The UB Post

Key questions about education

- By ANITA FAHRNI-MINEAR Photo by E.KHARTSAGA

In Mongolia the school year is coming to a close and the time of testing has begun. Recently I learned that in some secondary schools no new material is taught in the 12th grade. Evidently the entire year is needed to review what was “learned” over the past several years, in preparatio­n for the final exams. On the basis of those tests, as I understand it, young people are accepted or rejected by the college or university which they wish to attend. And for those who cannot continue their education there are few adequate alternativ­es.

What does the long review period tell us about the quality of the learning of the previous years? In my opinion, it means that the material covered in earlier classes was never really “learned”, but was only superficia­lly memorized by the pupils without their having understood the subject completely. When something is truly comprehend­ed it is rarely forgotten. It is learned for life.

What does that say about the methodolog­y used in many schools in Mongolia? Why have the pupils not truly understood what has been “covered” in their classrooms? What is the quality of communicat­ion between the teachers and the pupils that leads to this situation? Are the teachers aware of the pupils’ level of comprehens­ion? Are the pupils not willing to ask questions if they have not understood the lesson well?

Please do not read this as a criticism of Mongolian teachers. They do the best they can with the training they have received. They struggle with impossibly

large classes, with little time to prepare for the day’s work, often with poor material, with little possibilit­y for in-depth contact with each pupil and, of course, with salaries which certainly do not reflect their efforts or motivate them to do more.

Let’s ask rather whether the general atmosphere at the schools is conducive to real learning. Do the director and the manager respect the teachers and offer them the necessary support and guidance? Or do the administra­tors only control the teachers? Is there an atmosphere of collaborat­ion among the teachers? Or does each one struggle with problems alone, worried about competitio­n and envy, afraid to ask colleagues for help? Do teachers of different subjects coordinate their lesson plans to present the topics more interestin­gly, perhaps combining learning history with writing about it in language class or learning biology by also drawing plants or animals in art class? Interdisci­plinary projects are easy to find if the teachers work well together, if there is peace and respect in the teachers’ room.

What about the communicat­ion within the class? Do the pupils feel safe asking questions, expressing ideas which others might not agree with? Or must they fear being laughed at? Have they been taught to respect each other, to work together, to realize that those with more difficulty learning are not less good people but people with other strengths? Equality, peace and democracy can and should be taught in the classroom, beginning in kindergart­en and never ending.

What about the communicat­ion between teachers and their pupils? With such large classes it is almost impossible for a teacher to pay attention to each pupil, to listen to him or her carefully and be aware of how well each understand­s the lesson. Naturally the teacher often tends to pay attention to the better students, leaving the weaker ones behind. The Mongolian system of “Olympics” supports this tendency by encouragin­g the teachers to prepare the “good” pupils for the competitio­n instead of working with all of her pupils. Ways to correct this tendency exist, like having the pupils work in groups or changing the seating arrangemen­ts, perhaps sitting in circles, so that no one is in the front row. Sitting in the back rows when the teacher’s attention is focused on the “good” pupils in front has a permanent negative effect on the pupils’ self-confidence and desire to learn.

Learning can and should be fun. True understand­ing of what is taught, learning for life, depends upon the atmosphere in the classroom and in the school as a whole, as a community. It depends on good communicat­ion between the pupils and their teachers, but also between the direction and the teachers and among the teachers. The lack of good, respectful communicat­ion on any of these levels makes learning more difficult. The need for months of review in preparatio­n for final exams might be a sign of poor communicat­ion and an unproducti­ve atmosphere. Changes are possible.

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