Do your children know their tables? Does your son know the name of the capital of Denmark? Did your daughter pass her Biology SEC examination? If the answer is yes, then you have done your duty as a parent. You can now think of booking your next trip abroad …
The Renaissance adage for what education should lead to was “Mens sana in corpore sano”: a healthy mind in a healthy body. Well that was hundreds of years ago. Where do we stand now?
One of the moments which most impressed me when I turned up for lectures at the Faculty of Education was the basic distinction between Education and Instruction. It has stayed with me and lies at the root of my basic dissatisfaction with the Maltese educational system. The State provides instruction to learners: which means that they learn “things” … they learn Mathematics, English, History … and a motley mixture of other “subjects”. And yet voices have spoken out since forever saying “this is not enough!” What the State needs to do is to support the process of “educating” its young so that they can fit into society, armed with the skills and the attitudes which an evolving society demands more and more.
A host of worrying symptoms point to an unhealthy state of education in our islands. Parents, educators and politicians often fall very quickly into the “measure of instruction” trap, and look at figures. We are therefore told that our system of education is succeeding or failing because this percentage or that percentage was this high or this low. But percentages of what? Of students who can regurgitate upon command vast quantities of practically useless rubbish which we as adults never even bother about? Do you remember Pythagoras’ theorem? And if you do (which I patronisingly forgive you for forgetting), how is this contributing to your adult life? What examinations usually measure is Knowledge … the Skills and Attitudes that our learners possess upon leaving school show themselves elsewhere.
Let’s go over this again. One way of categorising what we do in schools is by looking at the process as an assemblage of Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes. Now in the modern world, the only way to justify the transmission of knowledge especially in childhood and adolescence is that this knowledge, not being so critically important in itself, serves as a means to impart SKILLS and ATTITUDES which will then support our learners to acquire other knowledge that is really relevant (because what we are teaching them today will be largely irrelevant in ten years’ time), knowledge which is really their own choice (because we are taking upon ourselves the decision concerning what they should know and what they shouldn’t).
The skills and attitudes that we build in our learners should support them to be autonomous learners who can seek their own knowledge, they should be life-long learners, who understand that knowledge as well as the demands of the market are changing fast and that most of us have to relearn things at different points of our lives.
But where do we stand today? Are our Primary and early Secondary Education really focussing on skills and attitudes? Are we developing real, functional literacy - not just recognising text but making meaning out of it? Are we developing oral and written competence at expression - not just concentrating on the factual but on the nuances which make up human communication? Is numeracy seen as a life skill or is it rather an assortment of meaningless exercises with numbers which the intellectual maturity of the learner may very often not yet cope with? Aren’t our schools focussing on WHAT? rather than HOW? or WHY?
Are our schools looking enough into the physical and emotional health of learners? Isn’t the answer obvious? Apart from a glancing salute at the critical issues of physical health, very little happens. For most students, sports day (not that I think this should be the expression of physical health in students) is when they stay at home because it is only the sports geeks who are concerned.
Emotional health is minimally touched upon by the discussions held in Personal and Social Development, by far the most popular moment in schools for most students (because it’s the only time they get to say something). PSD is important and healthy. and extending this even further down into Year 3 is a good and welcome move … but could it be that putting these issues into a compartment is sending the message that other teachers need not bother about them, because they are being covered?
Is the system working? What skills and attitudes are our school leavers showing? The case of Shanice Muscat is one tragic example. This girl was the victim of how young teenagers are living today. What really got me angry was that a Sunday newspaper published a photograph which I would consider legitimately provocative coming from a twenty year-old, but abusive when the girl in question is fourteen. And yet there it was, in print. Subsequently at least one other photograph emerged which was of the same racy quality. The “friends” of Shanice blogged back (in atrocious Maltese) that “if you have it you can show it”. That’s the attitude. Are parents comfortable that their teen girls are posing for this kind of photography or is the issue a lost cause? Are parents contributing to this downslide in behavioural patterns? How comfortable are parents about the time their kids are leaving home and coming back … and how complacent are they about this phenomenon? Are they sure that their kids are actually wearing the same clothes at Paceville that they left home in?
This is not a question of knowledge. This is attitude. Are school leavers showing any sort of respect for their own or other people’s bodies? Or any idea of the limits of their age? Go to Paceville from 9 to 11 and you will see gangs of girls walk by … if you took what four of them are wearing you’d have enough to make a handkerchief! And look at the boys, ogling them. Would I want my daughter to be visually groped in this way? And then listen to the language they speak. Now let’s see … are these isolated cases and is it just a question of bad taste in clothing? How are we faring statistically in the early teen consumption of alcohol? We have also learned that 14% of our Fifth Formers are sniffing. That’s the cheap way to get high. I would refer you to Caritas to hear the more expensive side of the story. What about safe sex? I mean, I don’t want to pretend that sex came into the scene today (and that we didn’t know about it till we got married) … but does the average parent know what a shag party is? Is anyone surprised by the news of the conviction of (then) minors for rape and extortion at the expense of underage girls?
So where is the healthy mind in the healthy body? And please let’s stop just pointing fingers at schools and saying that we pay taxes so that the system educates the children. Then again, it’s either the schools’ fault, or else we guilt the learners (“because they listen to their friends but not to me”). This is a societal responsibility and schools are not the only providers. We are in a situation reminiscent of the proverbial chicken and egg: parents cannot afford to devolve responsibility for the development of healthy skills and attitudes in their children. They end up blaming schools. These institutions, on the other hand, are conveniently hiding behind “packed syllabi”, “too many subjects”, “improving percentages of passes in examinations” … and they are saying that parents are not pulling their weight. Politicians, too, worsen the situation by sidelining these crucial aspects of education (promoting healthy attitudes and the skills to promote mental and physical health) by speaking of new buildings, of new computers, of high or low standards and many or too few passes in examinations. Subjects should not be important before human beings are.
I know that to some extent I must be generalising. Parents do care and schools do care. That is our only hope. But these tragic accidents hurt too much. And there is always the nagging fear that we are only seeing the tip of several icebergs. These tragic “lessons” cost too much. If indeed we are learning.