Saturday, December 5, 2009

Challenging a culture of underachievement

This year, EducAid senior secondary students came 5th in the country in their public exams. On the face of it, fantastic. In reality, however, I was mad as fire at the horrible underachievement of some of our students. Many of them did not get anything close to their potential. Some did, but far too many did not.
Sitting their public exams - better than most but not achieving their true potential yet.
Of course the first thing is that this tells quite a terrifying story of national underachievement and then the second thing is understanding the causes and therefore how to tackle such an enormous problem.

It has taken me literally years to realise that even the teachers here do not expect the students to cover the whole syllabus and saw that as a wholly unrealistic task to set their students. Teachers have, therefore, encouraged their students to believe themselves fit for the exam with under 50% of the syllabus covered. Accordingly, I have a battle with students who promise me with great confidence, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that if I enter them for the public exam that they will show me; that they will prove themselves; that they will come out with 'flying colours' and so on. When their records are checked, we will discover that in nearly all subjects the students concerned have passed Unit Tests in under half the units. The course being broken down into units with a test at the end of each one, the successful passing of a unit test is thus the evidence that they are competent in that area of the course.
Requiring the students to actually cover the whole syllabus is regarded as unfair, putting them back in their studies and their progress and generally willfully evil, on my part. This year, I have dug my heels in, taken control of the entries decisions myself and we are entering a tiny group. Next year, now the students are slowly getting the message and are pushing themselves to actually complete each course, we should be in a position to enter a really good, strong group of students and I think I have at last got the teachers onside. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a whole new era!

We could so easily mimic the poor performance that is seen across the country but to what end? We would simply help our students recycle themselves back into poverty through their academic underachievement. If we can now start to break that culture, we will start to see our students able to genuinely compete with youngsters anywhere on an equal footing; we will start to see our students challenging their contemporaries from the elite classes with real knowledge, thinking and skills.

There is now a nucleus of students who have formed themselves into study groups and who are pushing themselves not just on the Unit Test front, although they are impressive in that respect, but also in terms of accessing ICT, reading outside their subject areas, practising their English accents, listening to the radio to improve their general knowledge and understanding of current affairs and more. They are our real hope for a true EducAid academic hot house. The solutions will not come over night as the problem is so ingrained but we have started to see a light at the end of the tunnel!

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