Penmanship

NIRMAL KUMAR BETCHOO

One could go back some forty to fifty years to recall how primary school children in the age group six to nine learnt penmanship. This was usually a late afternoon activity in classes helping children to beautifully craft their handwriting and make their sentences look nice to read.  To write the ‘a’ alphabet in the correct way, the teacher would firstly draw an oval shape and tell the students that it takes the shape of an egg and then a tail added to it forms the alphabet.  These were the initial pleasures of learning to shape alphabets as desired and ensure that handwriting was legible, nice to look at and simply easy to read.

Through the learning experience, as the child grows up, he enters the deeper world of exploration. At around eight years or so, he learns to draw maps in the form of aerial view of objects that he encounters in his daily life.  A house might look like a rectangle, a tree resembles closely wool or curly hair and a car could be two rectangles superposed on each other.  Then, this map helps in the understanding of space and area management that the child uses to answer questions in geography or environmental sciences in upper classes.

In the learning process, singing holds a prominent place in teacher training. Children are taught to develop their vocal ability and this impacts songs and poems that they are taught in the different classes.  Obviously, the national anthem remains the easiest one to practise but when the child grows up and develops good memory and better understanding of rhymes, singing becomes an effective way of memorising and practising various songs.  As the child matures, he understands the meaning of the words and tries to better grasp the concepts so that misspellings are avoided.

At the age of ten or eleven, things get more challenging for the student. Vocabulary is already over a thousand words for the average learner and even more for better learners.  At this level, the child learns to apply his understanding to situations. Comprehension passages are longer and so being the associations of words and ideas. To better develop understanding through conceptual learning, the child learns to mind-map ideas, associate events in a chronological way but also learn the flow of concepts through the sequential relating of events.

Competitive learning

The Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) Grade is the first milestone of the child’s academic achievement through gaining the first academic certificate. Such competitive learning quickly waives the pleasures of learning through discovery and creativity while placing much emphasis on rote learning.  With changes in the curricula, the child learns to develop deeper conceptual skills that include complex multiplication, division and algebra where applicable. Learning to use scales for calculation, performing multiplication through an association of split figures like units and tens or judging an outcome on a pie-chart through percentages require a higher level of interpretation and intuition. At this level, the brightest minds get things first while those lagging behind start feeling the toughness of learning and might also feel the frustration of not ‘getting into the picture’.

The transition to college or secondary school is another key stepping stone in the child’s educational development. The first three years of secondary schooling are a refreshing cycle for learning as they avoid the toughness of competition undergone in the final years of primary education. More than ten subjects are proposed to students with equal emphasis given to academic and non-academic issues.  The inclusion of arts, music, physical education or entrepreneurship along with ancestral languages make learning bulky but challenging in the early years.  Recently coupled with computer education, learning becomes tougher as existing subjects like Mathematics, languages and the Sciences go a step deeper in terms of complexity and conceptualisation.    Gaining new words, vocabulary, concepts and ideas make learning challenging and stimulating. To some extent, the inclusion of literature in lower secondary classes makes sense through the possibility of associating learning to a different context often quite different from the Mauritian one.

The upper secondary classes are tougher especially when the first secondary cycle ends with the School Certificate examination. The learning behaviour tends to change with greater emphasis on developing learning, retention and answering skills. This adds to learning complexity in an atmosphere characterised by intense competition and the need to score the highest marks.  In a competitive situation, very often, the pleasure to learn freely and espouse notions of wider learning like philosophy or the liberal arts are cast aside to the detriment of academic learning. For this reason, the ‘Advanced level’ examination offers room for some critical thinking through the well-established General Paper, a mandatory subject for all students, which requires a mix of mastery of English language with greater openness of events within and outside the educational boundary of the student.

Learning to live in society

Learning to live in society has been a major missing component of the student’s learning experience.  Although efforts have been made to inculcate values like citizenship and ecologically-responsible living, little is seen in terms of the real contribution that the young generation might make of the environment where he lives. For example, little is seen in terms of social responsibility of younger citizens in a society too much dependent on consumption, materialism and spending.  The learning experience is something enticing to share and develop in the course of a lifetime. Definitely, each individual has his own way of learning and perceiving it. It is clear that everybody wants to learn in order to fulfil a life ambition with a rewarding career. What remains interesting so far is the adventure that he goes through his lifetime which is in part an obligatory pathway filled with programmed instruction at all stages of his learning lifetime and, in another part, the epicurean pleasure of learning through discovery and intuition—a bit like the small egg and the tail making a beautifully crafted ‘a’.

On this Teachers’ Day, a reflection on a lifetime of learning experience adds a droplet to the ocean of learning and teaching.  An odyssey from early childhood to adulthood brings us back to where we needed teachers to help us climb each learning step and without whom, today’s achievement would not have been possible and worse, meaningful. Happy Teachers’ Day.