Now that I've been here for two school years, of course I know everything there is to know about the education system in Malawi. I have a lot of observations about it (and some pretty strong opinions, too, if you hadn't guessed), so I try to articulate them here. That sound you hear is me dragging over my soapbox.
To explain why many of my students answered the question, “What were Protestants and Catholics called in Buganda?” with “Playing five times a day” on their term exams requires two years of frustration, desperation, heartache, and moments of unalloyed, joyous triumph.
First, there's the dreaded R-L mix-up. In Malawi, the two letters are virtually interchangeable, giving my students names like Frolence, Calorine and Flank. Thus, “playing, ”despite repeated attempts to convince them that the thing you do with a football and the thing you do in church are, in fact, not the same. (This argument was particularly ineffective during the 2010 World Cup, when there really didn't seem to be much difference between the pitch and the pew.)
Which brings us to “praying five times a day.” A sensible answer, if they had been answering my first question: “Name two of the five pillars of Islam,” but irrelevant to Protestants, Catholics, and their Bugandan appellations.
This answer is the result of two serious problems in Malawian secondary schools: a myopic focus on examinations, and tolerance of functional illiteracy.
Malawian students are judged by one omnipotent standard: the national exams, administered in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade. These orgies of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank are the only measurement that determine whether or not a student may advance. Here's a sample question from the 2010 Junior Certificate Examination (tenth grade):
Complete the sentence with the correct form of the word in brackets.
The __________________ of the boy from school was a surprise. (expel)
Or, from the 2011 Sample JCE Examination:
How ironic is the statement, “I never eat more than one thing for luncheon”.
This is not a reading comprehension question. It refers, without printing the passage in which this statement occurs on the test, to a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. And how is a student supposed to answer this? “Slightly ironic”? “Incredibly ironic”? “Medium ironic”?
Small wonder that students care very little about the content of their classes; no teacher could reasonably prepare them for the caprices of the exam. These exams test specific knowledge, rather than skill sets. Instead of real comprehension, they are tested on the contents of various approved textbooks, which their school might not be able to afford. In Social Studies, students might be asked for the definition of “culture”; any variation from the textbook answer will earn zero marks.
Since your regular class time counts for virtually nothing except as exam prep, why study? In my subjects, English and History, there's really no incentive to do any reading. Most of the kids aren't taking the History exam anyway (the English exam is required). There's also no incentive to pay attention or participate if we're doing something that isn't on the exam -- meaning, any reading, creative writing, or critical thinking exercises. And yet, those pesky term exams keep coming around, and school reports keep getting sent home to Bamama and Badada.
Their solution: become inveterate and shameless cheaters.
After watching my students cheat, I finally understand how teachers and parents have eyes in the backs of their heads. The students are about as subtle as a Chihuahua trying to hide a giraffe bone. They whisper and fidget, get up to borrow pencils, use notebooks clearly labeled HISTORY as “scratch” paper. It would be easy to catch them but for the sheer volume of deceit; but then, catching them is one thing, and punishing them is another. Cheating is an accepted form of scholarship at many a CDSS. When, last term, I caught a student with an open textbook on his lap during an exam and reported him to the exam's grader, he lost only five points out of a hundred -- and I was chastised for not allowing him to finish the test. Avoiding that kind of slap on the wrist is hardly incentive for students to stay on the straight and narrow, especially when the penalty for failing is so high: another year's tuition for cash-strapped and hungry families.
There's also little reason for teachers to crack down on cheating. Since they are employed by the district, not by the individual school or town, their jobs rely on very little besides showing up sober, and sometimes not even that. In some respects, cheating makes teachers' lives easier. Students get better marks, pass on to the next grade, and the teacher gets a good reputation. Since, culturally, cheating is seen a whole lot like sharing (something we encourage in our kindergartners but not in our Stephen Ambroses), the community turns a blind eye to its dishonesty. Students win; parents win; teachers win. I shouldn't be surprised that they think I'm being too particular.
That's how we end up with “playing five times a day.” Looking over a neighbor's shoulder without looking too hard, somebody wrote it down. Then their neighbor copied it, and so on, until nearly every paper in the place bore the same non sequitur.
But, you ask (I certainly did), wouldn't they notice that “playing five times a day” makes no sense as an answer? There's no complicated vocabulary here, no confusing sentence structure. Every word is perfectly comprehensible. And yet, a majority of my students let it flow from their brains to their pencil tips without any apparent understanding of what they were writing.
Culturally, the understanding of education is very different from America's. Parents strongly encourage their children to study, and families who barely eat sometimes find the money for school fees. But I find their definition of “education” misguided: the exams have led to an emphasis on knowledge, to the detriment of thinking. Students spend hours copying paragraphs and illustrations out of the textbooks without understanding a word. Often, the only function of a teacher is to copy from the book to the board. Debate is not permitted. Discussion is not encouraged. Dissension is flat-out forbidden.
This is how functionally illiterate students reach high school. Sure, they can copy down some great notes on wind patterns for Geography, but they can't use “current” in a sentence. They are unable to answer simple questions about plot and character. Recently, when I asked for an example of a predicate nominative, a student combined two examples I'd written on the board to form “The dog is Mrs. Banda.” I cackled alone at the board, but not one student saw the joke.
The written word plays an entirely different role here. These kids never see a billboard, never mind a book. People wear t-shirts with printed slogans such as “This is what a Jewish feminist looks like” without ever considering what they say. Letters, and especially English letters, are strictly under the provenance of school. Once they leave these cement-block buildings, the only reading they'll do will be from the Bible (every time I sit on my porch reading a novel, people pass by and say, “Ah, Maggie, mukuberenga bibulo” -- you are reading the Bible), and the only English will be in newspapers. As such, written language is not an instrument for communication or expression, but a frustrating puzzle which must be broken apart for the sake of that darned exam.
It's not all about availability. Of course, most students have no access to books of any kind, much less the panoply of junior fiction that most American middle schoolers consider a baseline. But that's not the only reason people don't read. At our school, we have over two thousand books, donated by churches, organizations, bought by our school funds, and loaned from the Mzuzu National Library. Our shelves hold such gems as Antony and Cleopatra, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the entire collected works of Dickens, not to mention lots of lower-level reading material. (We also have such donated treasures as The Royal Baby Portrait Album and How Our Sewer System Works -- how did the donors let these get away?)
Yet very few students ever enter the library. It's open every Tuesday and some Fridays, under my eagle eye, and still they don't come. I have tried to entice them with candy and National Geographics -- if you don't like that combination, you're probably dead -- with no success. There is simply no culture of reading.
Of course, this diatribe doesn't address any of the other serious problems in Malawian schools -- sexual abuse, lack of resources, corruption -- but it also doesn't address any of the benefits. These kids have unbelievable power of recall. They can recite, word for word, exercises from last week and paragraphs from books. I'd love to put them to work on the stage. They are usually cheerful, though rowdy, and they beg for extra class time (though when it is actually offered they don't always show up). There's none of the social stigma that afflicts American suck-ups. They greet me smiling in the street. And, of course, when I actually glimpse some understanding, detect some discernment, it colors my whole week with joy.
A few weeks ago, a student -- the aforementioned Flank -- came to ask me an unusual question. Not to lend him money, not the part of speech of “oceanic”, but why the Renaissance started in Italy. After recovering from shock and congratulating him on his perceptive question, I listed a few reasons off the top of my head: rival cities competing, healthy trade and industry, business from the Church. He looked at me suspiciously.
“Those aren't the reasons listed in the book,” he said.
Maybe, I said, but they're still true.
Flank shook his head. “I don't understand how you think like that. How do you think like that?”
“Practice. And training,” I said. I didn't add, years of reading; hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of education; upbringing in a culture and family that value knowledge and thinking; sufficient nutrition in utero supporting brain development; or any of the thousands of other factors that influence my thought processes.
Flank's chin lifted. He looked at all the books behind my desk, that dark background to my white skin, and he said, “I don't understand it, but I'm going to try.”
When I first started teaching, I thought all Malawi needed to reach the intellectual heights of the first world was books and computers. Now I appreciate that what they really need are more students like Flank -- students who use their heads for more than hat racks, who can distinguish between a dumb book and a smart one, who know that education is about more than facts. The intelligence is unquestionably there; it's the training and encouragement that's absent. It's only a matter of time before they finally nail that R-L difference. Here's to more English, and less Engrish.