost its relevance. Making our way round a foreign city for a week or so is an example of this; we may be able to do so quite confidently while we are there but unlikely to remember how we did it six months later.
Schools should be a hotbed of learning, where children are encouraged to develop into well- rounded individuals who will eventually be capable of giving a valid contribution to society. Skills such as problem solving and the ability to work in a team are essential in the workplace - and yet our education system is falling short of producing such young adults. What is going wrong?
Minister Dolores Cristina acknowledges the system's shortcomings, saying it is "more geared to achieving academic results rather than the development of the full potential and personalities of our children. This situation must be addressed".
Children's success at school is currently measured solely in terms of their exam results; it is these results that determine a child's future path in school and this is becoming the sole focus of children's education.
Colin Calleja, lecturer at the University of Malta and Let Me Learn coordinator, believes that the pressure for children to do well in the entrance exams they sit in Year 6 is trickling down to their early education.
The rationale is simple; children are streamed according to their exams results from the fourth year so, to get into the top class, they must do well in their first end of year exams in Year 3. Thus, although children in the first three years of school should be learning through fun and hands-on activities, the emphasis still lies on their academic achievements.
Diane* teaches at primary level and believes that in the last three years of primary school the syllabus is too demanding for teachers to be able to delve into subjects in great detail. "We have to cover two maths topics a week so although I would prefer to reinforce the children's understanding of a topic through repetition, I simply do not have the time."
Michelle*, who teaches languages in a secondary school, agrees that there is simply too much material to be taught every year. She also points to the fact that it is not only the children's success that is measured by exam results - teachers too are judged by the grades their students achieve.
If children are to absorb what they are being taught, they must have the opportunity to discuss and explore the information being presented to them. Such discussion and argument is missing from our classrooms as teachers struggle to complete the work required of them before the year is out.
Parents, wanting the best future for their children, are also expecting their children to "do well" in their exams and some will compare children's progress during the year with that of their peers. Diane cites a perfect example of this: "I will sometimes assign a child who is struggling with a topic different homework from the rest of the class as this will help them understand the work better. Some parents compare the children's homework and will want to know why their child has been singled out."
The role parents play in their children's education cannot be underestimated and all the teachers I spoke to stressed that the family background is crucial to a child's performance. When children are pressured to do well in exams, they will focus their studies simply on obtaining the best grades they can.
"Parents want their children to succeed and success is measured by the Matsec grade they obtain. When parents come to Parents Day at Fifth Form, their main concern is the expected Matsec results."
"We are facing a situation where children start secondary school, having achieved good grades in their exams and yet have not understood the most basic concepts of what they have learnt in the previous six years. Without a solid foundation in basic maths for example, children will struggle to get to grips with more complex theories," explains Mr Calleja.
Older students too struggle to make the transition to higher education. As one Junior College lecturer explains: "Students come through secondary school used to being spoon fed information but here they must learn independent study skills. With a class of 45 students, teachers are not in a position to give students individual attention. Although notes are given, students are required to do their own background reading to fully grasp the subject matter."
All agree that our education system needs to move away from being over-dependent on the annual exam; the discussion underway is about the best way forward. In the next few weeks the Ministry of Education will be launching a discussion document on this issue and Mrs Cristina is hoping to receive feedback from all the stakeholders to "help us adopt a system which would give everybody the possibility to succeed in life".
If we are to find the optimum education system, all concerned must work together. Initiatives which are not backed by the necessary resources and personnel will be doomed to failure while parents need to embrace the changes too.
Parents too, must come on board to bring about the necessary changes; our concept of education must evolve to include skills other than academic knowledge.
"Parents," says Mrs Cristina "should accept that their children do not need to study only academic subjects - they need to participate in other educational and extra-curricular activities to help them develop additional skills and talents".
As this school year draws to an end next June, countless students will be sitting for crucial exams be they annual, entrance or Matsec exams. Change is definitely in the air though, and hopefully, a few years from now exams will be just another assessment tool in, rather than the main objective of, children's education.