School exams? Parents, we’re doing it all wrong

Parents chill out: exams are a load of tosh. Streaming your precious child into the ‘A’ class? You’re perpetuating more inequality. There is a way out, if only you can relax, and let children learn, Martina Borg finds out

A study has shown the necessity for non-traditional teaching methods and new exercises in pair-work and self-assessment
A study has shown the necessity for non-traditional teaching methods and new exercises in pair-work and self-assessment

The effectiveness of the Maltese ‘cookie-cutter’ education system is now one of the most recurring discussions for parents and teachers who fear that every generation after them seem to be slipping in standards. An upcoming reform in education laws, one which will regulate homeschooling, perhaps only makes this an even more acute debate.

When a benchmarking study on English language in Maltese schools made the news recently, it brought to light difficulties presented by ‘mixed-ability classes’ and the necessity for non-traditional teaching methods and new exercises in pair-work and self-assessment. Parents complain of inclusivity in state colleges having failed students who, years before the college system, would have been streamed into a lyceum; teachers who welcomed learning support assistants (LSAs) in their classroom have been amongst the most apprehensive.

One person at the heart of Maltese education’s conundrum is aware that there is a general idea ‘out there’ that standards are falling. But Gaetano Bugeja, the director for curriculum management at the education ministry says, studies and personal experience indicate that educational levels have in fact improved. 

“Today, local schools are more inclusive and make use of the latest educational tools available so that the educational environment has improved and quality teaching has become a priority like never before.”

Bugeja says results are slowly improving in both attainment and continuation of studies. In 2014, 23% of the population aged 23-54 had opted for a tertiary education, compared to 8.6% of those aged 55-74, indicating more interest in education by younger generations. 

The changes in education over the past decade have seen a wider educational system that is more student-centred and capable of dealing with the different abilities of students.

But Bugeja hastens to add that the ultimate goal is to increasingly focus on providing a well-rounded educational experience: one that fosters inclusion, respect, citizenship and personal values. These are much needed values for a generation that belongs to a society where these very same collective ideals appear to be faltering. Are tertiary education statistics really that comforting about what is being achieved?

Prof. Sandro Caruana, the dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta, thinks not. Progressing to a university education, he says, simply cannot suffice for us to think that educational levels have improved.

A teacher of Italian formerly, he cites languages as one area where the ‘old school’ of teaching is no longer as effective today, which is where people like him come in: improving teacher education and career support, including a complete rethink of the “local frame of mind” when it comes to… examinations.

“One of the main issues that must be tackled locally is our obsession with examinations, which lead to lots of hours of ‘coaching’, thereby robbing time that should be dedicated to educating our children,” he says. 

Prof. Caruana pointed out that learners sitting for their O’levels spend an entire year poring through pass papers and priming themselves to simply pass these exams that will leader to their Secondary Education Certificate.

“In Form 5 I have reason to believe that very little education, in the true sense of the word, occurs,” Prof. Caruana says, pointing out that it will take a substantial amount of courage to ultimately shake off the mentality and introduce alternative assessment methods.

Less exams, more collaboration?

For teachers themselves, teaching mixed ability classes and catering for individual needs, remains by far one of their greatest challenges in the face of the time-constraining syllabi they must abide with. Bugeja concedes this, and suggests pair-work and self-assessment should be used to replace traditional methods in teaching some skills. “These activities are a response to how teachers wish learners to become as adults in society, methods of encouraging children to become reflective adults, able to work in teams, with critical minds and entrepreneurial skills.”

Bugeja says most current learning theories are a combination of cognitive and social constructivism: that is, a form of collaborative leaning that should be developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills… not just knowledge ‘suspended in a vacuum’.

“Teaching is most effective when learners are provided with opportunities to make sense of new knowledge, in a context which allows them to interact with the teacher and other learners to discuss and negotiate their understanding,” he says.

And it is in this setting that he says that assessment can take place, right there alongside learning.

Prof. Caruana adds that this kind of collaborative learning is especially effective when it comes to languages, although self-assessment also depends largely on a student’s motivation to learn as well as their ability to evaluate their skill and take action to improve it.

“These are successful when they are implemented correctly, and require adequate time and settings to be carried out effectively… Collaborative learning, like many other strategies, is much harder to implement effectively in classes with a large number of learners.”

Prof. Caruana stressed that if syllabi continue to be rigid or highly prescriptive – and if teaching occurs mainly with the objective of getting students to pass an exam –  this education strategy will simply lose efficacy.

Bugeja says teachers must adopt different approaches to help learners inside mixed-ability classrooms, by building on children’s and young people’s previous learning and help them progress.

“Mixed ability classes may at times translate themselves to teaching the average ability learner. Such instances may affect negatively both the high- and the low-ability learners, but the ministry has tried to create guidelines and material (under the Learning Outcomes Framework) to suggest the measures that need to be taken to ensure that this does not occur, and provide material for teachers to support the extreme abilities in the classroom.”

There’s an answer: Finland

Prof. Caruana, on the other hand, takes a much firmer stance, calling it “intrinsically unjust”.

“Educators cannot foster a system which favours the strongest, often because of their family background, and deprives the weakest of their learning, which is an intellectual birthright.”

He adds that a successful mixed ability class must have contained class sizes, well-prepared teachers, added support for learners who require it. But above all, a system not completely geared to passing summative examinations.

Prof. Carmel Borg, University of Malta associate professor in the faculty of education, illustrates how different students can simply consume knowledge in a different way to each other.

“You might have three pupils of stereotypically ‘equal’ ability in the same classroom, who differ in their relationship with knowledge. In other words, those who access knowledge through concrete experiences are very different learners from students who access knowledge predominantly through sequence, repetition and transmission.”

So it’s not just about lazily conceding that students must be streamed off into higher and lower ability classrooms, Prof. Borg insists. “Diversity and differentiation will characterize the classroom context irrespective of how we perceive and measure ‘ability’.”

And here he suggests that Malta looks towards the model provided by Finnish schools, where egalitarianism seeps into every aspect of education.

Forty years ago, Finland took the step to make all schools public and set all children up with the same possibilities. There are no standardized tests except for entrance into universities, giving teachers the leeway to experiment with different methods to find the best one to reach their students. Schools in Finland are well prepared to differentiate, through the support of resources and other professionals ready at the school to encourage further inclusion. 

“These are some of the characteristics that distinguish Finland from our country, accounting for Finland’s impressive record in narrowing the performance gap between children inhabiting different socio-economic statuses,” Prof Borg says, adding that Finland’s egalitarian model sees children succeeding inclusive cultures and curricula.

The kicker is Finland’s focus on social justice.

“Gaps in performance remain largely correlated with socio-economic status, in two of the most strategic subjects – mathematics and literacy – and the chances of furthering one’s education to the tertiary level are also strongly correlated with the educational background of parents,” Prof. Borg says. 

So unless the educational system moves from its one-size-fits-all strain, “those who had been failed by the educational system could not be expected to encourage their children to value it,” Prof. Borg warns.

Prof. Caruana concurs. Ditch mixed-ability and you continue to enhance socio-economic and cultural gaps, hindering the building up of respect for other backgrounds.

“Mixed ability classes are a representation of the society we live in. Of course, addressing a heterogeneous group may not be as easy as addressing a homogenous one: but when one streams, one groups students by ability and this generally allows very little movement between such groups. So low-achievers may be placed in a stream which they are unable to get out of, and this often affects their self-esteem negatively. A mixed-ability class, by its own nature, can limit this danger. Furthermore, it helps appreciate differences and fosters respect to others of different background and upbringing.”

Mixed-ability classrooms remain the norm in many countries around the world, and in countries where high-stakes exams don’t determine one’s success, don’t keep ‘high performers’ down.

“It is with great regret – as an informed parent and as a curriculum specialist – to suggest that most of our curricular experiences reflect an insecure education community that wants to read rigorous by puffing up, in a very superficial way, the ground that needs to be covered,” Prof. Borg says.

In a nutshell? Parents in Malta simply are fixated with valuing quantity, rather than quality.

“Malta’s inability to confront the root causes of our educational malaise and discrepancies suggest that many children will continue to be doomed for a long time to come,” Prof. Borg warns, “regardless of the methods used.”

What makes Finland’s educational system great?

One of the key concepts used in Finnish schools is “whatever works”
One of the key concepts used in Finnish schools is “whatever works”

Touted as one of Europe’s strongest educational systems, Finland’s educational policies have made the country one of the main countries of comparison. Not least of all because the country has cemented itself in among the top three Programmes for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores for European countries in the past three editions of the report alone. However it might be worth looking into why the country seems to get it right, year after year…

One of the key concepts used in Finnish schools is “whatever works”. 

The national curriculum, in itself consisting of guidelines compiled by educational professionals, is not prescriptive, and teachers are allowed to veer from it as they deem necessary in order to get their message across.

To further support this somewhat fluid approach, there is no standardized testing method for students until their last year in high school, which effectively means that there are no comparisons or rankings of schools. 

Classrooms themselves look entirely different in Finland, with children not being required to wear a uniform, and lessons being largely interactive and game-like in structure, with a notable absence of homework to allow for extra-curricular activities and development.

Children also enjoy frequent breaks outdoors, and their schooldays typically include lessons in music, art, crafts and sports, beside the more traditional subjects. Indeed although education itself is only compulsory from the age of seven, parents almost invariably send their children to pre-schools, where the focus is on playing and learning social values of inclusion and acceptance of different nationalities, cultures and races.

The idea is for children to learn through play and for them to start formal education “once they are ready for it”. In addition, parents can opt for an extended maternity leave period of three years, to give day care to their children, against payment from the state. 

The country only has public schools, effectively putting students on an equal footing, and providing them with books, materials and even meals and healthcare. In addition, teachers themselves follow a fully subsidized five-year Master’s course, giving the profession an elevated status, and ultimately securing a level of expertise in the methods used in the classroom.