Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Jamaican Education Revolution

What is it about a kid without a sparkle in his/her eyes that grabs your heart and pulls at it it so strongly? What is it about children who’ve lost their laughs that makes us so incredibly sad? Do cynical, depressed, distressed and discouraged young people disturb you?

When you look back on your own childhood and school experience, do you ever get the feeling that even though it was not excessively negative or traumatic, it still could have been much better?

And don’t you think we owe it to the next generation to ensure that every minute spent in the classroom yields far greater results than passes in a few compulsory subjects? Don’t you think we ought to use the classroom to create a safe place for self-discovery and learning, coupled with enthusiasm and fun?

I believe that if our schools continue to educate our children along the lines that we’ve been for the last century, we will end up with a society of mostly uninnovative, monotonous conformists. I fear that we will end up with young ‘dicta-regurgitating ibots’ who resent the education process, and completely miss the value of the time they spend in the classroom.

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica reports that there are 769,239 children and youth between the ages of five to 19 in Jamaica. These are the ages between which most children start primary school and leave high school. Now if the average Jamaican child spends roughly seven hours per weekday for about 180 days each year in the classroom, that means that each child spends a total of 1,260 hours per year in the classroom. That’s a very long time – too long for us to take any chances, or get the education of the next generation wrong.

Each child brings a unique gift into the world, and the education system ought to be the place where that gift is found, exposed, developed and maximised. Instead, what we often see happening is an emphasis on memorising and regurgitating facts and figures, to the exclusion or marginalisation of other key elements of the learning process. There is also a heavy focus on academics, which often does not include theatre arts or other less conventional areas of study.

This month, for example, two of Jamaica’s most popular primary-school examinations became the subject of national debates. The Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT) and the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) are two exams used to assess the literacy skills of our primary-school students, and their readiness to move on to secondary education.

Each year, as preparation for these exams takes place, many students find themselves pressured, burdened and agitated. Their only goal at those stages is to pass the exam; make their teachers, parents or guardians proud; and avert the shame and stigma that comes with failure, or even with near-but-not-total success.

I have seen so many young eyes filled with tears, heard shrieks of fear and disappointment and seen children literally fret themselves into sickness because they did not perform as well as they had hoped on one of these exams.

The same thing applies for the CXC Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exam in high schools. At this stage, the exam candidates may be older and more contained in their emotions and reactions, but there is similar trepidation and disappointment when things don’t turn out the way they had planned, or hoped.

And the results we obtain annually in these exams paint a dismal picture of the effectiveness of our teaching system. Statistics from the National Progress Report on Jamaica’s Social Policy Goals (Jamaica Social Policy Evaluation, 2008) reveal that at the primary level over the 2006-2007 period, only 65 per cent of students who sat the Grade Four Literacy Test were successful in accomplishing full mastery of all the measures used to assess functional literacy. Fourteen per cent failed to master these areas at all.

At the secondary level in the same period, only 56 per cent of students allowed to sit the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) English language exam passed. An even more dismal 36 per cent of those entered to sit mathematics achieved passes.

What these results tell me is that something is wrong with what takes place annually in the classroom - obviously, something needs fixing. Why are our children taken through this rigorous and stressful cycle annually, only to yield less-than-satisfactory results? We’ve already tried changing the exam. It did not work. It is time to change the ENTIRE system. An education overhaul is long overdue in Jamaica!

Look at today’s schools. Think of today’s children. Do you think any of them deserves to have their hopes and dreams squelched by a system that does not recognise or embrace their unique artistic gifts or talents – a system that many argue literally sets them up for failure? Why do we keep sending our children through an obviously botched system, especially when there are ways in which the education experience can be made to be much more meaningful and fulfilling for them?

It is in the classroom, I believe, that our teachers get the opportunity every day to impart a legacy far greater than knowledge to the next generation. And it hurts me to see that opportunity squandered every day.

We don't need another barely literate and depressed generation. We need an education revolution.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.