Turning education on its head
I have been carefully observing, over the last few years, annually recurring hot topics of concern and contention within our education system and the wider society. These are:
1. The ever-increasing number of GSAT students who earn the presumed overall 90+% eligibility scores, based on prior-year placement experience, to secure one of the limited grade seven places in their preferred 'traditional high school', but then have to settle for an overflow placement elsewhere.
2. The recurring low rate of CSEC-certified secondary-level graduates and with specific concerns regarding student performance in English language, mathematics and science, given the education ministry's interventions, including STEM, maths and English-language experts conducting workshops to boost teaching and learning effectiveness within the system.
3. The recurring national lament regarding the perceived absence of 'critical-thinking' and 'knowledge-application' skills among students and graduates of the system, both so necessary for the problem solving, decision making and creative innovation required of today's Jamaican citizen/worker.
The situation cries out for fundamental reform and transformation, if our creaking education system is to be made appropriate in philosophy, purpose and practice to effectively serve the requirement of the citizenry and economy of 21st-century Jamaica. This is why Jamaica's Parliament in 2004 approved the recommendations of the Task Force on Education Reform Jamaica, chaired by Dr Rae Davis, for implementation.
The initiatives implemented thus far have been useful, if somewhat incremental in their transformative impact, because we lack a national consensus as to the philosophy and purpose of education in 21st-century Jamaica. We need to confront the reality that the central tenets of our existing system were established centuries ago to appropriately serve the needs of colonial plantation Jamaica, its stratified elitist society of privilege and exclusion presiding over an economy highly dependent on a workforce educated to ensure conformity and obedience through the liberal practice of rote learning, passive recitation and corporal punishment.
This practice is underpinned by the enduring belief that the mass of our Jamaican people were inherently not bright enough to benefit from a good primary and secondary education, but better suited for manual occupations and labour. Most of the highly regarded 'traditional high schools' were established in the plantation era for the children of the owner and overseer classes of Jamaican society.
The effect of this elitist exclusionary arrangement in education was that, at the time of our Independence in 1962, the majority of our population was functionally illiterate and posed serious limitation on our early efforts to diversify our economy to more fully embrace light manufacturing, automate agriculture, mining and a range of services.
Jamaica established universal primary education in the late 1970s, complemented by the adult literacy remediation services of JAMAL. Efforts to expand access to secondary education continued by way of the Common Entrance placement examination. This exclusionary mechanism would annually, in the 1970s and '80s, process 50,000 ten- and 11-year-old children for placement into the 14,000 grade seven spaces available, while telling those children we could not place that they had failed the Common Entrance Examination.
The Government's strategy for creating universal access to secondary education was achieved by building new secondary schools and upgrading others. This strategy was reluctantly embraced, with public scepticism and scorn directed at the new and upgraded high schools built to accommodate more of our secondary aged children, branded as 'hurry-come-up' institutions.
Jamaica evolved, replacing the Common Entrance with the supposedly diagnostic Grade Six Achievement Test, but continues to use GSAT primarily as a placement tool.
In the context of Jamaica's emerging globalised knowledge economy, where knowledge-workers require a minimum of a full secondary education, the operations and practices of the education system, from teacher education to classroom, must be appropriately guided by a nationally shared philosophy and purpose.
Jamaica needs a national dialogue towards a shared understanding of the required philosophy and purpose of education in Jamaica today. A dialogue designed to secure broad consensus, participation and informed support for our teachers, teachers' colleges, parents, employers, workers, students and the wider society as we accelerate Jamaica's education system transformation for the 21st century.
The ministry must now confront the GSAT placement dilemma by ending the official use of the term 'traditional high schools' while deepening the evaluative work of the National Education Inspectorate, lending robust hands on technical support and guidance to both school principals and teachers in vulnerable schools.
Publish annually the performance report and ranking of all Jamaican secondary schools. Encourage secondary schools, based on their performance, to compete for GSAT students in primary and preparatory institutions within their geographic zone. Encourage parents and GSAT-age students to select secondary schools based on current empirically determined performance merit and not only on traditional status.
The low rate of CSEC-certified graduates leaving Jamaica's secondary schools with certified competencies in the subject areas of English language, mathematics and science reflects inappropriate teaching and learning methodologies and practices.
Our traditional fixation with rote learning, recitation and drill has prevented our fuller embrace of Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Domains of Human Learning. Bloom developed a scale of learning beginning with memory and recall at the base and on up to comprehension, critical thinking, evaluation, analysis, application and synthesis. Our teaching and learning practices must be centred higher up on the scale.
The anachronism of our traditional dichotomy between technical/vocational education and general academic education also betrays Bloom's complementary connection between knowledge, skill and attitude in the process of learning and education. The ministry's announcement that every secondary-school graduate should secure a work-based technical/vocational qualification to complement their general education subject passes is entirely appropriate in preparing our graduates for today's Jamaican knowledge economy and requires support.
Our use of the external examiner's syllabus (CXC), as if it were a curriculum, promotes the narrow practice of teaching to the test and significantly rewards examination candidates with good test-taking skills and memory. A syllabus essentially is the external examiner's outline of the specific topic areas to be tested, how they will be tested, and the grading criteria to be used.
A curriculum, on the other hand, is a detailed course of learning containing sequenced topic areas, logically leading to specific learning outcomes stated in terms of knowledge, skill application and attitude.
The detailed description in the Task Force Report of the Profile of the Educated Jamaican reflects the ultimate outcome of a curriculum-based education system. A curriculum provides detailed guides for the learning facilitator (teacher) to engage learners in higher-order thinking and application, including periodic diagnostic assessment of learning.
The learner-centred, transparent and user-friendly nature of the curriculum approach is what accounts for the 80%-plus certification rate that prevails within the HEART-NTA coordinated National Training System and could yield the same positive results for the overall education system.
As for critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills to effectively becoming the centrepiece of teaching and learning methodology, they must be deliberately infused into the curriculum, taught and practised before they become internalised by learners.
- Robert L. Gregory is a consultant, leadership coach and former executive director of HEART Trust-NTA. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.