180 years of transforming the education system

180 years of transforming the education system

Have We?

BY Yvette M Reid

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

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In 1999 the Center for Educational Research and Innovation, the research unit of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched a project — 'Learning Sciences and Brain Research'. The objective was to increase the economic and social development of European countries and to strengthen capacity for an efficient workforce. On the institutional level, emerging innovations in medicine challenged the existing models of learning leading to their revision.

The earliest recorded activity of educational reform in Jamaica was in 1838 to upgrade and assimilate newly freed slaves. The most comprehensive reform of the education sector came out of a 2004 assessment resulting in the Education System Transformation Programme.

Whilst there ought to be no dissent or disagreement as to the achievement of the operational objectives of the transformation programme, upgrading student performance component lags behind program objectives, with only 25 per cent of the cohort of 40,000 achieving programme target of 60 per cent passing five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects inclusive of mathematics and English in 2015.

But whatever the assessment instrument might be, the profile existing in the system reflects three distinct classifications:

(1) those who can think, reason, use the standard language, and read;

(2) those who are weak at thinking, using the standard language, and whose reading levels are below grade and age levels;

(3) those who can barely read, sign their names, and transcribe from the board.

Which concentration of students a teacher might encounter depends largely on the institution of engagement. Some teachers will never encounter the experience of others.

But how does the brain learn mathematics? The answer is represented in the two models of learning-model X and model Y, set out below:

Learning model X

The Stimulus/Response Theory — This principle posits that all behaviour can be shaped through positive and or negative external stimulus or reinforcement as is desired. Teachers are a critical link to provide the environment and stimulus to promote and secure student learning.

Policy determination adopts this theory and has implemented rigorous capacity-building of teachers, the introduction of policy and curriculum guidelines based upon the assertion of the 'essentiality' of nutrition in first 1,000 days of the life of the child for normal brain development.

Learning model-Y

This emerged from three main features coming from the Learning Sciences and Brain Research:

a) collaboration of neuroscientist, scientists, educators and researchers to explore the impact of neuroscience on education;

b) advanced medical imaging technology capable of observing the regions of the functioning brain; and

c) emergence of new discipline — neuroscience in education, or neuroeducation, or the science of learning.

The objective of this research was the understanding of the neural mechanisms and processes involved in learning. Research findings are outlined in the publication Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science published by the OECD.

This principle posits that the brain controls and dictates all human behaviour, learning and emotions through a network of axons neurons and synapses.

The activities of the brain are mediated and modulated by electrical and chemical transmitters, which may facilitate or inhibit desired or undesired output.

How the brain learns mathematics is dependent on and manifested in three different processes:

a) the role of 15 specialized or co-opted areas of the brain that support the learning of mathematics;

b) the role of the pre-frontal cortex that supports non-cognitive and executive functions essential for decision-making, memory, emotion and self-regulatory skills; and

c) pre-requisite skills essential for scaffolding capacities and the learning of mathematics-spatial orientation, estimation, pattern recognition, inductive and deductive reasoning.

The models of learning above could not be more different, one based upon speculative expectation and the other based upon scientific identification of specific capacities allowing for targeted intervention and cognitive training.

But whilst the brain provides for targeted desired learning, recent research points to troubling findings from a study at the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers have shown that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids. (UC Berkley Press Release 'EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids')

“When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs.”

But in both cases, “the low socio-economic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex”.

In 2015, the target of the transformation project was not achieved, it has not been achieved since. What do we say to this child, who, like her teacher, cannot understand — Why or why not?

“Miss, it just not fair, is not like say we no study, but no care how long we study, how hard we study, we just can't remember what we study.”

It is not for the want of teaching, it is not for the want of preparing, trying anything and everything, resulting in long hours of teaching, drilling education into the heads of students.

Yet, whatever she has drilled, will be pruned by the brain and eternally lost. This phenomenon is often accepted as 'burn out'. It is not.

Developing human capital does not begin with academics, but with neural capacities that are critical pre-requisites to mould the complete human capacity to develop competences of attention, emotions, compassion, judgement, decision-making, inductive and deductive reasoning.

Learning must be the change, allowing the child to construct, deconstruct, and re-construct skills and managed by a rigorous Learning Management System.

The current pedagogy is not always consistent with how the brain learns or builds neural mechanisms.

If you were to ask which of the models of learning defines and describes existing pedagogy, the answer might just be in the X-ray.

How long students remain in school, or what assessment they will encounter is secondary, the critical question is: Can they learn?

Students must not be defined by their 'capacities' — a capacity hewn from our own limitations of possibilities — rather, we must build alliances, partnerships, and a community for change.

Transforming student performance, have we?

Yvette M Reid is a retired educator and director of the Van Horne Foundation. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or Yvttrd1@gmail.com.

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