Mon | May 21, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Education ministry must change its name

Published:Sunday | April 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Therese Turner-Jones, general manager of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Caribbean Country Department.

I was disappointed that in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the education ministry continues to be known as the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, missing entirely an opportunity to address the areas of need that have hampered that ministry, namely, training and technology.

Listen during the last few days as leaders in the business processing outsourcing (BPO) area bemoan the fact that in spite of enormous growth potential in terms of employment, and, eventually, higher-quality employment, the country could lose out because many employees lack the requisite training, deportment, behaviour, communication, and problem-solving skills to function in this highly disciplined environment. Here, training is the operative word.

Or hear Therese Turner-Jones at last week's Planning Institute of Jamaica-UWI Department of Economics forum sidestep her role for a moment as general manager, Country Department, of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) as she made a special appeal to Jamaica as an aunt.

"It is amazing when I look at the advances and accomplishments of my three-year-old niece and see what she is able to do with technology and how technology aids her development. Already she is hands-on, curious, inquisitive, engaging, and involved. It is clear that technology must play a significant role, starting from our schools, if the country is to offset some of the constraints to growth and development."

Illustrating further, Turner-Jones pointed out that the biggest commodity is data, and the more we can use data is the quicker we are likely to rise above our generally low educational outcomes.

 

CRITICAL TO DEVELOPMENT

 

Apple's CEO Tim Cook, in a recent town hall meeting in the United States, emphasised the intersectional link between technology and quality teachers. He regards this combination as critical to a child's development. He went a step further in romanticising technology by saying that everyone should learn to code. "It prepares kids for the world we live in today."

Coding means that you understand the technology shaping your world, and learning to code develops problem-solving and computational thinking skills. The simplest form of coding is a direction for how to do something.

Something else that is very important for which we should make allowance, is the fact that students are very distracted. Their reality is one of an abbreviated world that manifests itself in texting, short punctuated sentences, video games, and a dependence on social media. That is not likely to change.

What can change is their sense that technology, in terms of use and application, gives them power and ownership over what they do - essential requirements for the world of robotics, artificial intelligence, and other disruptive technologies.

Even with all those overpowering reasons for change, the Government continues with a non-impactful name, Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information, where Information is tacked on as part of the additional responsibility of the minister of education. How could so important a ministry, which must be regarded as a foundation if the country is to experience significant, sustained, and inclusive growth, be saddled with such an uninspiring name?

"But what's in a name?" you may ask! Everything: A name clarifies focus, defines policy, articulates purpose, establishes symbolism, emphasises marketing, ignites a brand, and informs a culture.

A Ministry of Education, Training, and Technology says it all and lets students know from as early on as preschool that it is all about training, education, and technology.

Why I am making such a big deal of this is because our educational system has hardly ever raised to a pre-eminent position what is really important to economic growth and nation building. Take, for instance, agriculture. It has always been our largest employer of labour, yet at no time has the Ministry of Education elevated this area of economic activity to the point where this sector, in terms of training, technology, marketing, accounting, innovative finance, could become an important driver for growth. This, in spite of the huge export potential given the size of the diaspora and Jamaica's global brand image, as well as the opportunity for import substitution, given the growth of the tourism sector.

Or take the phrase that is blurted out with such ease and such pride: "Jamaica, land of wood and water." Where are the institutions dealing with supply-side capacity, and where has been the emphasis in human-resource development in water-resource management and distribution, and in forestry? Our rivers, our blighted hillsides, our inadequate management of our shorelines and beaches, our deforestation, and poor land use decisions are a testament to our failures in education and training in these areas.

Jamaica has increasingly shifted from a goods-producing economy to that of a service-producing economy. This requires a shift in direction and emphasis in training from very early on in the school system. Service is about presentation, caring, pride, self-esteem, character, communication, problem-solving, and nation building. Where has our training and education sensitised students sufficiently to these important attributes?

 

TEACHING SERVICE

 

A problem the country faces is its inability to make distinctions between subservience and service and to recognise that the lines are blurred between discipline and the abridgement of rights. Schools such as Campion, Immaculate, and non-traditional schools such as Denbigh High in Clarendon, Holland High in St Elizabeth, and Belmont Academy in Westmoreland, beyond having great teachers, principals, school boards, do very well because there is an abridgement of rights (call it discipline) to ensure collaboration, curiosity, competitiveness, and a retention of the culture of excellence that puts emphasis on comportment, deportment, presentation, dress code, behaviour, manners, assignments, results, training, and, increasingly, the use and appreciation of technology.

That must be the universal theme transmitted by the Ministry of Education, which is best done where the critical elements of education, training, and technology are incorporated in the ministry's name.

If this happens, agriculture, where relevant, can be justified, legitimised, and accepted in our school system. So can BPOs, and logistics, and the ministry's current emphasis on STEM.

The prime minister and his Cabinet must project the transformative impact of education by making the ministry's name convey to everyone what it is about, education, training, and technology.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, lecturer, and author. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.