The country’s education system has been described as experiencing a downward spiral. In this article, educationist Roy Hauya looks at examinations and why MSCE results are getting poorer and poorer.
The national education system has been in decline since 1994. The greatest indicator of the downfall is performance, especially at Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination. Poor performance at this level has given rise to a season of widespread lamentations and has become a matter of grave concern for parents, educationalists and activists who wish the young generation much good.
Analysis of performance during the past few years shows that pass rates have been concentrated in the 50-55 percent range. Admittedly, these rates are too low for a country that desperately needs an educated population to develop, cohere and unite.
The trend means that the level of preparedness for the past few cohorts has been the same. This could also mean that the quality of teacher inputs, teaching and learning have remained constant without much improvement. It suggests that investment made into education is not commensurate with the state of the system and the growing pressure of numbers.
On another note, constancy in pass rates indicates that the difficulty level of the examination across the subjects has been a stable; that the examinations are a reliable measure of candidate’s capacities. It could also be said that the processing of the examinations has maintained a standard which inspires confidence in outcomes. The issue here is not the examination but the preparedness of the candidate.
But the question remains: Why is performance poor? This is a complex question explored by many a researcher for long in many ways. But there is no need being academic here; there are answers in the school organization, the home environment and the attributes of the candidate.
Children learn in poor and unsupportive school environments
The majority of children learn in school environments that do not inspire much motivation, curiosity or innovation. Few schools have the basic learning materials that support effective teaching and make learning exciting for children. Few schools in the system have stocked libraries, student workbooks or equipped science laboratories.
A Malawian professor of education I worked with in 1998 ominously described our schools as ‘sociological mortuaries’ pointing to their inactivity and lack of dynamism that inspires wholesome learning and education. In other words, the ethos of schools fails to stimulate hunger for learning; schools fail to instill self-discipline that supports active learning in the classroom and guides ongoing self-learning over the long term.
The majority of schools are not exactly the literate communities that they ought to be regarding quality of surroundings, activities they undertake, organisation and communication. Talking of a literate school culture full of activities, there was a time when schools engaged in school debates, school quiz and inter-school versions of the same. There was a time when as part of language development students read at least one novel a month, and did book reports for teachers’ review. Not anymore!
Teachers are inadequately trained and unsupported Teachers are neither well trained nor are they motivated enough to teach effectively. Many schools, popularly community secondary schools are taught by teachers with primary teaching background who are weak in subject mastery, especially in language instruction, mathematics and the sciences. Teachers without post-secondary scientific grounding are teaching the curriculum they probably failed to master. For minor subjects such as accounts and business studies it is a case of ‘trial and error’ as hardly of the teachers is qualified.
Poor quality of teachers often means poor assessment of quality of learning. It seems to me that both teachers and learners do not really understand the demands of pre-university examinations. Low teaching standards, lowly set classroom tests and school examinations tend to down grade the intensity of preparations for examinations and mislead learners into believing that they are good and ready when they are not.
Teacher performance is further compromised by lack of supportive inspection and supervision. And not only are supervisory support services irregular, they are often carried out by unskilled and incompetent people. It is hard enough to work productively in settings deprived of learning resources, much worse to do so without technical support and moral encouragement.
Teachers have a bloated and demanding curriculum to deliver
To make matters worse, syllabuses are overcrowded in both content per subject and number of subjects. Teachers either fail to complete the syllabuses or do so hurriedly without students mastering key aspects. Syllabuses tend to stress theoretical knowledge rather than skills, competencies, values and attitudes which comprise tangible education.
Teachers tend to ignore learners who need individualised assistance, focusing on a minority of learners who are already good. Such a bias puts at great disadvantage girls, children with disability and other learners with special learning needs who are often intimidated by the classroom and school environment.
Teachers also avoid practical lessons and concepts which demand more time. They will reduce the number of assignments due to the heavy marking load given large classes. Not to talk of the use of small group seminars or one-on-one tutorial sessions. Small wonder most candidates fail in questions that require higher order reasoning, analysis and application!
Many home environments are unsupportive of learning
Homes are not supportive either. Children have to do chores which are important to occupational training, but distract students from school assignments and study. The stress on home making skills and competencies in traditional families eclipses the demands of learning and preparation for examinations.
The opposite is the permissive un-programmed urban home where children hardly study, but watch television, listen to music and spend time on unproductive activities. In the absence of order, chaos rules and children falter in their education.
At the same time naggings of parents who push their wards to perform end up killing the fire in the child. Yes, children need to study, but they also need to play, discover things on their own and socialise with others, including taking part in student managed study groups. Overprotection, particularly of girls, leads to isolation, withdrawal and nonchalance in matters of school work.
Rural poor families are doubly disadvantaged in that many children grow up in settings that are illiterate, brought up by illiterate parents who are unfamiliar with the importance of providing the right psychosocial environment for children to excel in school. Similar to the case of un-resourced schools, poor households are unable to provide a literate ambiance, basic educational supplies and the encouragement necessary to generate learner confidence.
The new generation leaner need support with learning
I have personally observed hundreds of classes the past decade and I find that many students do not participate perhaps due to low self-concept and lack confidence. Learners may feel unsupported in the classroom but for most of them it is because they are not active learners in a process which benefits the most curious, interactive and creative. Not all students are able to access the curriculum cognitively in part due to pedagogical failure on the part of teachers but also as a result of low learner motivation to engage with activities of the classroom. Many students seem happy to copy notes which they do not understand let alone study.
Meanwhile teachers only see failure or difficulties in learning as lack of intelligence disregarding behavioural attributes that hinder learning. Children get stuck to phones effectively alone amidst hundreds of people. Preoccupation with personal music and mundane issues on social media reduces attention on school learning. The infinite educational potentials of technology are hardly exploited.
The reality is that today’s children do not have the skill to concentrate on one task for long. Most are of unsettled minds. The majority display very poor study habits, made much worse by weak literacy and numeracy skills. In the absence of counselling services and support with study skills within the schools Malawi will continue to lose large proportions of its young generation to anti-social habits of drug abuse, alcoholism, casual and commercial sex.
The present generation is always in a hurry, busily preoccupied by the mundane. Unsettled and unstable, they easily misread simple data, mix up basic computations, disregard examination rubric or attempt questions only in part without regard to the impact on performance. The behaviour we see in today’s children is a reflection of poor self-discipline, low self-concept, a rather dangerous quick fix culture that does not project a future horizon but becomes content with the here and now.
My last word: Many children cannot take the demands examinations make on their brains, time and energy. Examinations are a form of terrorism and the resultant fear leads to fraudulent schemes and malpractices.