EDUCATION

Schools should celebrate good teachers, not 'A' students

Purpose of schooling is learning, which is grounded on teaching and quality of instruction

In Summary

• Examinations are an adjunct to education and not the raison d'être of schooling.

• Quality teaching is the best preparation for an examination—whether the examinations are high stakes or low stakes.

Candidates sit the KCSE exam
Candidates sit the KCSE exam

There is no failure. Only feedback—Robert Allen

Some principals have always told parents and stakeholders—during school functions—that the institution is privileged to have some members of staff who 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 their children the skills to tackle the national exams.

This assurance is odd for several reasons. The most important concern for parents, guardians and other stakeholders is whether children have had or are having quality instruction. Examinations are 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 learners receive. A mile or so to the day of the examinations, parents' concern is that the curriculum children have been exposed to has given them not simply knowledge or content.

They want assurance that the educational experience has equipped children with literacy skills, expressive skills, problem-solving skills, analytical thinking and the dexterity to apply  the knowledge and skills to any situation—in examination setting or in any situation outside the classroom.

For KCPE and KCSE candidates, the national exams are meant to assess how well children learnt against some standard or benchmark.

Parents want assurance that the educational experience has equipped children with literacy skills, expressive skills, problem solving skills, analytical thinking and the dexterity to apply  the knowledge and skills to any situation—in examination setting or in any situation outside the classroom.

In the best of all possible worlds, therefore, the principals should—if they must—celebrate teachers who have evinced quality instruction to a level where students demonstrate in word and deed that they have had quality instruction and are, for practical purposes, ready for any test or examination.

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 who don’t have Knec-contracted examiners on their staff invite examiners from other schools to couch their candidates on examination-taking skills. The examiners are too glad to respond as they are paid for the service.

The practice is counterproductive. It undermines the confidence students have in their teachers. The students don’t need test-taking skills if they had quality instruction. The couching is redundant.

Besides, no amount of examination-taking skills can substitute the quality of teaching and learning that should have taken place prior to skills in examination tackling or to the actual examinations.

In principle, quality teaching is the best preparation for an examination—whether the examinations are high stakes or low stakes. Assessment expert W James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: curriculum teaching and item-teaching.

James Popham, a professor emeritus at the 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.

Principals could serve the best interests of the students and the entire education sector if they celebrated—not the examiner—but teachers who are focused on the curriculum. They should, in fact, actively encourage a formidable learning and thinking philosophy among the teachers and students.

Arguably, item teaching does not provide the students with the depth and breadth of knowledge, and skills they need to develop the analytical, creative and problem-solving skills that they need to tackle exams. It is these skills— applicable across all disciplines—that define quality education and which in turn transform learners into effective citizens and productive employees or entrepreneurs.

Principals could serve the best interests of the students and the entire education sector if they celebrated—not the examiner—but teachers who are focused on the curriculum. They should, in fact, actively encourage a formidable learning and thinking philosophy among the teachers and students.

Former students of Starehe Boys' Centre nostalgically talk about this philosophy the centre’s founder, Sir Geoffrey Griffins, incessantly talked about whenever he talked to them on the school assembly, and other places he met them.

The thrust of this article is fivefold. First, we should celebrate teachers who are giving quality instruction to our children. They will deepen and broaden their instructional practices if so celebrated.

Second, we should avoid idolising examiners on our staff in their distinct capacity as examiners. We should rather celebrate them more as teachers, particularly if they use their experience as examiners to help the school correct the flaws or gaps the examination results of the students reveal about the curriculum implementation the school.

Third, we should vigorously fight against drilling students for the purposes of examinations. Teaching to the test—which is what item teaching amounts to—denies children the opportunity to learn what they should be learning as prescribed by the curriculum.

Fourth, the practice of examiners visiting schools to teach examination-taking or tackling skills has little or no educational value, apart from being outlawed by Knec. 

Fifth, concern with testing misdirects the energies of the school community distorting the very purpose of examinations which is to assess learning and knowledge the prescribed curriculum embodies.  

National exams come in the eighth year of primary and in the fourth year of secondary education. These years give a principal who understands the ultimate purpose of schooling to organise the school to focus on quality teaching and learning.

The focus takes care of the preparation students need to tackle KCPE and KCSE in their eighth and fourth year of primary and secondary education, respectively.

Communications officer, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology