Monday, February 2, 2009

Exam Result Day at School

In my earlier blog, I talked about what the kids wear when they go to school. Blue shirt, blue tie, blue sweater, blue pants, blue socks, and black shoes that they polish every morning. They take school very seriously, and I expected these kids to be very smart and ahead of our average American.

Four times a year, the kids are tested in eight different subjects, each test taking three hours. They must pass all of the tests at the end of the year in order to advance to the next grade. Out of all of the kids at the orphanage, only 90% usually pass into the next grade. They are tested in Nepali, English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Computer Science, General Knowledge, and Health and Physical Education. These kids are taking 24 hours of tests every three months! I thought they had to be smarter than American students.

I went with them to school on their exam results day. For the hour that I was there, I walked around speechless and with my mouth open. Their classrooms looked more like prison cells than rooms to learn in. Concrete walls and floors, one small blackboard, and benches for everyone to sit on. There were a couple of large holes in some of the walls, and there was no air conditioning or heat. Most of our parents' master bathrooms are bigger than their classrooms.

They all ran to their teachers to get their exam results from over a week of testing. I learned a lot about the Nepali school system after looking at their results. First, every kid is ranked in his grade based on these exam scores. Kids as young as second grade have a rank, and ranks are public information. Second, you only have to get 40% of the information correct to pass an exam. The teaching focus is not around learning the information but getting the students to pass these exams.

Because students are tested so often and there is so much pressure to pass the exams, subjects are taught quickly and purely on memorization. These kids are learning how to memorize, but you can't learn math, science, or English on pure memorization. If they do not learn fast enough they are often slapped by their teachers, so the pressure to memorize is enormous. In the mornings, I have been helping the older kids with their homework. For everyone that was worried out there, these Nepali students are not ahead of American students. The only way to describe how they learn is by a couple of examples.

I was trying to help a girl solve a math problem based on cubes and rectangular prisms. Before we started the problem, I asked her to point out a rectangular prism in the room. I was holding a chalkboard eraser right in front of her and waving it around. She could not identify any rectangular prisms in the room, but she could rattle off the formulas for the volume and surface area. She also did not know the meaning of volume or surface area.

Another boy was studying computer science. In the end of chapter questions, the first question asked "What is a computer?" When I asked him this question, he thought for a moment and then responded. "A computer is an electronic device that--"

"Stop." I said. "What is a computer, in your own words?" He had memorized the definition given to him, and "electronic" and "device" were not in his English vocabulary. He sat there for a full minute and could not come up with any sort of a response. I then asked him "If you are going to explain what a computer is to a four year old, what would you tell him?" Another minute passed, and still no response. This kid is one of the better English speakers in the orphanage, but he could not explain in his own words what a computer was.

In two days I am going to start teaching extra English classes to small groups of kids at the orphanage. We'll see how that goes.

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