Monday January 20 2014

Our students are ignorant because schools do not encourage reading

By Cato N. Lund

I have a pile of exam papers to mark. It looks at me from a corner and blackens my conscience and represents the only downside of the work I have been involved in for the last 19 years. Much as I love my students and teaching them, I experience a serious resistance to mark their papers, a resistance that increases by the year.

I deal with the brightest brains of the country and I often have to admire them for what they have managed to save of creativity and imagination through their 13 years of primary and secondary schooling. That is a schooling experience I also happen to know something about. Over the years, I have had children and young people in all the classes from Baby to Senior Six.

After her first term in Baby Class, my daughter came home five years ago with a report that had 29 squares in which to put a number indicating the “performance” of the child. How can one do such a thing to a three-year-old? I told my sister who has worked for more than 40 years in nursery schools in Norway; I could hear how she shook her head and only came out with: “I understand; it is a different place”. To make things worse, some nursery schools even indicate “position in class”!

Any parent experiences the teacher’s supremacy. If the teacher has said so, then that is the Gospel truth. When I sit with my girls and their homework, they frequently ask me: “Papa, what is the answer?” I annoy them by saying they have to find out, either from their notes, their text books or other sources. And they check and find out; unfortunately not always what the teacher has decided is the answer.

My P5’er once struggled with the question: “How do we know that Mt. Margherita is above the snow level? “Imagine a picture of Mt Margherita” I said, “what do you see?” “There is snow on it,” she answered. “Exactly, so what is the answer?” “There is snow on it”, and that is what she wrote but it was wrong. She should have quoted a tourist brochure and written: “Its peak is covered with snow”.

This is a symptomatic story, showing how the schooling teaches children that there is always one correct “answer” and you are rewarded if you manage to remember or guess it. Using your own imagination and creativity is discouraged, conformity promoted. I don’t blame the teachers; they are prisoners of a system. This system does, however, create a problem for students admitted to a study that demands the exact opposite. Some of the shining stars from A-Level fade very fast when they encounter a world where there are no single correct answers, non-conformity a virtue and creative imagination a must. Add independence, inquisitiveness and curiosity to complete the picture of a student of architecture.

The primary and secondary education in Uganda is not conducive to the development of such qualities. When the overarching objective becomes to promote business by producing as many star exam performers as possible, the old adage non scholae sed vitae discimus (we do not learn for school but for life) has been forgotten. The result is ignorant candidates because the attitude is “once I’ve passed exams, I can forget about the subject”.

This ignorance is brought forward throughout because very few have been encouraged to read books for any other purpose than passing exams. Those who actually read, do so because they saw their parents read, they learnt it at home, not in school. Reading just for the joy of it, expanding one’s mind as an extra unintended bonus, seems to be an alien thought. Yet that is what it takes to create alert and knowledgeable citizens.

Mr Lund is a visiting senior lecturer, Department of Architecture and Physical Planning- Makerere University.