Feedback on the essay question – July 2021

The candidates were expected to write a short essay on one pedagogical scenario (case study). They were instructed to find the causes of the problem and to propose a solution.


Sophea is a smart and turbulent student, in grade 8. He has regular arguments with Ms. Sreynich, who teaches history, and to a less extent with other teachers. According to him, Ms. Sreynich doesn’t know her subject and he has caught her telling wrong things in her lessons. He also complains that teachers are dismissive when they don’t agree with his interpretation of history, calling him “misguided and wrong” and making comments about his young age. Sophea is quite popular among the students, but spends a lot of time in the office of the school principal. Recently, his marks have been dropping and he doesn’t want to do his homework anymore.

Expected answer

The candidates could propose various answers. There was no unique solution to the problem at hand.

However, the candidates were expected to understand the complexity and the uncertainty of the situation. The candidates are supposed to show critical thinking. It means that they try to understand all the points of view. It also means that they should not be too naïve and believe all the allegations made by the student. Scenarios for case study are generally incomplete or biased, as they are written from a certain point of view. In such exercises, the candidates should pay attention to expressions such as “according to him”. By the way, that’s exactly what happens in real life, when a teacher or a mentor is solicited to provide his expertise. He must listen to all the parties before making a decision. To write an essay like this, it is important to make hypothesis to fill the gaps. It is perfectly possible that Ms. Sreynich lacks the subject knowledge that she’s supposed to teach. But it is equally possible that Sophea is an overconfident child. A good move for the candidate is to mention his strategy to collect more information, for instance by asking questions to other teachers or other students. 

Beyond the analysis of the situation, it is essential that the candidates propose some solution in order to satisfy all the parties. No matter which side is right, if any, there are a few problems that must be addressed.

True or false, Ms. Sreynich is getting the reputation of an incompetent teacher. Action must be taken. The first step, obviously is to check the assertion of Sophea. It can be done by observing the classroom, or by checking the lesson preparation. If Ms. Sreynich does lack knowledge, she must be encouraged to check her information and prepare her lessons more thoroughly.  If not, there might be different reasons for the misinterpretations of the student. For instance, she might rely too much on her authority to have the students believe her, rather than sound evidences. Or it might be a lack of confidence that gives the impression that she is not very knowledgeable. In any case, the problem should be handled with tact, to avoid undermining her authority. In no case, should her incompetence be exposed publicly. All the investigations should be done with a maximum of discretion. By the way, situations like this one are a good reason to make classroom observations routinely. When classroom observations are exceptional, they are a signal that something is wrong with the teacher.

In terms of classroom management and discipline, it is a bad move to simply dismiss the challenging remarks of a student. Teachers should be ready, even happy, to be challenged intellectually. Avoiding the debate will not convince the children, but rather reinforce the impression that the teacher feels uncomfortable with the content. Clearly, the situation is going out of control. The popularity of the challenging student is damaging the school climate and polarizing the school between teachers and students.

On the other side of the conflict, there are some issues with the attitude of Sophea. The fact that he has arguments with other teachers suggests that he doesn’t have the open mindset and the humility that we expect from a student. We all know how annoying and disrupting a “know-it-all” student can be.

The problem must be handled with tact. Sophea also needs to be remotivated. We don’t want him to drop out and we should recognize his intellectual capacities.

We should not make quick assumptions about his motivations. Some students challenge the teachers in a very provocative way, for instance to gain popularity, as it is suggested in the scenario. Such attitude should not be tolerated. However, we cannot totally exclude that the behavior is genuine and that Sophea just wants to restore the truth about history. His popularity can be circumstantial. In any case, he must learn how to better interact with teachers and make his remarks in a more respectful way. This doesn’t mean that we should forbid any dissenting voices. Students have the right to express their opinion and their cognitive development implies the possibility to ask questions and to doubt unproven assertions. We cannot expect critical thinking, if we suppress criticism. But there is a right way to express disagreement. That right way should be taught to the students. It implies politeness, genuine questions rather than rash assertions, discussing facts rather than accusing people, and the ability to suspend one’s judgement when there is no time to explore all the facets of a problem. If the teacher decides to move on with the lesson, the student must comply.

At this stage of the crisis, the best course of action is probably to propose a mitigation between Ms. Sreynich and Sophea, by an adult with enough intellectual authority and tact, for instance a senior teacher with good reputation. Mitigating doesn’t mean that the voices of the student and of the teacher are at the same level, but it does mean that the concerns of both parties should be considered. We need some knowledgeable person to explain to the student how to react to uncertain statements. If there is something to change in the attitude of the teacher, it is better to tell her privately and not in front of the student.

Common mistakes

The worst mistake in any essay is to be out of the topic. In a case study, it means not considering the concrete situation described in the scenario and sticking to vague and general statements on education. The names of the characters (Sophea, Ms. Sreynich) must appear many times in the analysis. If a mentor is called to solve a conflict in a school, we don’t expect him to do a lecture about the educational policy of MoEYS. Out-of-the-topic essays deserve very bad marks, even if the reflection is smart otherwise. The candidate is simply not doing what is required. If you order a brushing to your barber and he shaves you head, you refuse to pay. It’s the same principle with an essay.

Of course, a lack of structure is also a major issue. Whereas we don’t expect the candidates to follow a specific format, it is important to organize your thought. Most importantly, your reader must know clearly where you are heading to and what you are willing to prove. An introduction and a conclusion are essential to ensure that you provide a clear response to the problem at hand. In a case study, it means a course of action.

Besides that, several options were available to structure the case study. For instance, you could start with hypothesis about the situation, and propose some solutions in a second time. You could organize the essay from the point of view of both characters successively. Or you could organize by themes, listing the problems, for instance the possible lack of knowledge of both characters, the disciplinary issue, and the motivation problem.

Naïve solutions will also lower the value of an essay. By this, I mean not seeing the difficulty of the situation and proposing false solutions automatically. Discussing and being nice is not a solution in a conflict. It is essential to discuss with all sides of the conflict, but it is only the first necessary step in solving it. Actions must be taken at some point and decisions should be made. This can even include disciplinary actions against those involved in the incident. To be clear, just punishing hard is also a naïve solution. We expect nuance and critical thinking in an essay.

Of course, the language is important. It would be too long to list down all the mistakes regarding grammar and spelling. I will make only one remark on style. In general, clarity is the best style. « Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément. » What is clearly conceived should be stated clearly and it is easy to find the right words to express it. To improve your style, make shorten sentences. Eliminate unnecessary words. Avoid pleonasm.