Book bright but dim elsewhere
By George Davis
Maybe I'm getting old or am truly a cur-mudgeon at heart, but I must confess to being more saddened than elated by the published CSEC exam results that show many of our children gaining distinctions in multiple subject areas. Like the next person, I do admire youngsters who can battle the difficulties of growing up and surviving peer pressure, while still hitting their straps in the classrooms and examination centres.
Indeed, I respect those from tough backgrounds who, with the support of a single parent, guardian or a good Samaritan, achieve excellent grades. I also respect those students from privileged backgrounds who, despite the lure of living the Life of Riley, knowing that they don't have to work a day in their lives, still strive for and achieve excellence in their exam results.
Youngsters in both those broad categories show character and demonstrate that extra something which will make them into special adults.
And yet, that previous sentence sums up why I am indeed saddened at exam result time. How many of our students with enough exam distinctions for each day of the week are really in position to achieve great things as adults, either as entrepreneurs or as members of the traditional workforce?
I have seen so many students who progress to the tertiary level with multiple subject distinctions struggle with the material delivered by their lecturers and tutors. It pains my heart to see students who aced geography in secondary school not even knowing where to look to find La Paz on a map of the world. I'm disillusioned when I see a student who aced physics in high school struggle to explain why the rods in retina are unable to distinguish between lights of different wavelengths.
When debaters at university, preparing for competition at the World Championships, stare at me clueless when asked about who Gordon Brown is and his relationship with Tony Blair, I want to reach for a shotgun. And trust me, I have no intention of committing suicide.
I have tried to reconcile how so many of our youngsters can be bright on paper after acing tough external exams, but so limited when it comes to thought, analysis and awareness. Many university lecturers and even employers will tell you that dealing with some well-decorated students is like interacting with robots that weren't implanted with a 'thinking chip' or a reasoning microprocessor.
PRODUCTS OF EDUCATION
Universities don't get a pass. The structure of their curricula is not designed to undo this overreliance on the ability to recall, even as students fail to think, analyse and interpret. These educational big houses perpetuate the shortcomings by rewarding the student who's able to read four chapters and successfully answer 14 related multiple choice questions. It reinforces the intellectual laziness by not asking students to read those same four chapters and write essays about their relevance or relationship with Jamaica in the 21st Century.
An essay in university is like honour in the Jamaican Parliament; it's almost disappeared. Lecturers find it easier to mark 15 multiple-choice questions from a group of 20 students, rather than have to mark individual pieces from each member of the group. When they do require something different, they impose groupwork, cleverly asking for one essay from each group of five students, therefore only marking four papers.
So robot students come up through high school, pass a million subjects, attend university while scoring a 4.0 GPA and then proceed to the workplace where they promptly add zero value. If they venture into business, all these people do is increase the statistics of the number of start-ups that fail in the first six months of operation and give more reasons to some banking executives to withhold funding to young entrepreneurs.
Some may catch 'feelings' over my seemingly harsh criticism of young people whose only crime is to pass their exams with flying colours. The young people are not the problem. It's us who perpetuate the belief that the ability to ace exams is superior to the capacity to reason. The longer this belief lives, the longer the country will retain the problem of being incapable of solving its problems.