a is for apple,b is for banana...e is for EXAMS

For the past two weeks my learners and I have been subjected to the examination process. This is a form of assessment that is firmly established in our schools. It wasn’t until my honours year that I started questioning the foreboding period of exams. My annoyance set in when I realised that exams were useless for the courses I was doing at the time as I had been handing in papers and essays throughout the year. What does a controlled setting and controlled time tell us about the knowledge students (in my case high school learners) have acquired over time?

Because exams are a given in our schools, learners only engage with exams because they have to. Before exams I asked my learners what they do when they study. Many told me they rewrite their notes, others use a highlighter and pen to make note of the important facts on the class notes they have been given, while others are just not interested.

During exams everyone takes on a different rhythm. School starts later than usual and ends earlier. After school learners have the choice of going home or staying at school to study (the assumption is that some learners come from homes where there isn’t a conducive environment to support learning). In spite of the different rhythm, learners feign stress. Kids have to study for hours and it is expected that those who put in the necessary hours will be rewarded with the expected results. Since this was my first exam period as a teacher, I noticed that many learners were not good at sitting in silence for more than 30 minutes, studying before an exam. Girls were better at this than boys as most read novels instead of revising from their notes. I also noticed many learners bunking the after school study sessions as much as possible (to play soccer or loiter in town).

By the end of the second week of exams, fatigue settled in the small of my back and I kept telling friends, ndidinwe ngaphakathi (I’m tired inside my body-an expression I use to depict inexplicable exhaustion ). Even though I wasn’t actively teaching, I became exhausted without realising it. I was tired from sitting and marking and sorting through the paperwork in order to make sure that all my marking is done timeously for the end of term madness of reports and final marks. I also had more time to wonder about my teaching in relation to the results that started emerging while I was marking.

I ended up with a few questions: why is this form of assessment privileged? What do exams tell me about my learners’ abilities? What do exams tell me about my teaching? I haven’t got answers to these questions yet as I may be asking them in vain. Exams are firmly established and unquestioned practices as they prepare learners for Grade 12 where the main form of assessment requires learners to study for hours and write for many hours all the knowledge they have acquired in their 12 years at school. They are granted a piece of paper which will hopefully allow them further study where a similar process of exams is repeated if they choose to go to a university.

My ontological quandary with exams has left me wondering about what knowledge means for both the teacher and the learner and without having too much of an existential crises: what is the point of all of this? Am I a teacher so that I can prepare my learners for exams?
While leading up to exams I began telling my learners that some of the activities they will do in school are not important because they do not relate to the real world. Such activities are important because they are simply a means to an end; the end being a piece of paper proving that they can do the necessary work we set out for them at school—simply an academic exercise. And exams are the perfect example of this.

Schools are about school knowledge so there are no mechanisms in place measuring if learners have become better people in the term or whether their self-esteem has improved or whether their racial prejudice has changed. The output is quantified in relation to subjects and learners are compartmentalised into people who have school knowledge and life knowledge and school knowledge seems to get all of the attention.

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