Students to Teachers (Part 1): Beyond Limitations – Teaching Students or Teaching to Exams?


I receive many letters from students battling to align themselves with the ‘traditional’ South African schooling practices. I have become a sounding board of sorts for these outsiders. And there seem to be more every day. With their permission, I have decided to publish their thoughts so that they can reach a wider audience. The following letter was received from a Grade 11 student… (I have deleted some of the particulars to protect those claiming to be innocent.)

In the light of the recent consternation regarding my essay response in the (subject name deleted) examination, I would like to apologize unreservedly for any offence that my action might have caused. I did not have the intention of questioning the integrity of the staff or of the credibility of the department concerned.  I do acknowledge that my remarks were somewhat radical, but were perhaps useful in bringing about attention to my perspective on the state of schooling at this school and more generally. And this is not just my perspective, but it is very much shared by my peers.

This school has the advantage of not being a State school and this independence allows for an individual philosophy and approach to delivering education.

The first mission of this philosophy is the encouragement of independent thought. Through curiosity, passion, inquiry, and a cultivating a supportive environment, the principle of this philosophy promotes not only a holistic perspective of the world that integrates the morals and values of the constitution, but also nurtures an individual according to their own interests and ambitions.

A definite limitation to this ideal is the ‘content’ that needs to be covered by a student in order to attain a National Senior Certificate. The reason being, it is somewhat difficult to express an individual view and opinion because one is required to respond according to the views found in memos. Neither the teacher nor student can be held accountable for these constraints, but shouldn’t we should both be striving to move beyond these limitations?

Without wanting to be insolent or insulting all over again (which I was in the examination and am accountable for) the purpose of my argument here is to address my deep concerns about the nature and dynamics of our school. My notion is that the ethos of our school is moving steadily towards institutionalization. What I mean by this is that instead of fostering students to learn the self-confidence to think independently, the main ambition of attaining high marks is leading to the quashing of this individualized philosophy.

I believe that one of the central contributing factors to this situation is the limiting of one’s thinking to that which is examinable by the State. If it’s not in the final exam, why bother? I would like to argue that this flies in the face of a “twenty first century education”. With a school so rich in resources, with such a diverse, talented and committed student body led by eminent and knowledgeable staff, it is tragic that this should be the case.

Despite these restrictions, I believe that the content of lessons and general atmosphere of the school should be less regimented and instead more open to creative thinking. Individual thought flourishes best in a nurturing environment where free-thought and expression are given priority.

The learning experience needs to always recognize a mutual respect, and a mature and dignified interaction between staff and student. Additional enrichments to the syllabus coupled with different forums in which to experience learning which are not entirely curriculum-based are two simple recommendations to try and turn this trend around.

The foremost intent of this letter is to convey an apology of my actions. With all sincerity I hope that my actions have not altered the nature of our relationship. Perhaps the attention around my actions will promote general questioning and in doing so strengthen the symbiotic relationship between staff and students.  As Piaget said, all learning starts with a disruption. I believe teachers and organizations can also learn from students.

My insights, along with those who feel compelled to drive progress, need to be heard. I hope too, that this letter will prompt reform and reflection on your part.  I believe a multitude of insights from young people like me must lead to a renewed interest in student-centered learning (opposed to mark-centered learning) at our school. I think that our school should embrace a philosophy where we aim beyond what the State requires, and where we endeavor to be liberal and innovative as opposed being restrictive and traditional. You need to focus on the individual so that the product is a young person with an inquiring mind who is responsible and mature… and teeming with independent thought.

Thank you for your attention.

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