Sunday, June 15, 2008

Questions arise about the effectiveness of mainstream teachers and school programmes due to the high demand for after-curriculum tuition with star tutors who have an apparent knack of turning flunking students around into exam aces. With this kind of success rate, any student who isn't taking some kind of tuition is going to want to add their name to a long waiting list, giving even more credence to the already mystical following that these self-styled academic gurus have built around themselves.

We teachers in the mainstream are our own worst enemies in this game. We think too highly of ourselves and our ability to "make a difference" to the kids under our charge. We've bought in too deeply the tenets of our own industry's recruitment campaigns, holding ourselves more responsible than necessary for our kids' successes. We think that because we "mould the future of our nation in our hands", any mistake we make, any standard we let slide, is going to bring the future crashing down around our ears and it'll be all our fault. And not just us, but everyone else not in the industry will be pointing fingers at us and saying likewise too.

Because we bear this imaginery burden, we take our craft a little too seriously. Every little thing becomes a teaching point for us, and not always in a nice way. Even the tests and examinations we set become "teaching tools" instead of just being assessment milestones. What I mean is, we set questions we don't really expect the kids to answer so that we can teach them after the exam how to answer the question properly. When we mark exams, we strongly penalize every infraction because then we create more opportunities to teach what the "correct" answer should be. It isn't policy, it's more like reflex.

While it's great that we are so dedicated to our work, perhaps the exams aren't the best material to make teaching points out of. It's a pity, but normal, ordinary people see exam scores as a measure of personal competence in a subject, whereas we teachers expect them to make mistakes in the papers; so we seem to be working at cross-purposes here. Poor scores at the tests, exams and continual assessments that we set drive the confidence right out of our kids and drive them straight into the open arms of private tutors who lay out the welcome mats for them. Private tuition has become a most lucrative enterprise in this kind of education environment.

How do tutors and tuition agencies gain that magical aura that seems to make silk purses out of sows' ears? From the results their kids attain from the external exam (i.e., Cambridge) itself, which is ultimately what counts in the job market. The external agency, unlike us in the teaching industry, has no agenda whatsoever in setting and marking its exams. Cambridge has no personal stake in the individual candidates' papers. Cambridge just marks what appears on exam scripts. In other words, Cambridge as an external marker is more likely to give a fairer assessment of the papers they receive than we are when we set and mark our internal exams, anxious as we are to ensure the kids make all the mistakes they can during our assessments so that they don't make the same mistakes during the Cambridge exams.

Private tutors point to the Cambridge marked results and -- voila -- instant success.

This is not to say that private tutors aren't excellent teachers in themselves. They probably are, and it's a lot more motivating when kids are taught by someone they like, but don't be fooled by the numbers game. There's still no substitute for disciplined self-study, for asking questions and clarifying points no matter who is at the head of the classroom.

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