Do Examinations Do More Harm Than Good?
On Eggs and Exams
I've been acting like an egg striking a rock. What is this egg? It's the campaign against the old-fashioned way of teaching Intensive Reading . And what' s the rock?. It' s the old-fashioned way of setting exams. So long as the old type of I.R. examination remains in force, the campaign against the old method of teaching I.R. can't win. It's like an egg striking a rock.
Many people agree: Yes, this old-fashioned I.R. (OFIR) is certainly intensive; it calls for most intensive work by the students. But it doesn't teach them how to read. The more intensively the students study, the fewer books they read.
And OFIR doesn't teach them language well either. Learning a language means learning to use it. OFIR doesn't do that. It teaches mainly about the language.
Well, if so many teachers and students agree that OFIR doesn't teach people how to read, why aren't they willing to give it up? Because of that rock - the rock of the old examination system. If that rock is not smashed, the egg is smashed. The campaign against OFIR can't be won.
Many I. R. exams, until now, have actually includec reading material studied during the term. Does that examim how well the students have learnt to read? No. It examine how well they have learnt by heart the reading texts and the explanations the teacher has given them. A student might ge high marks on such .a test without having learnt to read much better than before she took the course. A true test would consist
of unseen passages. That would show how well a studew could read and how much she had learnt.
Is that so important? Yes. A college student should know how to read and should learn to read much and fast. She should, on graduation, have read hundreds and hundreds of pages, dozens and dozens of books. .
How else can our students inherit the knowledge that mankind has gained through the ages? For that is what China must do in order to modernize.
Of course, reading in itself is not enough. We must think - think about what we read and analyze its content, idea: and approach. "Cultivate the habit of analysis." That is the aim of education. But we must have something solid to analyze. We must have some knowledge of the world, of nature, of society, past and present, Chinese and foreign. So we must read much. Therefore we must learn to read fast.
Naturally, we do need to know something about the language. We do need to know some grammar. But grammar is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. For grammar, after all, is theory. And "what is theory for and where does it come from ? It comes from practice and serves practice." The same applies to grammar. So we need to do some intensive reading for the sake of extensive reading, for the sake of reading whole articles, whole books. A little theory goes a long way. The final test is practice.
True, reading is far from the only source of knowledge. Reading without observing life and taking part in life, without experimenting, will produce bookworms, not modernizers.
This does not show that all kinds of I. R. are absolutely useless and should be scrappeds. Some I . R . should be kept but it should be kept within limit. It should not be "the super-power course", riding roughshod over the language curriculum
and taking over most of the timetable. And what I . R . we keep and teach should not be so long and so hard that the teacher is forced to use the duck-stuffing, lecturing method. And it should not just focus on "words, words, words ". It should focus on meaning, on ideas, on understanding, on communication - on forests as well as on
But as long as students are forced to get good marks in order to get good jobs; and as long as teachers want their students to get good marks so that they themselves can gain fame as good teachers, then everything depends on examinations. It depends on what sort of exams w e teachers set and the educational
authorities demand. Until we reform our exams we can hardly reform our teaching methods.
So let's launch a new campaign, to discuss and reform the exam system; and at the same time continue the campaign against OFIR, the super-power. We need to fight on two fronts at once. Otherwise we'll be eggs striking rocks.