Monday, March 06, 2006

Richard Cain: Speech as vital as writing

Traditionally, Western education authorities focus on the written word as their primary means of communication. New Zealand is no exception.

Secondary schools and the tertiary sector rely heavily on pen and ink to measure intellect and rank pupils through assignments, entry tests and external examinations.

Grammar and simple syntax become extremely important, often overshadowing content or original ideas. Failure to understand or use the correct form is penalised. Pupils not brought up in an atmosphere of the written world, either for cultural or economic reasons are disadvantaged. Subsequently, many talented, intuitive thinkers are often overlooked or ignored by the system.

Today, the educational milieu still places tremendous emphasis on the written word and compliance. Computers and word processors allow language to be written faster and perhaps more legibly, particularly by boys. Email allows immediate transmission. Traditionalists would argue that many original rules and traditions have been forgotten.

However, institutions still demand excellence in the written medium and little thought is given to promoting alternative communication modes.

The written approach has many advantages in an educational setting. It allows precision and detail to emerge. More people can be assessed. Privacy can be ensured. Reading and marking of scripts can take place at an appropriate time and place for the marker, removing emotion from the equation and allowing reflection. Material presented, rather than any other criteria such as personal appearance, is assessed. Criticism and/or a numerical mark ensure that direct dialogue can be minimised.

The largely clinical, collective, one-dimensional approach is the essence of Western educational thought and, in turn, has been instrumental in shaping the nature and structure of Western society. The underlying agenda appears to have been to create a bureaucratic elite to operate society, based largely on writing.

Written material will still play a prominent role in successful societies. However, the world is changing fundamentally. Globalisation and telecommunication technology are altering the fabric of the world. Culturally, different forces are emerging. New, more contemporary skills and techniques will be needed by future generations of New Zealanders to take part in this metamorphosis.

New Zealand is within the Polynesian triangle, with its substantial oral tradition in speech and music. Status and success in those societies has been, and still is, largely based on skill as an orator or musician. The ability to communicate ideas effectively verbally in the public domain is paramount.

Listening, an under-used skill in the Western world, becomes a necessity. Each word has an instant and public presence. Simultaneously, body language, emotional state and appearance are important. Speakers are under constant scrutiny. Often, they must face their critics.

Public speaking and performance in the Polynesian world is encouraged at all levels of society. Other non-Western societies adopt similar practices.

Telecommunications technology is moving rapidly. Visual developments are at the forefront in many societies.

Televisions, DVDs and mobile phones which record and transmit images are now an integral part of the environment. Younger students are becoming familiar with local and international visual projections as a matter of course. They bring instant reality, with little need for imagination or subtlety. Oral communication is assuming greater importance, though the quality is debatable.

Society is influenced by what it sees and hears. Written language is, inadvertently or deliberately, being altered. Slang, and shortened words with little punctuation are commonplace in the written vernacular.

The challenge for New Zealand educators is to create cross-cultural, inclusive communications systems relevant and beneficial in the global world. They must also be capable of incorporating many learning styles and mobilise students' abilities. Above all else, talent must be able to surface.

* Richard Cain is an observer of educational assessment systems and outcomes.

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