SSEE: Social Studies

Stabroek News
August 18, 2000

As parents should now know, one of the aims of the Secondary Schools Reform Project (SSRP) is eventually to abolish the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE), or Common Entrance, as it is more popularly known. Until this programme is fully implemented, however, every child in the eleven-year-old range who is not in an SSRP pilot scheme is required to sit this exam.

Understandably, perhaps, since the intention is to sweep it away altogether, the Ministry of Education has paid very little attention to the SSEE in recent times; it is just regarded as a necessary, if temporary evil. No matter how short its life-span, however, there is no reason why some thought could not be put into improving it. And in one key respect that could be done effortlessly and simply, namely, by abolishing the Social Studies paper altogether, and reducing the examination to a test of Mathematics, English and Science.

This is not to suggest that Social Studies is not an important subject area; it is. It is just to say that in its present form and with the limited resources which teachers currently have at their disposal, it probably does the pupils no particular educational good. Many complaints have been aired about the enormous amount of rote learning which children have to undertake for Common Entrance, and those complaints more often than not relate to Social Studies.

That in itself, of course, is insufficient reason to get rid of the paper, but there are other more cogent arguments to consider. It was the Minister of Education himself in his early days in office who commented on the undesirability of using the multiple choice format for testing certain kinds of skills as well as certain kinds of knowledge. Whatever else it does, it certainly doesn't encourage anyone to learn to write, or sequence and organize information, or even understand events, and it reduces everything to absolutes: something is either right or wrong.

Where Social Studies is concerned, that is a particularly problematical approach, although admittedly, there are some aspects of the subject which can be so reduced. For all kinds of reasons at this stage it is not possible to introduce essay-type writing into the Social Studies exam, as the Minister no doubt also concluded at an early stage.

There are other problems too. One of them is that Social Studies covers areas where knowledge is evolving, or sometimes changing. By the time the children for this upcoming SSEE sit themselves down in the examination room, for example, the constitutional arrangements which currently obtain, and which they may have wasted so much time learning about, may already have been replaced by others. In itself that should not be a problem, since the subject presupposes that teachers keep up with events. However, it has to be recognized that it is very difficult for many teachers to do this, more especially those who live in the hinterland areas where information of any kind is hard to come by.

There is a particular problem when it comes to data in fields like history, where research is not filtering down to the primary schools. To take a purely hypothetical example: at the moment in the primary system students are generally taught that the 1763 uprising began on February 23 on Plantation Magdalenenburg in Canje. We now know that the likelihood is that it broke out on Plantation Hollandia on the Berbice River on February 27. Even if a teacher knows what the current thinking is, what does s/he teach the children, more especially if she/he suspects that those setting the papers are not au fait with it? Does s/he teach them the wrong answer, or does she/he teach them the right one, with the caveat that if February 23 is the only date given in association with the year 1763 on the multiple choice paper, then they should mark that as correct?

The problem would not arise in a composition-style exam, since a wrong fact can be put in perspective by the marker. In all probability, the syllabus for Social Studies has not been updated in recent times, while as noted earlier teachers in many instances - especially in the interior - do not have topical materials to hand which would allow them to teach the subject adequately.

Given the limitations of the exam itself, the possibly dubious nature of some of the material being peddled to an unknown number of children and the strain on those who sit the exam, does it not make sense to abandon the Social Studies paper for the time being?

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