I used to teach English in Egypt. To be more accurate, I used to teach pupils to pass their English tests. We had a book called Living English, based on a series of dialogues. These usually started out well then exploded in mid-flight. “What school are you in? I am in Tanta Prep School. The walls are big and the ceilings are high”.
Not that that bothered the kids. They understood, well before me, that you had to treat the thing like a catechism. So all over the country, when you asked any child where they went to school, they all replied Tanta Prep. Some of my colleagues dreamed of organising a pilgrimage to this mythical school, but we never got round to it.
The result, naturally, was that pupils who got a perfect score in the exam couldn’t hold a simple conversation with a native speaker. Except me. One of my fondest memories is of a post office in Cairo where two boys who’d obviously tried their English on every foreigner they’d seen asked me “How are you, mister?” It was liking watching the sun rise on their faces when I replied “Fine thank you. How’s Nabil? He’s fine too”.
I thought this kind of caricature of learning had long since disappeared, but looking at the results of the “Raise your hand” exercise organised by the OECD Education Directorate, I’m not so sure. People from over 90 countries, including Egypt, cast 27,000 votes on what the priorities for education should be.
“Teach to think, not to regurgitate” is top of the list, and judging from the most popular proposals, the other flaws in the system where I taught are still widespread. For instance, many participants mention equal opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In my school, children whose parents couldn’t afford private tuition had practically no chance of succeeding.
And it wasn’t just a question of money either. At a university where I also taught, one of my co-examiners wanted to fail a student in the spoken English exam on the grounds that her parents were peasants and she shouldn’t be allowed to become a teacher.
It happens in OECD countries too, though probably not so blatantly. A working paper from OECD’s Deborah Nusche talks about the “dreary results” in the education of migrants and even students whose parents were migrants. The good news, as Deborah points out, is that this situation is not inevitable.
If you’d like to find out more, the Education Directorate has produced a short introduction to their work that’s also a practical summary of the main concerns in education today and how teaching will have to evolve to respond to new needs and expectations in the years to come.
And for tomorrow, learn this: “Let us go and say hello to our old classmates. Goodbye.”