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Contradictions of our education system

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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Many years ago the Government of India was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in New Delhi. It offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, though, enterprising people began to breed cobras for income. When the Government became aware of this, the reward programme was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set free the now-worthless snakes. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse. This became known as the cobra effect.

The cobra effect is an example of an adage called Campbell's Law. The law states: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Campbell also wrote: “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. However, when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”

The perspectives presented here attempt to uncover parallels to Campbell's Law as we look at the ways in which our educational culture and practice have unfolded. Hopefully this will help us to make decisions that will honour the sacrifices of the Jamaican people as they seek to educate their children.

If educational outcomes are to be satisfactory, teachers will have to be adequately prepared. The converse is not always true, however. Even if all teachers were properly trained, that does not guarantee satisfactory educational outcomes, since there are other factors outside of schools that influence these outcomes.

Teacher training programmes for mathematics and the sciences ought only to admit students who have demonstrated mastery of the content that those students will be expected to teach. A teacher training programme should focus on training students in the programme how to teach. Our teachers' colleges use a different paradigm to the one I am suggesting, in that they attempt to teach content and pedagogy simultaneously. This has served to undermine educational standards, as we shall see.

There are many more places for teacher training than there are qualified applicants. In order to ensure that lecturers have a job, admission standards are ignored in order to have students in sufficient numbers. This dynamic means that lecturers, paradoxically, have a vested interest in lowering educational standards. Hence, diagnostic tests are given after admission to the programmes. Students in teachers' colleges who are going to teach mathematics have to do a diagnostic test set by the Ministry of Education. Students are placed into categories based on their content knowledge as indicated by the diagnostic test. There are four categories of deficits: minimal, moderate, severe, profound. The results of these diagnostic tests show that almost all students have “profound or severe deficits in their content knowledge”. Those same students get excellent grades for their mathematics courses in teachers' colleges.

Why do students who show such deficits in their mathematics get such good grades in college?

I am positing that the college assessments are so criterion-deficient that even students with severe deficits can get excellent grades. Teachers' colleges do not have specific standards of competence by which exams are set. Instead, exam questions are written with a mindset that only questions students are able to manage will be allowed. Therefore, regardless of the deficits that students have, they can still get excellent grades.

The culture of these colleges is that you are not a good lecturer unless your students are passing. On the surface, this seems reasonable, but in practice it has contributed greatly to the creation of a culture that is toxic to excellence and high educational standards.

Syllabuses sometimes seem like a hodgepodge of topics rather than a focused piece of academic work. The reason for this is that some college lecturers are uncomfortable with certain topics. Syllabuses are written by lecturers. Hence, they can always be written to service lecturers' insecurities and to preserve their good reputation and their jobs. Topics that ought to be in syllabuses are routinely left out. One example is in the area 'critical thinking'. I have written a module on logic that would provide a framework to help students to think critically. The syllabuses used in teachers' colleges leave students completely devoid of any such exposure.

Since grades can be engineered, excellent grades are used to mask the deficits in students' content knowledge and these students are routinely certified to teach. As long as good grades are used to mask deficits and incompetence, cataclysmic educational outcomes for mathematics and science will continue to be a feature of our educational system. This country, therefore, needs to do a serious analysis of what the profile of a teacher ought to be.

One of the conclusions that I hope would be drawn from such an analysis is that a teacher ought to have mastered the topic or subject that he or she is teaching. I am not claiming that a teacher ought to know everything at any given moment in time. However, the teacher should have sufficient motivation for academics and should be sufficiently educated such that they can grow while on the job to acquire the appropriate mastery. It should not be that even though teaching may be the hardest task in the world, it is the easiest career to get into.

I think that when someone is presented to the society as a teacher, the various stakeholders should be assured that this person has climbed over, so to speak, high academic hurdles. Ethics and morals have to be at the very foundation of any system if the outcomes from such a system are to be satisfying. So, over and above any academic accomplishments, a teacher should have a certain moral rectitude.

In my opinion, a teacher is a professional who can be trusted to provide a learning environment for students that will add value to their educational experiences. A teacher is not simply an educational technician who is handed a syllabus and is expected to go through it line by line with an implied threat that if it is not completed then there are going to be some negative consequences. This, in turn, means that the teacher has to have the autonomy to be able to provide for the needs of each student.

Teachers ought to be held accountable. However, teachers ought to be made accountable by setting high moral, ethical and academic standards for the teaching profession, and having a system in place that ensures anyone deemed a teacher has reached these standards, and keeps to these standards.

The Faculty of Education at The University of the West Indies (The UWI) functions as a faculty of last resort in some ways. If a student at The UWI is attempting to do an academic degree in one of the regular university faculties and is failing repeatedly so that they cannot graduate, one way to enable that student to graduate is to effect a transfer to the Education Faculty, where the courses are easier to pass.

Most people who teach in Jamaica are graduates of teachers' colleges. Usually after some time teaching in schools the individual decides to acquire a degree. If they go to The UWI, in most cases, they cannot successfully complete a degree in the Faculty of Pure & Applied Sciences. In response to this situation, the Faculty of Education has formulated a set of mathematics courses which enables students who cannot do a content degree in the regular university faculties to acquire a degree called Bachelor of Education in Mathematics. The mathematics courses conducted by the Faculty of Education are not conducted with the same rigour as would be done by Faculty of Pure & Applied Sciences. When courses are conducted by faculties of education, students are typically given all sorts of criterion-deficient assignments, since the focus tends to be on letting the student get a good grade, rather than taking students through the rigours of the subject. This is quintessentially an alternative path for those who cannot do a 'regular' subject degree. It undermines the quality of the education system and contributes to the phobia for mathematics.

A person who has done a Bachelor of Education in Mathematics, in this context, has certainly not climbed over a high academic barrier. These graduates have all sorts of gaps and mathematical deficiencies, which they pass on to students, but they form the majority of the people in the system. I really don't see how we can trumpet excellence and at the same time create a system that enforces mediocrity.

Finland, for example, has stated explicitly that a teacher must do their content in the regular university faculties, not by the faculties of education. In India, one has to first acquire an academic degree in order to be a candidate for the degree of Bachelor in Education.

Two professors from the National Institute of Education of Singapore did an excellent workshop for teachers. I have been saying much of what they told us, but for free. When I pointed out that these are the things that we should be doing in training teachers my suggestions were resisted by the system. The curriculum for the colleges, as is written, still does not allow for these methods to be implemented, and is just another example of the contradictions in the system.

Teachers should have sufficient knowledge of the language of instruction so that they can effectively teach. All teachers should be able to teach reading. Ideally, a teacher should have studied language from the perspectives of linguistics, not simply from the perspectives of literature, as in today's world grammar is not simply looking at tenses and declensions.

Our country has spent billions of dollars on all sorts of transformation programmes and is still spending. We need to stop, see where we are, decide where we want to go, and then decide on the best ways to get there. I am afraid that if we do not do this, we will be on an endless treadmill of transformation programmes, after each of which we are left wondering how come so little has changed after how so much has been spent.

Philip A Patterson has served as a lecturer at Shortwood and Moneague teachers' colleges as well as the College of the Agriculture, Science and Education. Send comments to the Observer or philipxqat@gmail.com.

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