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Challenging times for mathematical advancement in Jamaica’s schools

Published:Thursday | March 31, 2016 | 12:00 AM


It has been many years now that Jamaica is fully aware of the problems facing primary school teachers in developing children's mathematical skills and competencies. I am delighted that the JN Foundation is partnering with the Ministry of Education in implementing the iLead Programme in 10 primary schools in Region 2. This intervention must begin at grade 1. As a retired educator, I still find it a pleasure to visit many primary classes and exchange greetings with the teachers, but I am aware of my boundaries.

What have I missed from the classrooms? Activities and materials for exploration and finding out, opportunities for problem solving through measuring, estimating, calculating and constructing using standard units accurately. I miss large sheets of graphing activities done by the children to answer a variety of questions or solve problems. There is no evidence of activities in comparison, ordering, patterning and constructing. Most of these tasks are completed in workbooks where the illustrations are already done and there can only be one and the same answer. There is no learning by doing. Teachers are loyal to the curriculum and so they teach, test and move on to the next lesson. Where is the graph to track and record children's pocket money? Cost of bus or taxi fares for a week? Birthday charts? Should mathematics be boring?

So, what do I see in a typical classroom?


Students stand to lose

Charts and mobiles for identifying and naming months of the year, days of the week, charts of shapes, numerals, and visuals that make a classroom beautiful, all made by the teachers. The central focus in each classroom is the overused, black or white board. 'Heading-up' is the order of the day and to get ready for exams, students must write their date of birth on each new page. There are piles of workbooks, and at least half dozen hardcover notebooks for each student. The children are burdened with knapsacks to and from school. The teacher's jobs demand a vetted lesson plan before school begins. The students are the losers when too much is expected from a teacher in an overcrowded noisy classroom.

Much change has taken place in schools, but how much has changed in the training of teachers? The challenges that face many students in the colleges, in many instances, cause some to hate what they should really develop a passion for. Our very bright students do not enter teachers' college; therefore, our public schools will continue to accept many teachers who are merely looking for a safe profession. These teachers do need close supervision and help.


More supervision for teachers

The Ministry of Education is adopting all the strategies it possibly can, but the job of teaching now requires much more supervision. The experts who are supervising and training through workshops need to go a bit further. They need to get into the classrooms and demonstrate their skills while the teachers observe. Too much telling and explaining do not, in fact, help a struggling teacher. If they cannot do it in the tough overcrowded classrooms, then they must continue to explore for new ideas, have them tested and modified until success is attained. We must take the reports of the National Education Inspectorate seriously. These 10 schools in Region Two cluster are indeed tough schools, and workshops alone will not solve the problems.

Most of these classrooms need teachers' aids. They need strong supervision and support from parents, communities and churches. There are many primary-trained teachers in Jamaica being employed through JEEP. Every child must read individually to his/her teacher at least twice weekly. It is a fact that many children do not read to their teachers as was the custom in the old days. Whole group teaching is the order of the day.

I have continued to examine the writing books of children. A common reason for unfinished tasks is that 'there was no time'. The first four lines are copied from the board, which include the subject, date, child's name and date of birth and a task to be done. A slow grade three or four child copies only this preliminary task when other children have completed the entire exercise. What then is expected of these children? If I say that my heart is sad, it is an understatement, but there are hundreds of our children moving through the system, needing help when so many teachers are unemployed. These children create bigger problems in the secondary schools, and indeed they become the nation's concerns.

We must get education right at the primary level at all cost.

Eugena Robinson

Port Maria, St Mary