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Too Many Exams, Too Little Creativity

By Zophia Edwards
August 21, 2007

Comment: Kids say the darnest things!

Answer: Not in my classroom!

This sentiment is largely responsible for the repression of ideas in our education system and has largely remained unchanged since our independence in 1962. Our primary schools, secondary schools and tertiary institutions have maintained a rigid fixation on examinations. Standardized tests are beneficial in that they are useful for comparing students nationwide since they are all required to study the same curriculum for the same exam. What are our standardized tests comparing? Memory. The downside is that the education system is organized in such a way that if you have problems memorizing and regurgitating, you are branded as a person who is "not bright" and your path is set from as early as the S.E.A. examinations. If you have trouble memorizing hard facts, crapaud smoke yuh pipe. Forget prestige schools and forget university. Those doors are not open to you who have problems reciting information, because even if you somehow make it pass the first stage of S.E.A., you end up in the same situation at higher levels in a system that has the same learn-by-heart demands of its students. This culture of education has limited the capacity of our citizens to produce at an optimum level in our society because it has limited creativity of the teacher, of the student and of the resulting workforce.

Standardized testing limits the creativity of the teachers. Our nation's overuse of exams to assess student performance is having serious negative effects on teaching and learning. The tests have defined curriculum and fashioned instruction. The standardized testing of SEA, CXC, CAPE, A-levels, and even UWI final exams which simply assess memorization - a student's ability to store and reproduce names, dates and facts. What is important is that students memorize the formula and not that they understand it. This leads to a total lack of capacity for comprehending fundamental concepts and thinking in abstract terms. Basically, this means that students are not learning! Teachers instruct students in the alphabet with "A for apple and B for bat." God forbid if a child says A for Anchar! In addition, how the subject is tested has become how the subject is taught and what is not tested is not taught.

The amount of emphasis placed on learning through past papers and sample tests speaks to the unfortunate importance of the understanding the test format over the importance of understanding the actual material. Moreover, what makes a "good school" good is how well its students perform in these tests. This places an enormous amount of pressure on the teachers to follow a narrow curriculum and focus on memorizing facts instead of developing more advanced abilities. Where a teacher would like to give her students a week to design an experiment to test the effect of global warming, the time factor before the CXC exam simply does not permit her to do so. Instead of promoting fresh groundbreaking ideas, teachers are forced to confine themselves and students to walking the beaten path. This method of put-the information-in-and-let-the-students-spit-it-out for the purposes of passing an exam is restricting creativity in the classroom and preventing teachers from developing the fullest potentials of their students.

Our education system, especially at the tertiary levels must move away from this learn by rote approach in order to harness the creativity of our students. Youngsters see the world in fresh and vivid ways. At higher levels, the combination of knowledge and skill with a willingness to innovate and experiment is what makes the difference between the truly bright and the regurgitators. At university level, students should be developing more sophisticated thoughts. A common sentiment from UWI graduates is that the only way to get top grades is to give the lecturer what the lecturer gave them in class notes. Any independent thought is strongly penalized. The education system is producing robots! Of course not all the lecturers operate on this archaic principle, but many feel that a large proportion does.

At the university level, more than ever, students should be encouraged to generate a large pool of ideas, a wide range of ideas and think outside of the box. They should not be asked to reproduce a semester's work in a two hour exam because this does not develop their critical thinking skills and analytical techniques. T&T's education system, by enhancing creativity in the classroom, will cultivate originality in thinking which will enable citizens to see things differently and employ new strategies and approaches to solving our problems.

Instead of the wholesale copying of foreign healthcare systems that are largely inapplicable, we can harness the creativity of our own local agents to combine health policy with local cultural sensitivities. Instead of employing foreign consultants to fight juvenile delinquency, we can magnify our support for more local efforts at finding creative ways to engage our youth in positive ways.

Another reason the education system should reexamine and alter its approach is because the exam-oriented approach negatively labels students who have trouble memorizing. They are doomed at the point of SEA when at this point the nation categorizes its citizens and their intellect based on ability to regurgitate. These tests only serve to promote the view that there are children with deficits rather than children with individual differences and strengths on which to grow. Each person is creative and each person has something positive to add. Some people are creative in the arts, some are inventive in the sciences and some show ability to innovate across curriculum and incorporate a variety of disciplines and each student can learn from his or her peers. As of right now, creativity is stifled in almost all disciplines through obsession to pass exams.

The current education system has maintained a narrow assessment of student capabilities and so students do what they must in order to pass the exam and nothing more. Education becomes a passive experience and this transcends the classroom to the work environment. Employees are waiting on their boss to tell them (word for word) what to do; workers are afraid to show initiative lest they be penalized for it; junior employees are hesitant to present fresh and new ideas to their supervisors; and enterprise and collaboration between the young and the old is shunned. It is no surprise that all our systems in the public and some in the private sector are so inefficient and slow to modernize.

Education should be an active experience where students are constantly engaged and where a love for learning is developed, rather than a hatred for final exams. Luckily for us, Ras Shorty I did not have to pass a music exam in order to invent soca and it is a good thing that Brian Lara did not learn to play cricket through a cricket handbook with batting formulae. It is not the wholesale replication of novel-writing but the creative use of written language that makes VS Naipaul an acclaimed writer.

The real achievers are always those who think outside of the box and who have put their knowledge and talents to creative use in the arts, business, sciences, humanities, sports and across disciplines. This cannot be achieved if the system is stifling the creativity of the people. Memorizing a textbook is no replacement for innovative thinking. The creativity for progress that should have been cultivated in the classroom is lacking. T&T has not adequately tapped into the creative resources of the people.

T&T must realize that the result of the education system which revolves around examinations is robot-production. The system is training citizens to listen to explanations, answer factual questions and following instructions. This is all well and good but now a step further must be taken. This step must include training citizens to reason logically, brainstorm and explore ideas, analyze and test ideas, make connections, design and make solutions to problems. This can be done through curriculum changes; modification of testing methods; more teacher encouragement and good observation; more group projects; documenting student's work and simply allowing the creative juices to flow. This training will produce citizens who can actively participate on an even grander scale in the development of the nation.

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