Worm's-Eye View; The Impact of Policy and Research on the Classroom Practitioner
by Neil McBeath
Now this brings us to the role of variables. In many cases, these are the unforeseen circumstances that can have major impacts on both educational institutions and their teachers.
The first variable can be the stakeholders, of whom Kennedy makes no mention. Parents are one such variable, but government policy can be another.
In Oman, at tertiary level, the demands of the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) have impacted on both teachers and students. The OAAA, however, was established with the best of intentions. His Majesty the Sultan's commitment to education is total: "From the moment we assumed our responsibilities in this land, education was one of our constant pre-occupations; in fact, one could say it was our main concern." (Qaboos bin Said; 2000).
It was precisely to avoid the development of a two-tier tertiary education system that the OAAA was established, tasked with ensuring that all Omani tertiary educational institutions provided instruction in English, Mathematics and ICT. That way, the credibility of Omani degree certificates would be guaranteed. Oman's qualifications would have international currency.
The devil, however, is in the details. We now accept Gardner's (1983;1993;2006) theory of multiple intelligences. We should therefore also accept that not all students are equally gifted in all areas, and that some will probably lack specific intelligences. Why, therefore, should we require future English/Arabic translators to pass Foundation Level courses in Mathematics?
Reference has already been made to the cohort of Law students who joined SQU in the Fall 2011 Semester. Prior to their arrival, it was assumed, on zero evidence, that because they were studying Law, they would be high level entrants to the English programme. In fact, the reverse was the case. Many of them experienced difficulty in completing the Foundation Level course. The reason for this was simple. Knowing that their English was weak, many students had specifically opted to study Law, because, at the time of their choice, Law had been described as an Arabic medium subject.
Kennedy's "input" clearly refers to what is taught in the classroom, and as anybody who has ever taught is fully aware, materials, no matter how good, are always deficient in one way or another.
In the 1970s it was generally assumed that teachers would supplement published materials, partly because the materials then on offer were limited in both content and application. From the publisher's point of view, there is a limit to the number of pages that can be profitably printed for a dollar. From the perspective institutions, or of teachers, there is also a limit to the number of pages that can be covered in a semester or an academic year.
Today, by contrast, we have the "teacher-proof" course – the Student Book; the Workbook (with and without answers); the Teacher's Book; the CDs; sometimes DVDs; an associated website; a recommended dictionary with its own CDs and website; and occasionally even recommended graded readers.
The immediate effect of this is to reduce some teachers to little more than "delivery agents" (Burns 2011); deskilling them to the extent that they are unable to operate without a battery of print and ICT support devices.
In the same way, many students in Omani tertiary education now have to adhere to the demands of the OAAA, following Foundation Level courses in English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) which operate "under the premise that four skills are all that is needed to learn a new language" (Ntombela 2012; 145).
A further complication here is that stakeholder demands may conflict with each other. On the Foundation Programme at the Language centre at SQU, it is now a requirement that students research and produce a 500 word essay. For many students, this is the longest piece of continuous English prose that they will ever have written, and while experience proves that it is within their capabilities, some students still find the task daunting. For that reason, writing tutors give support, writing teachers scaffold the task, a series of checks are in place to ensure that plagiarism is avoided, and to ensure that the essays reach an acceptable standard.
This, however, has not prevented criticism from some Credit Programme teachers that the former Foundation Programme students "can't write a simple sentence." This, clearly, is exaggerated nonsense. It would obviously be impossible to produce a 500 word, researched essay on any topic if that charge were true. This complaint really means that, on the Foundation Programme, time constraints have meant paying less attention to decontextualised grammar, and so some of the students who enter Credit Programmes may have gaps in their knowledge.
These gaps, however, may themselves be the result of their secondary, and indeed, primary school experience. It is an open secret that, year-on-year, Omani students never finish "the book." They are, moreover, taught to learn-and-forget. School teaching focusses on end-of-term examinations. Material from previous terms, or previous years, is seldom revised. Although the school materials appear to offer a smooth transition, in reality the last unit of "the book" is never touched.
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