Too many exams, too little creativity

By Zophia Edwards
August 21, 2007

School ChildrenComment: Kids say the darnest things!

Answer: Not in my classroom!

This sentiment is largely responsible for the repression of ideas in our education system and has largely remained unchanged since our independence in 1962. Our primary schools, secondary schools and tertiary institutions have maintained a rigid fixation on examinations. Standardized tests are beneficial in that they are useful for comparing students nationwide since they are all required to study the same curriculum for the same exam. What are our standardized tests comparing? Memory.

The downside is that the education system is organized in such a way that if you have problems memorizing and regurgitating, you are branded as a person who is “not bright” and your path is set from as early as the S.E.A. examinations. If you have trouble memorizing hard facts, crapaud smoke yuh pipe. Forget prestige schools and forget university. Those doors are not open to you who have problems reciting information, because even if you somehow make it pass the first stage of S.E.A., you end up in the same situation at higher levels in a system that has the same learn-by-heart demands of its students. This culture of education has limited the capacity of our citizens to produce at an optimum level in our society because it has limited creativity of the teacher, of the student and of the resulting workforce.

Standardized testing limits the creativity of the teachers. Our nation’s overuse of exams to assess student performance is having serious negative effects on teaching and learning. The tests have defined curriculum and fashioned instruction. The standardized testing of SEA, CXC, CAPE, A-levels, and even UWI final exams which simply assess memorization – a student’s ability to store and reproduce names, dates and facts. What is important is that students memorize the formula and not that they understand it. This leads to a total lack of capacity for comprehending fundamental concepts and thinking in abstract terms. Basically, this means that students are not learning! Teachers instruct students in the alphabet with “A for apple and B for bat.” God forbid if a child says A for Anchar! In addition, how the subject is tested has become how the subject is taught and what is not tested is not taught.

The amount of emphasis placed on learning through past papers and sample tests speaks to the unfortunate importance of the understanding the test format over the importance of understanding the actual material. Moreover, what makes a “good school” good is how well its students perform in these tests. This places an enormous amount of pressure on the teachers to follow a narrow curriculum and focus on memorizing facts instead of developing more advanced abilities. Where a teacher would like to give her students a week to design an experiment to test the effect of global warming, the time factor before the CXC exam simply does not permit her to do so. Instead of promoting fresh groundbreaking ideas, teachers are forced to confine themselves and students to walking the beaten path. This method of put-the information-in-and-let-the-students-spit-it-out for the purposes of passing an exam is restricting creativity in the classroom and preventing teachers from developing the fullest potentials of their students.

Our education system, especially at the tertiary levels must move away from this learn by rote approach in order to harness the creativity of our students. Youngsters see the world in fresh and vivid ways. At higher levels, the combination of knowledge and skill with a willingness to innovate and experiment is what makes the difference between the truly bright and the regurgitators. At university level, students should be developing more sophisticated thoughts. A common sentiment from UWI graduates is that the only way to get top grades is to give the lecturer what the lecturer gave them in class notes. Any independent thought is strongly penalized. The education system is producing robots! Of course not all the lecturers operate on this archaic principle, but many feel that a large proportion does.

At the university level, more than ever, students should be encouraged to generate a large pool of ideas, a wide range of ideas and think outside of the box. They should not be asked to reproduce a semester’s work in a two hour exam because this does not develop their critical thinking skills and analytical techniques. T&T’s education system, by enhancing creativity in the classroom, will cultivate originality in thinking which will enable citizens to see things differently and employ new strategies and approaches to solving our problems.

Instead of the wholesale copying of foreign healthcare systems that are largely inapplicable, we can harness the creativity of our own local agents to combine health policy with local cultural sensitivities. Instead of employing foreign consultants to fight juvenile delinquency, we can magnify our support for more local efforts at finding creative ways to engage our youth in positive ways.

Another reason the education system should reexamine and alter its approach is because the exam-oriented approach negatively labels students who have trouble memorizing. They are doomed at the point of SEA when at this point the nation categorizes its citizens and their intellect based on ability to regurgitate. These tests only serve to promote the view that there are children with deficits rather than children with individual differences and strengths on which to grow. Each person is creative and each person has something positive to add. Some people are creative in the arts, some are inventive in the sciences and some show ability to innovate across curriculum and incorporate a variety of disciplines and each student can learn from his or her peers. As of right now, creativity is stifled in almost all disciplines through obsession to pass exams.

The current education system has maintained a narrow assessment of student capabilities and so students do what they must in order to pass the exam and nothing more. Education becomes a passive experience and this transcends the classroom to the work environment. Employees are waiting on their boss to tell them (word for word) what to do; workers are afraid to show initiative lest they be penalized for it; junior employees are hesitant to present fresh and new ideas to their supervisors; and enterprise and collaboration between the young and the old is shunned. It is no surprise that all our systems in the public and some in the private sector are so inefficient and slow to modernize.

Education should be an active experience where students are constantly engaged and where a love for learning is developed, rather than a hatred for final exams. Luckily for us, Ras Shorty I did not have to pass a music exam in order to invent soca and it is a good thing that Brian Lara did not learn to play cricket through a cricket handbook with batting formulae. It is not the wholesale replication of novel-writing but the creative use of written language that makes VS Naipaul an acclaimed writer.

The real achievers are always those who think outside of the box and who have put their knowledge and talents to creative use in the arts, business, sciences, humanities, sports and across disciplines. This cannot be achieved if the system is stifling the creativity of the people. Memorizing a textbook is no replacement for innovative thinking. The creativity for progress that should have been cultivated in the classroom is lacking. T&T has not adequately tapped into the creative resources of the people.

T&T must realize that the result of the education system which revolves around examinations is robot-production. The system is training citizens to listen to explanations, answer factual questions and following instructions. This is all well and good but now a step further must be taken. This step must include training citizens to reason logically, brainstorm and explore ideas, analyze and test ideas, make connections, design and make solutions to problems. This can be done through curriculum changes; modification of testing methods; more teacher encouragement and good observation; more group projects; documenting student’s work and simply allowing the creative juices to flow. This training will produce citizens who can actively participate on an even grander scale in the development of the nation.

21 thoughts on “Too many exams, too little creativity”

  1. This is so true. Our Education System has remained stagnant while those of other countries have kept improving over the years.

    I have witnessed examples of this where students cram past-exams and get A’s in A-Levels and when they get to University, they fail miserably.

    I have always had a problem with the policy of children being too young to sit the SEA or CE exams. If a child is smart enough, they should be allowed to skip classes or just plain move forward regardless of age.

    The American system of education which we cry down to much has passed us but we’re still living in the 60’s and 70’s. I was speaking with my 7 year old niece who lives in California and she was talking to me about a Haiku she wrote. I’m pretty sure the majority of adults in Trinidad don’t know what a Haiku is. An overhaul needs to be done from primary to tertiary education in Trinidad.

  2. What a passionate writer you are! I am a Canadian and a “creative” teacher (I am an Art teacher who has taught Moral Education, Home Economics, Scriptwriting, Design, Leadership and English Literature) and I am also interested in teaching Creativity to my students. I agree that memorization does not serve most individuals. The solution that I have found is to come up with projects for my students that include some of the skills and information I want them to acquire by the time they finish the course. I balance this with more formal testing because they still have to write an examination at the end of the course. This does not always work perfectly, but this is how I am teaching at the moment.
    I think that hiring creative people also helps teach any subject matter in a more intersting way. GOOD LUCK!

  3. Smart children do not need to be fast-tracked into the exam taking circuit, they need nore creative opportunities in their age-group. Maturation and intelligence do not always go together, so putting a child in a higher grade because he /she is smart can create a social misfit, a crammer par-excellence. If a child can master calculus at eleven years of age, give her more challenging math work, but let her do creative Social Studies projects along with her age mates. Intelligence in one academic subject is not social intellgence.

    Smart kids, like everybody else, need a chance to kick a football, fall in the mud and swing from a tree. In other words, to enjoy their childhood.. many a smart kid has been turned off by too much higher level work, and isolation from the peer group. Please let us leave the SEA at age eleven I hope sensible people do not accept Riaz Ali’s suggestion. It does not usually work well.

  4. Linda, many schools run by sensible people in different parts of the world regularly skip advanced students or put them in accelerated programmes because they see the benefits. I knew an 11 year old boy who attended University at the same time with me and in speaking with him I was surprised at the level of maturity. I admit this kid was an exception but in general these are children who like to go to school.

    I agree with you that if a child can master Calculus at 11 then more advanced work should be given, but how? Does the teacher have to come up with a different curriculum for that child while still teaching the rest of the class? It’s easier and more beneficial to move that student into an accelerated class. Accelerated classes in developed countries do include sports as part of the curriculum. A disservice is done to any child who is ready to move forward and the rest of the class is not – they sometimes become trouble makers in class because they get bored. They may even be a bad influence on other classmates because they encourage them to get into trouble or play when they should be studying and in the end, troublemaker does exceptionally well while those that follow do poorly.

    I think there is a greater error in creating social misfits when we keep children behind. When 15 year old writes SEA and 19 year olds are at CXC level, many (but definitely not all) cause more problems among classmates.

    But each student’s case is different. Some students will prefer to stay with their friends while others will leap at the opportunity to move forward a little bit quicker and thrive in such an environment while others will be misfits. That is why we need an improved education system that properly identifies such children.

  5. Are there two qualified child psychologists in TnT who would agree with you Riaz. We are not talkin here about keeping children back, just making a case for leting them be creative children. It would be interesting if we could access the suicide rate among such bright childen, pushed out of their depts, until they reach the point where they self destruct.

    Too often, bright children are pushed to satisfy a parent’s ego. That is a kind of child abuse that is not often acknowledged.

    Parents get more satisfaction, and bragging rights, from their kids IQ scores, than children do.

  6. Yes, let children be creative. The example I gave of my niece writing a Haiku – that is allowing children to be creative. Not like the schools in Trinidad that make children memorize poetry. Let them write it.

    Why do you always ask me to come up with these weird statistics, Linda? Maybe there may not be two qualified child psychologists in Trinidad who agree with me – I don’t know, it’s not within the boundaries of my research to see which psychologist agrees with me. Maybe you may not know but studies have shown that children become bored and entertain themselves in sometimes disruptive ways they are not challenged enough. Incidentally, those studies were not done by psychologists in Trinidad.

    What Linda talks about where children are pushed by parents is a real problem, especially in Asia. But again, I say, each child’s case is different. And in some of the North American and European systems, it is not parent who decides but the teacher who recommends and a review panel who agrees to any early advances in classes for students. The parents are then presented the option along with the child’s input (however small that input may be).

    The problem with education in Trinidad began to snowball when the former government went on an election promise. They didn’t care how it be fulfilled so they built new schools and put in under qualified teachers, some of whom only took the jobs because they couldn’t get work in their respective fields. That is why you get teachers making children in std. 5 take extra lessons not to learn anything new but to cram past exams. That is why you have teachers telling children in the Infants years that they must write with their right hands and not their left. I knew of a case where a child was labeled as stupid when in it was discovered that he was dyslexic. Standardized tests are a crutch for the lazy teachers in the system who just want a paycheck and do not have the children’s interests at heart.

  7. One final comment. Riaz speaks constantly using proof by selected instances. Faulty logic is just that.

  8. My final comment – and unlike Linda, I do not make claims based on what I perceive to be the only truth.

  9. mrs. edwards i agree with you just as i agree with ILLICH, BERNSTEIN, BOWLES AND GINTIS, BOURDIEU etc. however, i believe we must go further in our analysis as this problem is not only a Trinidad and Tobago problem but a Caribbean/third world problem. it is to be found in the nature of our economies as the great but late Lloyd Best stated in Plantation economy. according to Martin Carnoy education is colonized and colonized education perpetuates the heirarchical structure of society.we are not producer economies but rather a mere extension of the global economy.our economic relations determine our social realities.we dont make cars, trains and planes we produce raw materials my dear e.g oil n gas.this is exactly why the education system has not changed we are still mimic men, copiers of the more developed countries. our education system would only change when our economic relations to the world economy changes. Llloyd Best died waiting and was always a man stiffled by our government ask yourselves why people. blessed love.

  10. My only fault with the “great Lloyd Best” is this: How many children, apart from his own progeny, did he teach to read? Economic theories are fine, but in the school of practical education, actions speak very loudly.

    I had a long conversation with him in 2001, and as I sat in Tapia House, while he took a phone call, I was filled with a sense that this space, this open yard in front of his house, his paper filled rooms, could have been used differently. In my minds eye, I saw a row or two of student desks, and him reading, discussing, motivating small boys from the streets of Tunapuna. His assistant, a Mr. Grant just sat around. Now Lloyd was already rather ill, I could sense it from his gait, his demeanour, and I regretted the fact that this noted teacher was still trying to influence people who basically were saving themselves for eulogies at his funeral. I would have started a school for small boys, who could thus be saved from becoming gang members.

    If you catch them by age seven, you could make a difference.

    Every time I read of a young Trini male gone astry, I think of the theorists who write things in papers, who could also have done other things of more immediate value.To much teaching is left to women, while men chase big bucks and write profound papers. An individual cannot be stifled by a government or organization, unless that individual wants something very badly from that government; and the government them decides to with-hold it. Some creatively thinking young MAN should negotiate with Best’s wife, to use part of that space to encourage and nurture critical thinking in young boys. Do not wait on politicians who value the status quo. Lloyd failed as a revolutionary thinker in this regard.

  11. Very interesting discussion. Some of the criticism about the University are not accurate though. I recently completed two days of a four day training workshop held by the Instructional Development Uint at the UWI St Augustine. Dr Anna May Henry introduced lecturers and tutors to the concepts of cooperative and participative learning. She explained the value of setting objectives and testing at differing levels of cognition.
    On another point:
    While the ability to memorize is taking a beating one cannot doubt that memory is the substance that is used to produce higher order thinking skills. I think the problem withsome tests is that they test memory alone and not memory as part of a multilevel assessment strategy for assessing teaching and learning.
    Why memory is important to the learner, teacher and various others:
    If the learner is a premed student and cannot remember what course to take in an emergency without having to consult a colleague, a lecturer or a book then I would certainly hope that I would never be his/ her patient.

  12. This discussion was very interesting to me. I am a teacher in the U.S. I was schooled in the island of Trinidad. My latter years in the U.S. Each child do learn differently. It is an educator’s duty to reach each student. I must agree TNT’s educational system is in a dire need of a face lift. This is the 21st century and TNT’S school age children must be prepared locally and internationally.
    Each classroom should be a safe, conducive learning enviroment where the teacher becomes a facilatator not a dictator of a lesson.
    According to the researchers, “children learn better from other children”. “Each on teach one”, Incorporate cooperative learning in to your lessons ( small group, buddy/partner system). Making the necessay accomadation for the diverse learners. (visual, auditory, kinesthetic learners). Not if you do not get it crapaud smoke yuh pipe. Utilize your students prior knowledge and add on new knowledge, hands on is inevitably because our children are more visual and media oriented. This not the days of redifusion but BET.
    Get with the program educators of TNT stop developing learning robots. You are never to old to learn. “Teach your students to be critical and analytical thinkers, each student should be develop to the highest level of thinking in all content areas”. No child left behind but incorporate the villgae to raise the child. TNT is the diamond of the Carribean so teach and reach child show the world our true carnival spirit in the arrays, colors, faucets and flawless of the diamond.

  13. Are we aware of what is happening right now in the education system in Trinidad and Tobago? It amazes me how persons stand on the outside and make judgements without sufficient information. -‘The past is a different World’- The education system is evolving from one that placed too much emphasis on memory and the chalk and talk method of teaching and learning it is therefore unfair (I think) to label the education system with the very characteristics that it is discouraging and shedding.

  14. It is about time some one addressed this issue. Each child learns and develops differently it is called “Cognitive Development”. One must have great memmory skills in order to learn. It is not just by reading and writing alone but visual, hands on activities, exploration,discussion, and observation in a cooperative learning enviroment. The vision for the future leaders must come from the classroom.

  15. This article is indeed true. The way the tests are designed students are not given any room for self expression. One may say that the Essay sections of the S.E.A., English language in C.X.C. and General Paper in G.C.E. lend room for expression. However, these exams are known to follow a pattern and therefore, preparation lessons for the Essays are available. After studying the pattern teachers have been know to give students practise in essay topics which may appear on the exam. Thus, it can be safely said that these examinations assess students’ ability to recall and pen what they have been taught before.
    In Trinidad and Tobago we need to refocus our energies into developnig critical thinkers, by using more student centred appraoches to teaching, who can contribute to the development of our nation.

  16. I definitely agree with you. I am a first year linguistics student at UWI and i did very well in exams but as i revised for finals i realised that if i wrote exactly what was said in class i was given a mark showing agreement, however, if i wrote something that i read in a book not recommended but relevant i saw a question mark next to the idea that was written. I thought that it was just me but i saw it on my friend’s exam also. My sister-in law who is a lecturer said that after her students graduate they cannot perform what they are taught. I told her that if less than three months of lectures are given and within that time a 10pg research paper has to be submitted and a mid-term is given and a presentation has to be made and independent research is required for each of five courses, my main objective is to simply pass that test even if it means memorizing word for word without fully understanding. I was so exhausted after this semester that i just wanted to get it over with. I have always thought that learning should be a gradual experience and not something that is rushed. Ask me a basic question about morphology or semantics and you’ll find me saying “let me get my text.”

  17. This is so true. Our children are suffering the consequences for this and we as citizens need to rise above the level of relaxation and give some more input to assist the future generation of tomorrow.


  19. And if you fail to obtain your desired goal, then what would it be Kieron, short of the Gramazone bottle? Blame someone else for depriving you from what you believe was rightfully yours? Time Trinidad to end this ghastly Eurocentric, neo colonial, elitist, class driven , practices, where advantaged and children of privileged ,garner all the educational spoils, or the desperate peons sell their souls to obtain psychological solace, and social acceptance through these and similar power cravings.

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