‘Systems of Knowledge’ breakdown: examiners blast Maltese teens’ ‘lack of critical thought’

Systems of Knowledge examiners’ report reveals generic essays, superficial knowledge, and shallow understanding of role of NGOs in Maltese democracy

Examiners assessing the performance of candidates sitting for the Systems of Knowledge examination – a mandatory course in general culture taught at post-secondary level – have expressed concern that many candidates only offer a superficial knowledge of the subject, and that often “candidates memorise generic essays that they reproduce without acknowledgment of the question in the exam.”

Systems of Knowledge is a compulsory subject for entry to university and is intended to serve as a stimulus for critical thinking, covering important themes like citizenship and democratic values, culture and arts, sustainable development and technology.

In July, Malta’s matriculation exams board (Matsec) announced its intention to restructure the Systems of Knowledge course to better reflect “21st century skills”. The reform will replace the compulsory ‘project’ component of the course with class discussions and debates, and focus more on critical thinking, leadership and other important skills.

But in their report on the 2019 exam, examiners found severe shortcomings, noting that many of the answers provided “do not follow a logical or structured sequence”, at times resulting in disjointed arguments that had no link to the question being asked.

Many of the answers provided were relatively short for adequately explaining, elaborating, and discussing the concepts required by the essay questions. “Although, there is the tendency that lengthier writing diverts from the focus of the sought answer, overall, lengthier essays were also more elaborate and detailed in terms of response.”

In their observations on answers to specific questions included in the exam, the report highlighted the lack of in-depth analysis. For example, when asked about the role of NGOs, few candidates presented an in-depth analysis of “the important and vital role played by NGOs in a democracy, by referring to pluralism and diversity of views and opinion”.

Whilst most candidates highlighted the role of NGOs for safeguarding the natural environment and protecting vulnerable groups, not enough attention was given to highlight the relevance of NGOs for democratic rule, in terms of awareness-raising and advocacy work, and their role as pressure groups and agents for policy and social change.

Moreover, some candidates failed to mention valid examples of NGOs, instead referring to private companies or government funded entities or initiatives such as Elon Musk’s Space X space travelling initiative, the L-Istrina charity spectacular, and government social welfare agencies Sedqa and Appogg. “This omission is particularly worrisome in terms of application of knowledge, particularly in view of the fact that as part of their Systems of Knowledge project, students are expected to carry out voluntary work experience with an NGO.”

Moreover, no candidate made any reference to the Voluntary Organisations Act, and any of its provisions or structures such as the Council for the Voluntary Sector or the Commissioner for NGOs.

When asked about human rights, very few candidates made any reference to supranational institutions like the European Court of Justice or the International Courts of Justice, or to human rights organisations such as Amnesty International.

And a fair number of candidates were not familiar with the religious and the political context of the artistic periods they chose. The responses did not connect the purpose of the art in the context of their particular times – what actually gave rise to the style.

When asked to discuss how the marine environment can be conserved and sustainably used, most students made a reference to some threats faced by the marine environment, but failed to address ways how these dangers can be mitigated or avoided.

A total number of 1,965 candidates registered for the exam in 2019 of which 99 did not even turn up. Only 85 candidates were given an A grade while 45% were given a D, E or F grade.

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