Anecdote 1: Teacher (to Form I class): In which Ocean is Mauritius located?
Class: in stony silence, with no reply forthcoming.
Teacher (fuming and fretting): Your general knowledge is abysmally poor. I’m sure you are unable to even locate Mauritius on a world map.
Student (sitting in far end, with raised hand):
Miss, what’s a map?
A teacher, after meticulous preparation, stepped in his class and brimming with confidence, asked the students: “What would you like to learn from me today?”
Whole class in unison: “Sir, today, we would like you to teach us how to love others and work with them, how to be aware of the needs and feelings of our friends and neighbours, how to realize our own potential and discover our individual passions and talents, how to develop new interests and re-examine ourselves in new contexts and provide critical challenge to re-visit our beliefs, interpretations and horizons.”
The teacher pondered over those questions and was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming sadness as his own education and training touched not along those lines.
The above two anecdotes are revelatory of the state of most of our teachers and our taught. Such a situation is inevitable when the primary mission of pre-primary schooling has traditionally been to prepare kids for primary school, primary school preparing for secondary school, secondary school preparing for tertiary education providing an education in complete dissonance with either job requirement or good citizenry. In short, the ultimate goal of Mauritian schools has been to prepare students for more best school.
If a person lives up to 70 years of age, he will have spent only 9% of his entire life in school learning mainly exams skills which are of no relevance at all for the remaining 91% of his life spent elsewhere. Our policy-makers and curriculum developers have not always been convinced of the primacy of knowledge application over presentation of knowledge content which students are then expected to spit back during examination. The curriculum, instead of capturing the child’s imagination and encourage him to be in pursuit of knowledge, only encourages knowledge to be in pursuit of the child who, ultimately, ends up mastering merely examination skills through more and more past examination papers.
In one of our public tertiary institutions, students were asked to introduce themselves on the first day of semester 1. One student, who completed 7 long years of secondary schooling at Sookdeo Bissoondoyal State College, when asked to utter a few words on Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, could find nothing better than to say he was a former “Governor of Mauritius”. The next student from Gaetan Raynal State College only managed to say that Gaetan Raynal was a “good and intelligent person.” The one from Frank Richard SSS croaked that Frank Richard was a “politician.”
Most Rectors and teachers never deem it important to highlight the valuable contributions of the sons and daughters of the soil whose names honor their respective schools because examination-wise they are not considered relevant. Hence, their worth as role models goes unperceived in supercilious indifference.
Talking of role models, nowadays they are getting conspicuous by their very absence even if, like Diogenes, we go out in search for them with a lamp in broad daylight. Children of yester years had, as their first role models, parents, followed by teachers, leaders, silver-screen heroes and heroines and athletes, in that order. Today, unfortunately, almost each one of them has let our youngsters down in varying degrees. Consequently, our youngsters have lost their sense of direction. Peer group influence being what it is, it is hardly surprising that the nation is losing its ability to get horrified even in most extreme cases.
Examination and tests are certainly important from a diagnosis and remedial standpoint. However, when examinations become the be-all and end-all of the education system, they stop serving as a useful device and turn into a powerful diversion which blunts the child’s ability to discover and enable his inherent raw talent to blossom. In fact, what the child covers in class is less important than what he discovers because a student may perform gorgeously well in examination and yet understand very little. Hence, the relevance of life skills in the curriculum.
Education, far from having a single purpose, serves multiple objectives, the relative importance of which can be very personal as a result of varying economic, social, cultural and political realities of our individual lives. We shall, thus, fail our students if, along with examinations, there is no professional attempt to shepherd our children to become life-long learners, and help draw from the inside those precious sparks of creativity.
Education in Mauritius has never been a topic triggering unanimity. Yet we need to acknowledge the inevitability of change in a world of constant mutation because the alternatives to change are none, except stagnation and regression. However, there is perfect agreement in saying that education has, over the years, become progressively gentler in ways that have not always been helpful. Do our present youngsters, despite endless hours of private tuition and availability of information at fingertips, have better levels of literacy and numeracy than their educated grand-parents who had to struggle in extremely trying circumstances and without the benefit of private tuition and internet?
“Empathy” needs to become an important component in teacher education curriculum so that pupils are placed ahead of private tuition and not vice-versa. Empathy will also enable our youngsters to better appreciate the sacrifices of their educated parents and grand-parents who used to walk long distances barefoot to school holding gunny satchels, often writing on broken triangular-shaped frameless slates in class, mostly using a short and used-up pencil on which was tucked a four-inch bamboo stick for a better grip. To wipe the slate clean, “la grin dilo” was also used. Besides, they used to help their parents in household chores or in the fields before and after school hours and week- ends. And at night, they used to study with the help of “la lamp petrol” since most households had no electricity. In that context, it would not be inappropriate for the Ministry of Education to consider the possibility of creating an “Education Museum” highlighting the course of education in Mauritus, bringing to the fore the sacrifices of earlier generations in quest of an education worth the name.
In contrast to-day, ask the average HSC student, who is more keen on flashing his latest mobile and sporting his Nike shoes than pursuing academic excellence, to write a grammatically mistake-free paragraph in English or French and you will discover the extent to which he has yet to get the basics right. Any educational reform which is indifferent to such glaring weaknesses may have disastrous consequences.
Remedies, therefore, need to be sought at the grass-root level if we do not want to merely paper the cracks. Consolidating the foundation, reviewing the class size, re-visiting the curriculum and training of teachers, and assuaging the mutilation of our children through unbridled private tuition are all sine qua non conditions for an effective and efficient implementation of nine-year schooling. We cannot say for sure where and when the influence of education starts and ends. What we do know, however, is that a person without relevant education today fails to understand and appreciate the meaning of his own existence.
Since wars among nations will probably no longer be fought on battle-fields but through education systems, we cannot afford not to acknowledge and appreciate the good faith and genuine efforts of the Minister of Education in her attempt to provide an education which, if properly fine-tuned, will have a far-reaching impact on present and future generations.
Anecdote 1: Teacher (to Form I class): In which Ocean is Mauritius located?