Repairing basic education

We all know there is something very wrong in the education of our children.  Where the trouble lies and how we should repair it have been the subject of recurrent debate.  Recently, a group of professors and researchers in education from the University of the Philippines offered their thoughts on this question in a position paper sent to the DepEd and to the media.  Their intervention signals the need to take a closer look at existing research in order to determine whether adding more years to the country’s basic school system would solve the problem.

My own initial view is that simply adding two more years of the same stuff taught in the same way in ill-equipped classrooms by the same ill-prepared and underpaid teachers to the same under-motivated and malnourished pupils may not produce the kind of results that will remove us from the category of the poorest African countries in which we find ourselves today.  But I keep an open mind.

Crucial to the analysis is isolating the key factors that affect children’s performance at school.  There are factors beyond the control of the school, like absentee parents and not having enough to eat.  But of the variables within the sphere of educational reform, the following may be worth examining:  teaching method, teacher preparedness, the curriculum, and the medium of instruction.

The proposal to increase the number of years is based on the single assumption that too much knowledge is being crammed into the existing 10-year basic program, giving rise to the need to layer or space the curriculum.  I am sure there are studies that have already looked at the impact of such curricular congestion.  Their findings must be considered in relation to studies that examine the effects of other factors like teaching style and medium of instruction.  The UP Education paper unfortunately does not go into these.

The position paper poses the question: “Could length of schooling be one reason for the dismal academic performance in local and international tests?”  My UP colleagues answered the question only in an indirect way – by pointing out that the Philippines, with its 6 years elementary and 4 years high school program, has one of the shortest basic education systems in the world. They did not offer empirical proof that the length of schooling is the most crucial factor in the performance of our students in international tests.

There is no question that adding more years to the 10-year basic education program could improve the test scores of our students. This seems to be supported by the limited success of the optional high school bridge program.  But whether this is the best way to address the present deficiencies in the system remains unanswered. The tendency to cure problems of quality by adding more quantity is so prevalent in our society that one cannot help but be skeptical.

As a teacher myself, I find that what is important in learning is not so much the amount of material one covers in a course but rather the clarity by which the most basic concepts are explained.  Whether one is dealing with mathematical, aesthetic, or social science concepts, the quality of the interaction between teacher and student is crucial. The students should be free to ask for elaboration, without fear of censure or ridicule and in a language most meaningful to them.  And the teacher should have the patience and, more important, the ability to explain the concepts.  In this regard, I find that the use of a language that is foreign to both teacher and student can be a great barrier to understanding, and that the switch to a native language often goes a long way toward facilitating the learning process.

I suspect that, precisely because it is a second language to most of us, we tend to overestimate our relationship to English.  That relationship is basically an artificial one; we still do not think in English, and maybe never will, thank God.  I won’t be surprised if the most effective teachers of basic Mathematics in our country are those who do not hesitate to use a local language to explain concepts. Many conscientious teachers know this.  They know that English is a key to modern and global learning, but they also know it can be a deterrent to learning.

English is all too often used by teachers to mask their own inability to grasp the concepts they are supposed to teach.  They will not explain because they cannot. Instead they take refuge in seatwork, penalizing their students with interminable exercises on concepts they themselves have not understood.

I have seen this in many schools even at the tertiary level, where teachers carefully protect their own ignorance from exposure using the shield of an impenetrable language.  They make their students copy entire books into their notebooks, and require them to memorize and recite portions of these.  Their students learn nothing but the outer skin of ideas, unable to relate these to the circumstances of their lives.

I am aware that it may be counterintuitive to raise the issue of medium of instruction at a time when the siren song of call centers is seducing the country back to English. English is an important language, but it is a tool that can be acquired any time.  Its acquisition must not impede or burden the learning process at the fundamental level.

We have gone a long way toward making our national life more inclusive by the extensive use of the Filipino language in the mass media and in public affairs.  It would be tragic if our gains in these areas are nullified by the exclusion of large numbers of our children from the benefits of formal education because of English.

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