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EDITORIAL - Needed: a creative pedagogy

Published:Sunday | August 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Beyond the improved overall performance by secondary-school students in math and English in this year's CXC exams, there is another, and perhaps even more crucial tale, in the results, which might be useful in shaping a more creative approach to pedagogy in Jamaica. It's about the inability of our students to think expansively and to express themselves with clarity.

But then, that is not a problem only of high-school students, left behind in the classrooms. It is a national crisis.

Nonetheless, as we said before, this newspaper takes seriously this year's 33 per cent increase in the number of students with passing grades in math, even as we note that only 56 per cent of the grade-11 cohort wrote the exam and that the pass rate was only 55 per cent. Indeed, we hope that this, like the three percentage-point uptick in the results for English language, is the beginning of a sustained improvement in test scores, as the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, suggests that it is.

Mr Thwaites attributes the better performance in these subjects, primarily, to the deployment of specialist math and English teachers to poor-performing schools and a broader range of interventions in failing schools. All of which is good, especially if it is not a reinforcement of the system of learning by rote, or some other overly formulaic approach to education.

Herein lie the other lessons from the exam results. Take the case of English language, of which 23,351 students, or 51 per cent of the cohort, actually sat the exam, with a pass rate of 66 per cent. Forty-nine per cent, or less than half, of these students were graded A for their understanding, 20 per cent were graded B and 10 per cent C.

Room for improvement

Clearly, these have substantial room for improvement, but they do not represent total disaster. That is left to the capacity of our students to express themselves in English; only four per cent of them were rated at A, nine per cent B, while 20 per cent mustered C. In other words, the ability of 67 per cent of the students to express themselves in English was rated between D and F. We ought not to be surprised. It is obvious even in formal discourse, written and spoken, in wider society.

This weakness of comprehension and expression in English, the supposed language of instruction and learning in Jamaica's education system, is bound to affect learning across all subjects. In that regard, it is hardly surprising, despite what other shortcomings there are in teaching this subject, that in math, only 12 per cent of the students were deemed to be worthy of A grades for their knowledge of the subject, while for comprehension, only half that amount received that grade, while eight per cent were graded A for reasoning.

We support all interventions Minister Thwaites will undertake if, in fact, they are projected to have a positive, even only incremental, impact on education outcomes. But it is clear to us that rather than presume we are grounded in it, English must be taught as a foreign language, inclusive, perhaps, of oral exams, as is practised with French and Spanish.

Just as critically, if not more so, a new pedagogy demands the engagement of students in classrooms as intellectual beings, not merely receptacles for information. This process presumes an interchange between teacher and student - of discourse, debate and dialogue. It also suggests a new type of teacher.

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