Mkandawire S. B. (2008) Backwash effects of national examinations on curriculum implementation in Zambia. Discussion paper in Class.
Backwash effects of national examinations can simply be described as teaching learners to pass examinations without considering whether the skills needed for their lives and moral development are attained or not. The term backwash means the unpleasant result of an event or the negative aspects of something. The term exam means a test of a students knowledge or skill in a particular subject which results in a qualification if the student is successful. This according to Cambridge advanced learner’s dictionary (2007).
Education should not be centered on examinations, it should focus on the promotion of the full and well-rounded development of the physical ,intellectual, social, affective, moral and spiritual qualities of all pupils so that each can develop into a complete person, for his or her own personal fulfillment and the good of society.’ Ministry of Education (MOE) (1996:29). Education should shape the lives of learners so that they become more fully human by learning survive skills than being centered on the examinations. The goals to such an aim as set by MOE (1996:5) are that of producing a learner capable of: ‘’Being animated by a personally held set of civic, moral and spiritual values; developing of an analytical, creative and constructive mind; Appreciating the relationship between scientific thought, action and technology on the one hand and sustenance of the quality of life on the other.’ Another aim looks at developing the qualities of character of an individual that society regards as important. Kelly (1999).The goal for such an aim is that the individual can freely express his or her own ideas and also exercise tolerance for other people. The individual can cherish and safeguard his or her own liberties and also promote the human rights. The other aim looks at giving scope to the individuals in order for their potential to be developed. Kelly (1999).In having such an aim ,the goal of making the individual maintain ,observe discipline and hard work as the foundation of personal and national development is achieved.
To achieve the above stated aims and goals, MOE has come up with a curriculum, which has several definitions. Basing on the stated aims and goals of education above the best type of curriculum that can suit is that which is called the ideal or recommended curriculum. The ideal or recommended curriculum is what is proposed by scholars, researchers and evaluators as a solution to meet a need or needs and is consequently perceived as the most appropriate curriculum for learners. It is what a nation aspires to achieve. Unfortunately, as we shall see the ideal curriculum cannot be a 100% implemented because of the backwash effects of the national examinations on it .What we end up with is the achieved curriculum or experiential curriculum which is only 10%, if the implemented curriculum has not been carried out effectively. The achieved curriculum is what learners have actually learnt as a result of their interaction with the implemented curriculum. What learners have experienced as a result of what they have learnt and interaction with the teacher. What the learner has achieved is seen when the teacher gives a test.
We see a situation where the teacher has the pressure to teach for the sake of the learners to pass the examinations and so hurries through the implemented curriculum which is what has actually been taught. The teacher tailors the teaching towards examinations and in so doing runs away from the aims ,goals and objectives of education that have been discussed above. Examinations are not the main intent of the curriculum and are not a true reflection of what education is.
The learner after being exposed to learning should show that they have acquired attitudes and values towards things and this should bring about development in the country. In this way, education becomes important for a learner he or she should not just acquire knowledge but acquire other aspects as stated in the aims of education .However, because of the issue of examinations coming on the way, we see a situation where learners are simply drilled in factual information and leaving out the aspect of attitudes, values and skills that go into producing a wholistic individual. Take for instance, a learner who has been in the school system has to show behavioural change with regards to public property. A learner is supposed to have a positive attitude towards its protection. In most cases, what we see are negative attitudes towards public property. To this, society now asks what kind of learning is taking place in these learning institutions. No wonder we hear such comments as ‘learning has now gone to the dogs.’ For society cannot see any change in attitudes and values in the learner. The learner has not learnt any survival skills that may sustain him or her after dropping out or completing school. What is happening in schools now is simply drilling the learner for the purpose of an examination at the end of a learning experience. This makes the implementation of the curriculum to be ineffective. In Zambia as the education system stands any learner who lacks the ability to put clear thoughts on paper is seen as a failure. The natural skills, attitudes, values including knowledge processing do not matter. However, knowledge by itself has no value. Knowledge can be likened to words in the dictionary, which standing alone have no value, but becomes of value once the process of stringing them together is done. It is the putting of words together that gives them value.
Society has a blame to share on the failure to effectively implement the curriculum, by siding with national examinations. The school system has been highly influenced by society’s value of learning which is synonymous with the number of learners that have qualified to the next level. The teacher has come to understand this from society that to teach is to produce a high number of those that qualify to the next level. The teacher has diverted from what is in the intended curriculum, they want teaching to be in line with what the learners are to achieve in an examination. The intended curriculum has captured a lot of topics to be covered but because of the examinations, the teacher picks only those topics that they feel the questions will come from. This is so because examinations in Zambia can be predicted just by gathering a lot of past papers a teacher would tell which questions are most likely to come in the examinations. The learners will then memorize the selected knowledge and then they will be given a day’s test or exam based on dictionary knowledge which will also influence employment opportunities for their entire life. Again the same society will not take their children to a school which has a low pass rate, but would rather take their children to those schools that have a high pass rate. What needs to be considered is what kind of learner is being produced at the end of a learning experience. Is it a learner who is holistic or a learner who has just acquired paper knowledge.
In order to implement the curriculum effectively, the teacher has to be eclectic. The teacher has to employ variations of teaching methods and techniques. However, this is not done to the fullest because of the issue of the exams. Towards the end of the second term the teacher diverts from the use of various teaching methods and techniques. They will simply just state the facts as they are because to them the use of techniques may delay the drilling for the exams for the learners.
The main focus of education is to provide learning to all learners. There should be no segregation as Zambia is a signatory to Education for All, one of the millennium goals. If followed the curriculum would be fully implemented. Unfortunately, because of the examinations, what we see is that the teacher will only focus his learning activities on the average and above average learners. The teaching will be centred in line with only those that would pass the examinations. The teacher may even identify the learners that can qualify to the next level and those are the ones to receive maximum attention. The below average learners will have to fend for themselves if they are to pass the examinations. One may ask why this is so .The answer is simply the teacher will want to make a name for himself or herself and to put the school on the map that it is one of the best schools as it has a high pass rate of learners.
As a result of the teacher centering his teaching on drilling learners for examinations, many learners in Zambia have been thrown out of school once they fail these examinations. When they leave the schools, they come out of the system with no life skills that may sustain them in life. No wonder we see a lot of youths roaming the streets doing nothing for the school system they went through did not really provide life long skills to them. One surprising thing is that, once a learner has written an examination the knowledge of factual information immediately goes out. This is so because the focus is on learning to pass the examinations. However, education is a life long process, even after school the learner should show skills, values and attitudes that were acquired in school. This problem is equally found in high learning institutions. The students are tuned to learning for the examinations. Once the examinations have been written then everything is forgotten. The learner’s attainability of learning is marked through the passing of an examination. It is a vicious cycle which is hard to break, for the system has been planted with the idea of learning in order to pass the examination. Later, when this learner goes into the field of work for example, the higher learning institutions, he also tunes the students to learn in order to pass the examinations. This will go on and on until educators realise that though examinations are important for assessment they should not be used as a mark for learner’s competence in knowledge only for education should be wholistic. It should touch all aspects of the learner’s life that is attitudes, values, skills which are important as the learner is sucked back into society. The threat of an examination should not be used at any level of education. The educators feel by threatening learners with an exam at the end of a learning experience that is when the learners are going to concentrate. Unfortunately, this is not so. The reason is that teaching involves a lot of things like the use of methods, approaches and various techniques in order to capture and arouse interest in the learner. In other words the teacher should be eclectic.
Kelly, M .J.(1999).The Origins and Development of education in Zambia. From pre-colonial Times to 1996.Lusaka:Image Publishers Limited
Ministry of Education . (1996). Educating our Future. National policy on Education . Lusaka : Zambia Educational Publishing House