Tuesday, October 10, 2006

It's not just EFL/ESL

I've often written about the pernicious effect of the obsession teachers and school owners have with exam preparation. It has created a generation of students who have a certificate in English yet find it extremely difficult to actually communicate in the language. Parsing sentences and remembering random items of vocabulary are the only skills many people people obtain after having six or seven years of expensive English lessons at a frontisterio (language school).

The idiotic "philosophy" underlying this is that the best way to teach people to pass exams is to get them to do years of similar exams, rather than teach them the fundamental skills that the tests examine. Imagine a school that just did past GCSE/SAT tests for years on end. Not only is it ineffective (witness the very poor pass rate for Greek students doing Cambridge exams) it is the very antithesis of what education is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, this approach seems to be creeping into other areas of teaching. I came across this article in the Times about history teaching in Britain which echos many of my own complaints;

"He (Dr Starkey) fears that highly prescriptive curriculums, combined with a fear in schools of failing in the league tables had produced “nothing but elaborately polished mediocrity” among students, who were coached to pass exams, but not to understand their subjects. He believes that among teachers it has bred an “encompassing cynicism” and destroyed their autonomy, self-confidence and sense of risk."

Finally, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of another fine educational theorist, Thomas Gradgrind;


''Now, what I want is, Grammar. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Grammar. Grammar alone is wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the tongues of reasoning animals upon Grammar: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I teach my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Grammar, sir!" The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasised his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve.''

- The educational philosophy of Thomas Gradgrind. From The One Thing Needful, Chapter 1, Hard Times , by Charles Dickens, 1854

I'm sure Dickens will forgive my slight paraphrasing.

No comments: