Where education is concerned, all of us wish the best for our students who are the future of our country. It is, therefore, with pleasure that one notes that 82 per cent of students in Malta pursue their studies beyond the age of compulsory schooling. Likewise, it is with a sense of disappointment that one notes that there is a high percentage of drop-outs between the ages of 16 and 19, so much so that the percentage drops to 52 per cent at age 19.
As an educator, I feel that it is important to discuss some of the problems at the post-secondary level of education in Malta. In my opinion, one of the greatest of these is the decline in the standard of English of a good number of our students.
Unfortunately, so poor are some students in English that despite all their hard work and honest efforts, they simply cannot reach the academic levels required at the post-secondary stage of education.
Make no mistake about it: the standard of English of a substantial number of our students at post-secondary level is very poor. An international report on Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (December, 2012) analysed trends in reading achievement among children as well as understanding and using correctly what is read. Malta classified 38th out of the 49 countries which participated in this study. This shows that we have a serious problem at an earlier age before students reach the post-secondary level.
If students finish compulsory schooling with a very poor level of English, the result will be that they will struggle to cope at the post-secondary level and the chance of their finishing up as dropouts is likely to be very high. Let’s take the subject I teach, i.e. history, as an example. At advanced and intermediate levels, the subject is examined in English.
One of my greatest disappointments is the number of students who pay attention and participate in classroom discussions, study hard and carry out research only to fail miserably when they sit for their examinations.
The reason for their failure lies in their inability to correctly express themselves in English when writing essays and answering source questions. I have often corrected essays where it is obvious that students have the necessary knowledge but lack the skills to articulate it due to a very limited knowledge of the English language which is the medium used to express themselves in writing. That is why many such students finish up as drop-outs because they quickly realise that their defective language skills are bound to nullify all their hard work and honest efforts at the post-secondary level.
Cultural poverty is another problem that I often find at the post-secondary level of education. Unfortunately, several of our post-secondary students are experts on such topics as foreign football teams, famous actors and singers, fashion, etc. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong in that.
However, I would then expect them to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of Maltese history and culture! I think it is simply pathetic to ask a youth of 17 about the British period in Malta and find out that he does not even know when it started and when it came to an end. Even the ordinary (wo)man in the street should know this!
Another big problem is that we still have a long way to go in developing our students as autonomous learners. Teaching students to “learn how to learn” is today a decades-old educational concept but it seems that our educational system is still turning out a good number of students who expect to be spoon-fed throughout the post-secondary years. For instance, I find it incredible that several students find immense difficulty when faced with the task of delivering a classroom powerpoint presentation on one of the topics of the syllabus as part of their coursework. The reason is that this is something they have to prepare by themselves and to explain by themselves without the help of the teacher.
A critical approach to learning is also lacking in many post-secondary students. As a teacher, I am delighted when a student challenges an assertion which I have made during the course of my explanation. This usually leads to a class discussion which, ultimately, is the most effective way to teach and to learn. Unfortunately, however, on some occasions one asks the class for comments or a reaction to the teacher’s introductory explanation and is faced with a row of blank faces. A number of students seem to find it very hard to give their own opinion.
The reason is obvious: we need to create more space for the voices of the students to be heard at the lower levels of our educational system. We have started moving away from an examination-centred educational system but more needs to be done.
I want to finish on a positive note. I have mentioned some problems at the post-secondary level of education. These should not blind us to the fact that there have also been a number of success stories at this level too. Such post-secondary educational institutions as the Junior College, Giovanni Curmi Higher Secondary School, Sir M.A. Refalo Centre for Further Studies, etc., have had their fair share of success. We now have to improve upon it.