kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Thinking out of the box ~ An Old Phrase

Examiners should allow students to think and answer questions in an unconventional way instead of expecting them to stick to techniques that they have deemed correct.

ALTHOUGH Dilla never fails to reassure me of her inherent non-confrontational, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ approach to life, over the years, I have learnt that nothing could be further from the truth at least as far as Dilla’s so-called ‘peace-loving’ attributes are concerned.

So when she called last week asking if she could come over to discuss some “exam” related stuff, my internal radar picked up weird, crackling signals, which in retrospect I really should have paid more attention to.

I had hardly finished mumbling a faint “Yes, well ... see you”, when she was at the doorstep with a folder-bag bulging with bundles of students’ examination scripts.

After informing me that my living room curtains didn’t match my cushion covers, she settled down comfortably on my sofa and whipped out a creased and crumpled sheet of paper scattered with red ink marks.

“In the Midst of Hardship,” she said in true Academy Award announcement fashion. “ Latiff Mohidin”

“Is this where I applaud?” I asked her, but Dilla was not amused.

I knew she was referring to the poem In the Midst of Hardship, by Latiff Mohidin which was part of the literature component of the English language subject for Malaysian upper secondary school students.

The poem was about villagers returning home after an arduous but unsuccessful all day-all night search for a missing buffalo. It portrayed also their acceptance of life’s adversities with equanimity and a spirit of stoicism. The following are the first few lines of the poem:

At dawn they returned home

their soaky clothes torn

and approached the stove

“Section C, question 1,” said Dilla, clearing her throat. “And do take note of the correct answer in the marking scheme. Why did the people in the poem approach the stove?”

I must have appeared a little doubtful, so she thrust the paper into my hands.

“Here read it yourself. This is a “one mark” question. Defined as lower-order question. Ever heard of Bloom? Lower order, higher order thinking skills?”

“Ok,” I said, trying very hard to recall what I could of the different thinking skills in the taxonomy.

At that moment Bloom seemed to me very far away in another country.

“So they approached the stove,” Dilla went on, in a serious tone.

“They were drenched in flood water, wet, cold, hungry, probably disappointed even if they didn’t show it, and a whole host of things. So why did they approach the stove?”

“ To dry off?” I ventured.

“To get close to a fire because they were probably cold ... and hungry.

When you are soaked to the skin and famished, what do you do first? Eat or get out of your wet clothes first ... but then what if you did not have a change of clothes? Maybe they just wanted to get dry first …Yes, I’ll stick to my first answer, though I wouldn’t say the second or third were wrong.

“Gee! Dilla, tough question seeing I’ve never had to wade through flood waters to rescue my son’s albino buffalo. I don’t even have a son, let alone albino buffalo. There are so many possibilities. Are there any wrong or right answers anyway?”

Different interpretations

I saw a gleam in Dilla’s eye. “Possibilities, she said, Ah possibilities, there is hope yet for you my friend. It’s all about possibilities ... she trailed off almost wistfully.

It turned out that she had had a spat with one of her colleagues about this question.

While Dilla was open to different interpretations, the other teacher who prided himself in being an authority on all things related to exam questions, answers and techniques, and who served in question formulation committees, insisted that for a “low-order” single mark question, only one answer (his) was acceptable.

And as usual, whenever the all-powerful public examination marking style was mentioned, there was general acquiescence and almost meek submission among teachers.

But Dilla wasn’t that easily suppressed. And I could actually see where she was coming from.

Looking back, I knew the issue here had to do with the creative and critical thinking skills that are so frequently mentioned in education circles.

These thinking skills had been incorporated into the Malaysian school curriculum for some time now in an effort to encourage not only logical thinking and reasoning, but also other skills like flexibility, originality, imagery, and metaphorical thinking.

Apart from that, the aim of creative thinking is to stimulate curiosity and promote divergence.

So the point that Dilla was trying to make was clear.

While so many claims are made about the incorporation of thinking skills in the curriculum and the continual emphasis on encouraging students to become independent and creative thinkers who are also capable of deductive and inductive reasoning, at the same time certain elements in the system seem to negate these efforts.

They seem to be merely doing so by demanding that students think in a certain prescribed way, so that they would not miss out on whatever “rewards” there may be.

What is sometimes, almost grievous, is the way creativity and the sheer joy of learning is stifled and almost choked out of the student by the over-emphasis on examination answering techniques.

Very often, the whole wonder of education, the spontaneity, the opportunity to explore, discover, grow, create and learn, is side-stepped, pushed aside and trampled upon, in the frenzy to get the “correct” examination answering techniques.

We are even guilty at times of dictating how “creative” responses should be. This is the way you should think. This is the formula you should use. Think any differently, and you will be penalised.

Granted that the role of the public examination is pivotal in determining the direction of a student’s future, correctexam-answering techniques become crucial to their performance and subsequent grades.

This is an almost inescapable fact at present.

While it is not entirely possible or even desirable to downplay the importance of mastering answering techniques, perhaps the questions themselves should allow room for greater subjectivity and unconventional or novel ways of thinking.

Those directly involved with formulating these questions may be quick to point out that questions requiring students to “think out of the box” are indeed always included in every examination.

This may be true and in order to realise the objectives of these questions that require “critical and creative” thinking skills, we may have to make sure that students don’t simply think out of one box only to fall into another.


Source: The STAR Home Education Sunday March 25, 2012
Tags: education

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