The education system is partially to blame for the poor results obtained by Maltese students in recent international reports, according to the former dean of the Faculty of Education Carmel Borg.
“All of us who form part of the education system are partly responsible for the successes and the failures of our students. No one is to be absolved from he results,” Prof. Borg, who specialises in curriculum studies, told Times of Malta, following the publication of international reports showing Maltese schoolchildren lagging behind in reading and science skills.
In recent weeks the Education Ministry released the Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) which ranked Malta 40th out of 50 countries in science skills and 28th in mathematics skills. Another study – the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) – ranked the island 35th out of 45 countries in literacy and reading skills. Both studies are carried out among primary school children.
Prof. Borg has been pushing for the publication of these international comparative studies, which were available last year, because together with the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which focuses on 15-year-olds, he believes they provide a good basis for policy development in education.
Despite the good perception of local educational standards, the results did not come as a surprise to Prof. Borg.
“We’re living an illusion... Our education system is sick and I am in favour of taking part in these international tests as they are the beginning – together with local research – of finding a cure,” he says.
The results have “absolutely nothing to do” with the students’ intelligence and the focus should shift onto the educational system. He believes there is a mismatch between the skills and competences tested by these studies and those taught at school.
These studies gauge higher order cognitive skills, including problem-solving, creative and critical thinking, enquiry-based learning and reasoning, while in Malta generations of students have been schooled in lower order cognitive skills – memory work and regurgitation.
“We need to do something immediately, starting off with accepting that our educational expectations and pedagogy are not addressing the higher order cognitive skills.
“Pisa revealed that even so-called high achievers scored poorly in skills like reflection and evaluation. These studies are showing us that the system is not only short-changing those falling behind, but also those who in our eyes are doing well. Our children are victim of a quasi-irrelevant educational process,” he added.
Prof. Borg worked in secondary and trade schools before continuing his doctoral studies in Canada. After serving as dean, he now teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Malta, specialising in curriculum studies, sociology of education and critical pedagogy.
With 26 years of experience in the sector, Prof. Borg lectures students from three different generations, all product of a “tragic cycle”.
Nearly all of his students readily identify themselves with the traditional conservative transmission model, which sees teachers sitting upfront imparting knowledge while students absorb and consume the information passively.
The effect of this model on these prospective teachers is “very sad passivity and a phobia of being critical.
And although they gain awareness about this model’s repercussions, when they land a teaching job, they generally reproduce the school’s conservative and hierarchical culture.
One of the negative repercussions of the current education system, he adds, is the democratic deficit it produces, since democracy is largely dependent on critical thinking.
Asked whether the use of the English language could have contributed to the poor results in these international studies, he believes that the results would not have been much better had some of the tests been conducted in Maltese.
“We need to reclaim a decent level of English because the general level is abysmal. The first step would be to focus on teachers themselves. I feel there are some teachers whose level of English is not adequate.
“The moment we started treating English as a foreign language we threw the proverbial towel at our standards in English, giving an educational, social and economic advantage to those who benefit from homes where English is spoken freely and correctly.
“For those whose only hope is school we have to make sure that teachers are highly competent in this language,” Prof. Borg says, adding that in a couple of years the Faculty of Education will be asking for higher grades in English at entry point. English will be required at A level for those enrolling as prospective primary school teachers
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