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Reimagining the education of the future in the Caribbean

By Canute Thompson & Yewande Lewis-Fokum

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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We agree with former Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites that if our school system is to serve our country's youth in a sustainable manner, then we need 'A new kind of school' (The Gleaner, Monday, July 17, 2017). We cannot afford to tinker, but must move beyond a remedial approach to a preventative one where we make radical changes and reimagine our education system.

This perspective was echoed by Dr Didacus Jules in his presentation at the recently concluded 13th biennial conference of the Schools of Education of The University of the West Indies, held June 20 - 23, 2017 at the Hilton Rose Hall hotel in Montego Bay.

The conference, which was attended by educators from the UK, the USA, and the Caribbean, was held under the theme: 'Envisioning Future Education: Cross-Disciplinary Synergy, Imperatives, and Perspectives'. Below is a summary of the insightful message that Jules shared at the conference. We end by highlighting, as well, the activities that the School of Education, Mona Campus, has been engaged with in responding to improve, or rather change our education system.

Disparities and dismal performance

Speaking on the topic, 'The future of education and the education of the future in the Caribbean', Didacus Jules, who is currently director general of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and former registrar and chief executive officer of the Caribbean Examinations Council, painted a bleak picture of the systemic failure in our education institutions. He argued that while most countries had achieved universal access to primary education, and while some students/schools do well in Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams, the overall picture is one of failure resulting, in part, from disparities in the support that schools receive. The net result is that rather than promoting social mobility education it is promoting classism and social stratification.

Part of the evidence and cause of this classism and stratification is seen in the fact that only 40 per cent of the eligible demographic sit CSEC exams, and only 22 per cent pass five or more subjects, with a further 66 per cent receiving either “none or less than two subjects”. Jules lamented the fact that subjects such as music, agricultural science, physical education and sports are virtually ignored, thereby reflecting a dysfunctional education system which is disconnected from the society and the economy. The result of this disconnect is that the “immense creativity that has made Caribbean culture a world influence [through sports, music and other innovations] is being crippled...”

Reimagining and re-engineering

Jules suggested that a radical re-engineering of education requires three critical shifts. First, that the education system becomes aligned to the requirements for a sustainable economy. From our perspective, this means paying attention to and providing even more funding for the critical area of early childhood education as a means of securing a solid foundation for children in that critical period of development. It also involves repositioning the curriculum to focus more on the important drivers of a sustainable economy, for example, ensuring food security and water conservation through responsiveness to climate change, as well as creating niche markets. Second, that there should be greater involvement of the family in the education process.

From our viewpoint, parents are critical stakeholders in the children's success at school, and more attention needs to be paid to how best to support parents to do this. And third, is the strengthening of the socio-political framework of participatory democracy, such that “rights are respected, responsibilities accepted, and accountability is demanded”.

However, in this re-engineering Jules warned against blindly imitating other countries and emphasised that as Caribbean peoples we should use our own imaginations to rethink education in a way that can work for us. He also stressed that education should be elevated above political party contests and one-upmanship, and that decisions must include the voices of the teachers, students and parents.

Initiatives of the School of Education

The concerns articulated by Thwaites and Jules resonate with the School of Education, Mona, and are reflected in a variety of initiatives that have been undertaken by the school. We take this opportunity to highlight a few of these initiatives.

In response to needs at the early childhood level, we have embarked on new programme offerings including the Master of Education in Early Childhood Education, which is intended to strengthen the capacities at this level. At the primary level, linguists and literacy specialists have collaborated, with the Ministry of Education, to implement the Professional Development of Primary School Teachers Initiative. This initiative seeks to improve the teaching of English in light of the fact that Jamaica has two languages, Jamaican Creole and Jamaican English. With respect to the endemic problem of violence in schools, the School of Education implemented the 'Change from Within' project designed to help students and teachers become facilitators of violence-free learning environments.

In tackling some of the issues that face the secondary education system, the School of Education has hosted the annual grade nine mathematics competition, which is designed to improve the analytic skills of students. There also has been the UWI English Olympiad/Radio Active Classroom and the Talk the Poem pedagogy workshop and recitation competition aimed at improving critical thinking skills through English language and literature.

The need for sector-wide interventions has also occupied the work of the school. Among some of the initiatives of the last five years has been the introduction of master's and doctoral programmes in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) leadership and, in the last year, the establishment of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. The school takes the view that innovations in TVET represent a critical underpinning of efforts at transforming the economies of the region. Moreover, the Centre for Educational Planning will be play a pivotal role in helping educational institutions improve their performance by providing support in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of strategic plans.

The School of Education welcomes the continuing conversation on what the priorities and strategies for the future of education should be and how these may be implemented.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

Dr Yewande Lewis-Fokum is a Harvard graduate and Fulbright scholar and lecturer in language and literacy in the School of Education, UWI, Mona.


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