Education: Celebrate outstanding teachers, not exam markers
“There is no failure. Only feedback.” (Robert Allen) Principals of some secondary schools have always told parents and other stakeholders—during functions—that the school is privileged to have some members of staff who are often contracted to mark national examinations.
This is ostensibly meant to assure parents and guardians of KCSE candidates that the school has a cadre of professionals with the ability to teach children the skills to tackle the exams.
This assurance is odd for several reasons. The most important concern of parents, guardians and other stakeholders is whether the children are having quality instruction. That is the dominant interest.
Instructional quality takes care of the demands of the national examination. However, parents and policymakers’ major interest is whether children are getting the best possible education society can muster. Exam is an adjunct to education and not the raison d’être of schooling.
The purpose of schooling is learning. Learning is grounded on teaching—on the quality of instruction the learner’s receive.
A mile or so to the day of examinations, the concern of parents is that the curriculum children have been exposed to has given them not simply content, but has equipped them with literacy, expressive and problem solving skills, analytical thinking and the dexterity to apply the knowledge and skills to situations—in and outside the classroom.
National examinations are meant to assess how well children learned against some standard or benchmark.
In the best of all possible worlds therefore, principals should—if they must—celebrate teachers who have evinced quality instruction. The problem with celebrating examiners is that schools indirectly downplay the awesome pedagogic work done in the classrooms by teachers who are not examiners.
Some principals whose staff are not contracted by the examination council invite examiners from other schools to coach exam candidates on tackling the tests.
The practice is counterproductive as it undermines the confidence students have in teachers who teach the subjects. The students don’t need test-taking skills if they have received quality instruction. No amount of examinations-taking skills can substitute the quality of teaching and learning.
In principle, quality teaching is the best preparation for an examination. Assessment expert James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessments—aware instruction: curriculum teaching and item-teaching.
Popham, a professor emeritus at University of California Graduate School of Education and Information Studies observes that curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.
On the other hand, he argues, item teachers narrow their instruction, organising their teaching around clones of the particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams.
Arguably, item teaching does not provide the students with the depth and breadth of knowledge, analytical and creative and problem solving skills required to tackle examinations. It is these skills that define quality education and transform learners into effective citizens.
Schools principals could serve the best interests of the students and the entire education sector if they celebrated—not the examiner—but teachers handling the curriculum.
We should celebrate teachers who are giving quality instruction to our children. Also, we should avoid idolising examiners and rather celebrate them more as teachers.
Finally, we should vigorously fight against drilling students for the purposes of examinations.
It denies children the opportunity to learn what they should be learning as prescribed by the curriculum. The writer is communications officer, Ministry of Education