Exams, Academic Writing, and Nepalese ELT
Related to the issue of testing vis-a-vis its role and justification in education, I would like to share in this brief post a few thoughts about the other side of testing: engaging students in academic writing that allows them to express their ideas more freely and creatively.
I recently attended a pre-conference full day workshop at the Annual Convention of the college chapter of US National Council of Teachers of English (the CCC) in Atlanta City, Georgia. This workshop, which brought together scholars of English and Writing Studies from different countries, focused on the need to understand how academic writing is done in different parts of the world. It is traditionally assumed that academic writing is only taught as a separate subject in schools and colleges in the United States; it is believed that academic systems in other places (like our own) only use writing as a testing tool. Increasing amount of research and scholarly conversation is showing that that is not always the case: writing may not be taught as a separate subject in other countries but schools and teachers do find ways to use writing to fulfill more than the purpose of testing students’ knowledge on the subject matter of another course. For instance, when listening to a French professor of writing, I felt that there are much more complex epistemological functions that writing serves between the simple distinctions between writing to learn and writing to be tested on the knowledge gained. However, the workshop made me feel very strongly that the Nepalese education system does not integrate writing as a form of learning nearly as well as many other countries around the world seem to do.
In Nepal, we have not yet developed curricular and pedagogical practices that foster epistemological agency in our students. That is, we do not let students write in order to generate their own new ideas. Students write to demonstrate knowledge, not to create it. This is not a matter of distinction between us/east and the west, but in Nepal (and more generally in South Asian societies) teachers and curriculum developers seem to be still stuck in the classical idea that knowledge is out there, that new knowledge is the domain of the few “jannes,” (the knowers) that the teachers’ job is to transmit immutable truths from the real jannes up/out there to the students down there, and that it is good enough for students to just learn and regurgitate what we teach them. We do not yet see that it is only by generating new ideas as part of their learning process that learners become capable of succeeding in the knowledge economy of today’s world. Our students don’t solve problems, they just understand problems identified by others and solutions found out by others. Like Sajan has said in the editorial, our academic institutions produce owners of certificates, not producers of new knowledge. We don’t prepare our students to respond to novel situations in life and work with new ideas. We teach theories, they go solve practical problems, rarely making any connections between the theories and the real problems. We never encourage students to question the books, rarely ask them to respond to thula manchhes’ (big people’s) ideas with their own, and we do not instill in them the respect for and confidence in their own ideas. I sometimes mentally visualize our education system as a bizarre place where books written in distant places/times are hanging from the ceiling of a room, with teachers trying to read and explain the content of the books to the students who are sitting on the floor, passively listening to the teacher. What the books say is not only out of reach and question of the students, it is also out of the teacher’s own ability and desire to critically assess and understand.
But to me more optimistic, let me segue from that bizarre image to how some new and better developments are also taking place in the sphere of literacy and education in our society as well. At the CCC conference after the workshop, I presented a paper that was based on a book chapter that Balkrishna and I wrote recently. Based on our observation and interviews about popular culture and literacy practices of Nepalese youth online, I talked about the ways in which alternative learning spaces on the web are now beginning to provide young people in traditional societies like Nepal some powerful motivations to adopt/adapt knowledge and popular culture practices from other societies, to create and share new knowledge among themselves, and to subvert the hierarchical knowledge structure that is sustained by hierarchical socio-political structure of our traditional society.
The issue that connects this reflection with my point in the paper is this: educational systems reflect social structures that allow certain groups to “know,” and and they also reflect social worldviews that legitimize and make respectable some people’s knowledge and not others’. For example, when people my age or older grew up (and to a lesser extent even today), younger people were/are constantly reminded NOT to be “janne” in front of the adults: “Janne na ho hai phuchche!” An implicit social norm only allows a few groups of people like the ascetic, the shaman, old men, those with feudal/political power, and recently professional teachers to behave like they know something, to use their knowledge in society. Not kids. In our society, kids can’t act like they know, even if they do know something. And that implicit understanding that only the knowledge of those who wield social and political power should be considered legitimate and meaningful pervades our thinking about education; that understanding shapes the educational structure and prevents new models to enter or thrive. In other words, it is unfortunate but the underlying reason why exams and certificates fundamentally define education itself in our society is because we continue to accept the conventional social structure where knowledge is considered to be the exclusive domain of the few “jannes.” The current model of mass education that lays too much emphasis on examination/testing came from the colonial and Industrial Revolution era of Europe when class and power structured education, not the other way around; but we in South Asia adopted it long ago (from the colonial education in the south) and we are not yet ready to move from there to something more democratic, more learner-centered, an educational mechanism that is more attuned to the knowledge economy of the present century. We don’t want the kids to steal the fire, and that is why we don’t feel the need to ask them to voice their opinions, challenge old ideas develop new ones, and use writing to create and share new knowledge that matters to them. We either don’t know or don’t care how much this old worldview will hurt our future generations’ opportunities and ability to compete in the increasingly globalized knowledge economy.
The strength of a society’s desire for something, or lack thereof, is determined by its worldview. Our educational systems are the manifestations of our lack of desire to help students to create new knowledge; they are designed to make students tell us back what we tell them. In my paper, I talked about how the socio-epistemological structure of traditional societies are changing as a result of the new wave of new technologies, connection to popular culture activities online, and access to information. For example, the fact that Nepalese youngsters now can find more information online–more interesting and more relevant to them–than their school provides them has greatly increased the chances of them sharing their own ideas with others without the inhibition of the janne adults. But unfortunately, while alternative affinity spaces like social networking and media sharing sites online have created such new possibilities, our students have to ultimately depend on our accreditation of their learning with formal certificates, which in turn come from regurgitating what we or the textbooks told them and not from creating and sharing new knowledge.
In my talk, I invoked the idea of the “choutari,” which reminds us that even in the hierarchical social and knowledge structure of our traditional society, there were indigenous spaces where people came together to share ideas, solve problems, and let the younger generations gradually take over the conversation. So it is not that we the easterners had it all wrong in terms of democratic ownership and use of knowledge; indeed, it is our adoption of the “modern” model of formal education that ironically replaced several organic knowledge structures that existed in the society. The modern model of “western” education is actually what came out of the industrial model that has outrun its purpose and utility for a new knowledge economy in a globalized world.
What we need to do, then, is to seriously think about how we may be able to mitigate the stifling effects of turning education into testing machines, adopt and adapt models of education that make space for learners to engage in creating ans sharing new knowledge, and where possible find out what local knowledge structures are worth drawing on towards enhancing the epistemological agency of our students. The advancement of academic writing as a part of learning is one of the practical solutions to the problem of stultifying education with exams and tests. It is time that we look at other societies and their educational systems for better uses of writing than for administering exams. In the west, hypercapitalism’s invasion of the educational sphere has put the cart of testing before the horses of education; we in Nepal seem to be obsessed with testing because it gives us a false sense of security by disallowing the kids to threaten our power and positions by questioning our knowledge or trying to replace/improve it with their own.
We have taken just enough exams since the establishment of “modern” education: it’s time to really modernize our education by giving our students real opportunities to create and share knowledge–through writing as knowledge-making.