Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Model Essays

I happen to know that some of my former classmates and school mates are regular readers of this blog. Of all the readers here, they can testify that I wasn't a particularly popular kid in school, especially among the teachers. I have always been a nerd—though not the Steve Urkel kinda nerd. I wasn't a high achiever in school; in fact, I was a lazy bum! I very rarely broke into the top half of the class in almost all the school exams, and I was always among those who hardly ever finished my homework or school assignments. 

It wasn't until quite late in my teen when I suddenly decided to just flow with the education system one fine day. And then I was more readily accepted by the teachers. I began to do well in the exams, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I guess in a way, you could say that I was rehabilitated—that I finally ran with the pack. I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I had to become someone other than myself, but it was not a matter of choice. I wasn't born with a silver spoon, and I realised that if I screwed up in my studies, I would be dead meat for life! One important lesson that I learnt quite early in my life is that sometimes one has to learn to obey orders first, before giving orders to others.

I don't deny that education, for the most part, is very important. I dare say that diplomas and university degrees can open doors. But out there in the harsh world, quite often, luck and survival skill count for a lot too! These are two major elements that no universities can teach, even if they say they can!

My daughter JJ sat for her exams recently; and although I'm not particularly concerned about her grades, her mommy would lose sleep if JJ did badly in her exams. I'm not sure if that's a natural thing for women in general, but I guess I shouldn't be complaining!

JJ had to write an essay on "Why she admires and respects her mother". So she wrote what I thought was a decent piece. Although not in her exact words, it basically boiled down to a [fictional] story of how she and mommy rode in a bus one day. The bus was full, and there was a pregnant woman in the bus who had no seat. Mommy stood up to offer her seat to that woman. Then later, JJ asked mommy why she gave up her seat to that woman. Mommy explained that that woman needed the seat more than her; that it was a kind and polite gesture. One of these days, when we are also in difficulties, would would also appreciate it very much if others would make similar sacrifices for us. And that was why JJ admires and respects mommy to this day.

It was a short story, of course, but I reckoned it's good enough for a primary 4 exam. I don't claim to be a brilliant writer—far from it! In the course of posting articles in this blog for a few years now, I have used varying styles. Sometimes I allowed my sense of humour to flow in my posts; at other times I argued my cases in a very serious manner; at other times still, I would become somewhat poetic; or maybe I'd even blend all those elements into my posts. But whatever style I adopted in my articles, there's always a message I'd like to put through to my audience. The styles, whatever they may be, are only means to capture the eyes of my readers—so that they would want to continue reading, and then hopefully get the message in the end. I have never had a formal training as a writer, so I can't say if I've been doing it the right way.

In essence, I think JJ has achieved the basic requirement of a decent essay. Note that I'm not using the word "excellent" here; merely "decent". Of the possible full score of 30 marks, I did not expect her to achieve full score. But neither did I expect her to fail the essay. That's why I was rather surprised—and I will admit it—even disappointed, that JJ scored 12 marks out of 30.

Elsewhere in this blog, I've expressed my disgust with the education system. Sometimes, I think it's just plain rubbish. I did not expect such an essay would fail. So just out of curiosity, I asked JJ to seek her teacher's justification. Was the essay too short? Was there anything wrong with the sentences?

It's not because of the length of the essay or grammar and the likes. Apparently, a good essay must contain at least a few points, not just one. JJ's story, although quite interesting, had only one point, a single event of mommy's act of kindness to a pregnant woman in a bus. I suppose JJ could have scored very well if she had told a story about how mommy would sweep the floor and clean the house, prepare dinner every night, tuck her into bed and sing the lullaby. Mommy also teaches JJ when she has difficulties in her school work. And the list could go on and on. Those are the "several points" that would qualify for a good essay. The emphasis on quantity rather than quality, which has always been the failure of the education system. 

Why can't a child have a lasting [favourable] impression of her mother from a single meaningful event?

But teachers are humans too. And some of them are very sensitive creatures. They don't like their judgement to be questioned. I was given to understand that she sought the opinion of another teacher. And that other teacher's comment was that if it were her who had marked JJ's essay, she would have scored even worse!

I shall carefully refrain from challenging that decision. I just hope that the teachers did it for the right reason. As in my case over 30 years ago, I will concede defeat and flow with the system. I think it's a whole bunch of craps though. But this essay will play no role in shaping JJ's future. She just needs to play along, sing the same tune, get the certificates, whatever they are, and then move on in life—the sooner the better.


Juin Yi Ng said...

Hi Cornelius,

In plight of your story, this, I must say, is an unfortunate case of our current education system.

Education system in Malaysia is of a traditional model: in order to score, a student must be able to fulfill a list of requirements set by the committee. In the case of and essay, one's essay must stick to the format taught to all students. I wouldn't say this is a bad way of teaching students. It is necessary, but it doesn't allow room for creativity.

A student in China once scored full mark in his essay for his entrance exam. The question asked them to talk about 'Loyalty'. He wrote a fictional story in traditional Chinese (文言文) to illustrate his point. (Traditional Chinese is very hard to understand for most of us, let alone to write a full length essay). The examiner justified giving him full mark because of his creative use of language and narration. But in the settings of our education system, his pursuit of further studies would have stopped there.

I wouldn't condemn on our education system though; as you've said. One must learn to obey orders before learning to give orders. This is way better than most of the Chinese primary schools, where marks were given based on how well the students have memorised the essay provided beforehand, instead on how well they could WRITE an essay. The system is there for a reason, and unless one could look beyond it and appreciate the original intention, there's nothing much we could do but to live with it.

Socrates29 said...

Hi Cornelius,
I think your daughter did not score better marks than the 12 which she was given because she did not answer or wrote what the teacher was expecting to hear from her.

I can only guess the teacher from the outset when she gave the essay topic was to hear your daughter write about the various good, caring and womanlyqualities of her mother and not a one-time incident which she observed about her mother then.

Methink if your daughter have written about how her mother have showered her love and care to her,helps her in dire circumstances, being caring and loving towards her,especially the times she scarificed her time to help her with her studies and when she was sick,she would have scored better.

Curiously I am wondering also what would the situation be if your daughter's teacher is a man and not a woman.Would the result (her marks) still be the same? Just food for thought anyway.

Cornelius said...

Juin Yi Ng,

You are right - there is nothing much we can do about it. The people who make the decisions don't really know what's going on; and even if they did know, I doubt that they can do anything.

Now imagine that a teacher poses a math question to the class. Without using a calculator, what's the answer to: 35 x 35?

The whole class starts to work out the problem on a piece of paper. But one of the students, without even writing anything, shouts out the answer - 1,225!

The teacher then gives another question: 55 x 55

And again, everyone starts to calculate. The same student shouts out the answer again - 3,025!

So the teacher asks the student how he arrived at those answers so quickly.

Instead of approaching the question the good old-fashioned way, the student has found a faster way! When dealing with the square of any numbers with a "5" at the end, he knows that the 2 digits at the end must be "25". He merely focuses on the digit(s) in front of that "5". So for example in this case, 35 x 35, he focuses only on the 3. Multiply that 3 with the next number in its sequence; meaning 4. So 3 x 4 = 12. And then just join that with the 25... resulting in 1225.

Similarly, for 55 x 55, he merely focuses on 5 x 6 = 30. So the answer is 3025.

If 85 x 85, it will lead to 8 x 9 = 72. So the answer is 7225.

BUT!!! Would he pass his exams? He will not... because that's not the standard method to calculate the answer.

So what we have here is a faster and more efficient way of arriving at the answer; in fact, a superior means of getting at the answer, but it is rejected because it is not the norm!

Our education system is something like that. It very rarely allows creative thinking. The system produces brains made of sponge. They can absorb; and then when you squeeze them, they will reproduce what's been absorbed. But you can't expect them to produce anything original.

Cornelius said...


Essays, to me, are very subjective things. We have a general requirement of an opening paragraph; followed by the main body; and finally a closing. There are many styles, depending on tastes. But if it works, it works! That's how I would grade essays.

Essays shouldn't be about a rigid requirement of containing only what a particular teacher expects to see in them. And if that's the case in our schools these days, then it simply has to change!