Whenever I mark essay questions, I sigh a lot. I sigh because no matter how many times I have emphasised that answers should respond to the need of the question in my classes, some of my students are clearly still not on the right track.
When asked a direct question, almost all my students are able to give correct, pat answers – answers memorised from the textbook and regurgitated. Such answers can even be marked with an eye closed. Full marks, please.
But throw students a question where thinking is required and the ball lands back with a thud in my court. The message is simple – “I don't know how to answer this!” You can practically hear their minds revolting. So, in the end, if they cannot come up with an answer that scores them high marks, the fault seems to be the teacher's for asking such a difficult question!
My main challenge is to get them to put on their thinking caps and move away memorising notes and texts. I want them to express original thought, using their own words rather than borrowed ones; be able to sift through the textbook knowledge they possess to actually make an honest attempt to correlate their answers with what the question requires; and to use their minds creatively.
Begin a question with “Explain how” or “Discuss” and many student will flounder like a fish out of water. In their attempts to answer such questions, my students will give me almost verbatim memorised information that comes closest to what they think the question requires.
They often lack the capability to use the right words to show the logical flow of thought that shows up the correlation required. Conclusion: they have not mastered the art of digestion, assimilation, and selective absorption. Regurgitation, yes. So, what they write out is bits and pieces of flotsam that they have read and memorised. There is no logical linking of ideas. Rather, what we get from them is a hotchpotch job, a cut-and-paste kind of mental effort.
At the upper secondary level, higher order thinking skills are indeed the order of the day. Students should be able to analyse, evaluate and synthesise information. They should be able to embark upon critical appreciation and comment. They should be able to explain phenomena and put forward suggestions. But the kink in the system today is that the students we are getting in our secondary schools have sprung from the loins of years of being in a rote-emphasised, spoon-fed environment.
Their job, thus far, has always been to merely memorise, recite and recall. In class, the whole idea of speaking up to express themselves is a totally alien idea. To these students, to write out an essay in Science means stringing memorised sentences together. I’ve been told by colleagues that even in language classes, students today would rather memorise model essays than embark on original thought.
So, the job of teachers like me who teach the upper forms is two-fold. First is of course to get the understanding of new material across to them. But, more importantly, it is to train students to think logically, arrange ideas confidently and write well without referring to a textbook passage. Writing is an art but there's a science to it and this is what we must take the trouble to teach.
So, day in day out, I have to implore, probe, train and comment. I have to get them to make the transition from dependence on model scripts to having faith in their own thought patterns and self-written efforts. I have to get them talking and writing. I have to get them to see for themselves that their writing must make sense and that the words they choose to use must fulfil the purpose of getting meaning across. Needless to say, it is an uphill task.
But I keep at it because I believe that even if only one teacher is making the effort to make them learn how to write well, they will be beneficiaries for a lifetime. It gives me satisfaction to see them grow and mature. It gives me joy when I begin seeing proof of well thought out answers in student scripts.
Mentoring and coaching these efforts isn't easy. It takes time and patience. When you couple this fact with the large numbers of students we sometimes have to deal with in our schools, I can guess why some teachers just plain give up. Rather than throw their hat into the ring, they'd rather throw in the towel. Blame it on the system.
But some of us surely must try. I believe in the power of teaching. We cannot allow our students’ creative intelligence go to waste or remain latent due to the lack of training and coaching. So, for all that it is worth, I am doing my bit as their teacher. I don't expect to be rewarded for it. It is more than enough for me when a student begins to think out his ideas logically and express them in good writing. Yes, that is more than enough.
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