This morning I talked with one of the teachers of Holy Rosary’s Secretarial course. She had a book on writing essays and letters. I was curious, not sure if I’ve ever written an essay. What I read in herbook said that essay writing is different from composition because it emphasises the personal opinions and emotional responses of the writer. I guess I have written some essays after all!
The teacher went on to tell me about her English classes with the secretarial students. They are required to research a topic and give a speech on it, they also do short speaking exercises where they are given a topic at short notice and required to speak, in English, on that subject in front of the class. I was encouraged. When the relevant tecaher arrived I asked him about the Communication Skills topic that the IT students take. This is what he told me:
The IT students avoid all creative and practical aspects of the course. They use any excuse to avoid speaking in front of their colleagues, and they won’t answer CAT or exam questions that require creative writing. The teacher told me they even ask him “What benefit will this communication skills do us in our careers?”. He says some of them see it as the work of secretaries and therefore below them. Meanwhile they are terrified to speak in public and never admit to having an opinion of their own, let alone express one.
He went on to say that this is not a necessary outcome of the Kenyan education system, however. He pointed out that the students at our college are admitted with a somewhat forgiving approach to grades. The average grade for many of them, he says, is C-, whereas the national average is C+. Those with As and Bs have gone to universities. These, he says, are the ones who have not learned to synthesize. They have not learned to think for themselves. Rather than learning a skill, he says, they have learned how to pass exams. They learn by experience: because the system requires students to pass at each year in order to progress (unlike in the UK where progression is automatic), some of them have had plenty of practise at taking exams, since they have sat the exams for some subjects several times.
It must be a subject whose time has come for me, the discussion started this morning with one colleague and has continued most of the day so far. Other colleagues were discussing the Stage II students: “they pretend to understand you until you give them a CAT”, they said, “they you see they understand nothing”. My own experience, sadly, bears this out, my last CAT with them was very poor. I’ve been blaming myself but Im startign to reconsider.
It makes the job difficult: the whole system withing which I am teaching is geared towards teaching facts. The teacher of communication skills showed me exams in that subject which were, as he put it, definitive: the questions said “define this”, and “define that”, rather than encouraging students to be creative and communicative. If I fight that, it looks like Im going to reduce their chances of passing. If I go along with it, it looks like I’m just preparing them for the exams, not giving them any sort of education.
My colleague says the University who accredit our diploma are not doing themselves any favors with this course. By producing graduates who are skilled mainly in cramming for exams, but who lack the skills to work with computers, they will, he says, erode their reputation.