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Est 2011

Balancing educational ideals with mainstream conventions

Dear Kairosians,

This has been an intense term with many important challenges we have tackled — including revising our discipline procedures, refining the format of our mid-year assessments, and significantly upgrading our admin and accounting systems with our new and wonderful Lorna van der Lith and Stephen Lindes. For this Hmmm, I would like to offer some thoughts on our first ever set of exams in Kairos — in the Grades 6 and 7 class.

It is significant that the students themselves initiated the idea of writing the exams. This is a fascinating fact. It is wonderful that these students recognise their need to prepare for high school pressure by practising the writing of exams, and as teachers we were impressed by their sense of responsibility to engage us on this question.

On the other hand, it is clear how the mass schooling system exerts its pressure on our children. The pressure to be “normal” means so much that our children request us to impose on them the intense and stressful experience of writing exams, even though this will involve a lot of extra home study, and likely be uncomfortably stressful — and it certainly was.

How unfortunate that the experience of study becomes something so stressful. And, it is important to observe, the examinations the students wrote were not much different to other tests previously — in duration, difficulty or number of marks. It was the rituals of the event that were the source of their stress. We separated the desks, and asked them to write on separate pieces of paper rather than their usual workbooks, and timing was more formal, and we cancelled classes to give them more study time. Perhaps the most stressful part of the experience was that we called these exams, not tests, and somehow that sent the message that they counted!

It was as if these exams were such high stakes the result would be held as an eternal judgment on their CVs. I hope you understand me when I offer the bemused observation that it would be useful if our students were to take their on-going tests a little more seriously and their exams a little less seriously. I wish our students were to approach all their tasks as if they “counted” — to themselves — and if they really had done their best then that’s all they could be expected to achieve.

Perhaps it is not quite changing the subject to offer the observation that last week’s Science Fair was run along similar lines to the mainstream “Eskom Expo for Young Scientists.” Our Science Fair ran on the same marking guidelines as the Eskom Expo, we offered similar prizes compared to other schools’ Science Expos, and we were fortunate to welcome (once again) a very experienced Eskom Science Expo judge for Gauteng as one of our judges. Just as the Senior Class students enjoyed feeling the normative pressure of mid-year exams (as other schools do), we teachers were able to experience the normative comfort that our junior scientists (Grades 4-7) are confirmed to be performing above average for their Science Projects compared to a typical school in the Gauteng region.

Our choices to introduce the Science Fair and the Seniors’ Exams into the Kairos calendar are both the result of norms in the conventional schooling system. Norms and standards typically present danger to a school’s effectiveness. One risk is that teachers may “teach to the test” to the neglect of genuine understanding. Another is the questions posed are problematic to begin with, distracting the students from meaningful inquiry and/or “dumbing down” the quality of their learning.

In these two instances, however, I feel it was the appropriate choice for us to conform to the mainstream. I have often mentioned how, at Kairos, we endeavour to strike a healthy and conscious balance between our educational ideals and the mainstream. It’s important that our children are able to access the opportunities that the mainstream schooling system will ask of them, as long as this does not result in compromises that are anti-educational. Moving abruptly from a play-oriented kindergarten into a schooling system in which abstract concepts must be learned on demand and under pressure, is anti-educational. A constant testing regime without the time for personal inquiry nor invitation for creative initiative is anti-educational. As is a rigid curriculum that is preoccupied with facts to be memorised and reproduced.

In the case of our recent exams, however, it is worthwhile for our Seniors to experience the rituals of high-status, summative assessments (“that count”). High status results of exams can be scary, and our Seniors are becoming old enough to experience the fear and stress they bring. We want to be a school with a minimum amount of fear. Here the children themselves identified their fear of their future performance in exams, and so our exams are a helpful preparation for their future life.

I have previously believed teaching the skills of test-writing is sufficient to prepare children to write exams, but I had discounted the power of ritual. In future, we will now be better planned to prepare the children for both the technical skills of time management and study skills, but the skills of self-management during stress as well.

In the case of our Science Fair, some students were awarded prizes. The direct consequence of this is that many children were not awarded prizes. This is unusual for us in Kairos, and definitely a compromise with regard to our ideal. However, it is clear that overall our junior scientists engaged in their projects with sincerity, curiosity and dedication. They posed a scientific question themselves, and set about investigating an answer. I believe for most, if not for all our students, whether or not they won was less a motivation thanachieving the task for its own sake. On the other hand, if they avoided the idea of participating in the Science Fair because of a fear of competing, then that exposes a learning journey which would not have been recognised had we been too precious about our ideals.

We want our children to acquire, and to maintain, a healthy attitude to learning. As the child grows he or she grows in capacity to handle different sorts of learning challenges, and these might include challenges in which it is possible to win a prize (and therefore to lose), or to be judged by an exam result (and therefore perhaps to fail). If our children do their best, regardless of the external judgment, they are already successful and winners. Therein lies our most important educational objective.

Your Headmonster

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