By Themba Mkhize
For sure, 2020 has been an awkward year. As we are gripped by our limbs and stretched in multiple directions by a global health crisis, a tumultuous international political economy, the expanding threat of climate change and the fragility of our personal realities, it is curious that the most awkward experience I witnessed this year was in a classroom. An English Literature teacher and one of her students were debating two options as to the correct answer to a multiple choice practice question. When they consulted with an ‘answer sheet’, a third option was listed as the correct one, to which both responded with disbelieving contempt. The memory of their forlorn faces remained out of my mind for months, until late July when I witnessed an entire cohort of students stream out of their examination center. Most shared looks of discomfort on their faces which seemed to ask “What just happened in there?” The paper was the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) English B.
The use of multiple choice assessments to evaluate English Literature students is perhaps in need of examination, not chiefly because of the independent subject matter content, but because of the broader implications it has for student development in the future world of work. It is symptomatic of perspectives which may undermine critical elements of human development.
The World Bank uses the human capital index to mobilize policies which promote sustainable improvements in health and education, with a heavy focus on quality of education. Quality education develops and enhances students’ cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving, sociobehavioural skills such as creativity and curiosity, and the combination of both to create agile, adaptable humans. These skills are transferable across jobs and create new types of jobs which support technology and boost productivity as industries become increasingly automated (World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work).
I would argue that English Literature is a uniquely placed subject in the current scheme of education. It deals with creative works and the analysis of same, which makes it a critical contact point for the harnessing and retention of creative thinking and articulation. Despite the practicality and appropriateness of MCQ testing in some contexts, when particular appreciation is given to the nature of English Literature, multiple choice appears inappropriate because its lulls elements of independent thinking and expression.
Students’ ability to experience a piece is restricted, which frustrates them by silencing their voices without giving them the ability to put forward and defend their generally credible and oftentimes critical perspectives. Students have the channels, mode and tone of their expressions restricted as well. It also forcefully standardizes their interpretations, confining them to perspectives adopted by the examiner, which are thus implied to be superior and absolutely correct (even authors have their right to this type of literary over-projection hotly contested).
Moreover, it also sends the wrong signal that answers are always either right or wrong, which is hardly the case in the real world. It is hard to foster curiosity and creativity in such a restrictive context, and threatens to bastardize student passions as they become frustrated with the assessment process. The reinstatement of open ended responses for the paper one appears to me as a better way forward.
In the words of the Caribbean Examination Council, “prioritizing of candidates’ autonomous thought, bolstered by their obligation to produce the textual evidence for their conclusions is at the heart of the critical and creative thinking that the study of literature is meant to engender” (Report on Candidates’ Work in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate® Examination January 2018 English B General Proficiency). The importance of education in English Literature is not to understand how to read creative works in a vacuum. It is inseparable from imaginative thinking, articulation and argumentation.
The role of “the arts” in the modern world is to foster expansive, creative thinking which, when applied to our practical lives, becomes innovation. Caribbean students must be encouraged to think outside the box, to approach creative works with eyes wide open and to translate their conceptions into real world innovation. The need to internalize information from creative works and independently articulate responses is important in cultivating this type of mindset. It prepares students mentally for the need to engage and apply themselves in unpredictable environments and to develop robust, defensible arguments as the foundations for unique, valuable contributions in all spheres.
As calls for contextually appropriate approaches to living which break down racial and colonial legacies – including education reform – increase in volume, it is important to remember that the rulers of tomorrow are those who can think critically, articulate well and apply themselves extempore when presented with a myriad of potential solutions and perspectives for evaluation. Our proclivity for expansive, creative thinking is what distinguishes us from the robots, and so must be nurtured and invested in!