You may have guessed by the title of the article, that I am assuming there is a need to improve the performance of our learners in the school system. I am sure there is little opposition to such an assumption. The disparity in exam results between schools validates such an assumption. The real challenge is to understand why the educational performance of our learners is less-than-desirable, and to suggest how we can improve the performance of the St. Lucian learner.
First let me contextualize my concerns around the issue of educational performance. We live in a world today where the global village phenomenon is making it increasingly difficult for St. Lucians to compete in the world market. We have little to offer in terms of strategic natural resources, and as such, we bring little economic clout to any negotiating table. The banana crisis is a case in point. Consequently, our beggar psychology as a nation is becoming further entrenched. We are left with little choice but to sometimes openly prostitute our country so that we can offer our citizens some modicum of a chance at gainful employment. In fact, we lay as easy prey for countries looking to amass political mileage. I am reminded of the media highlights around the donation of a computer to GIS by the Chinese government. What we have here is a pretty grim scenario, and to deal with what is not a trivial matter, the development of St. Lucia, we need a battery of clever-thinking women and men who have to ability to conduct multi-dimensional analysis of complex scenarios, who have sharp creative and innovative skills, and who are also politically and culturally astute. What does culture have to do with anything? Ask what has 40 TV channels done to our nation?
It must be noted that the kind of minds we need cannot be initiated in foreign schools. They must be developed right here in St. Lucia. I subscribe to the widely shared opinion that our greatest asset is our human resource, and that we must embark on a mission to develop our human capital to the fullest. First, however, we must determine the precise purpose for the development of our human resources, and secondly, we must ask how do we best achieve our desired purpose. In my opinion, the purpose for educational development ought to be "to maximize the participation of ALL St. Lucians in their own survival through the economic, political, and cultural survival of their St. Lucia". As such, our education system has a formidable challenge to maximize the learning potential of any and every educable person in St. Lucia.
Guided by our purpose for educating St. Lucian learners, we must have a clear focus on what we teach (content), and how we teach (pedagogy). In todayís article, I will focus more on how we impart knowledge.
There are several factors that impact on the performance of the learner. Among others, they include: 1) teacher expectations; 2) curriculum content; 3) the cultural context of the curriculum; 4) methodological design of the curriculum; 5) learning resources; 6) school environment; 7) skill and knowledge of the teacher; 8) school culture; 9) teaching style; 10) teacher motivation and attitude; 11) parental involvement in the studentís learning environment and activities; 12) student motivation, 13) the studentís manners and discipline; 14) classroom management skills of the teacher; 15) parental attitude, 16) domestic issues. All the factors identified above impact heavily on a studentís desire to learn.
In our school system, we have several "trained" teachers who are supposedly aware of these factors. We also have several teachers with university degrees who teach at the higher levels of our school system, who through their university training have had little or no exposure to pedagogical tools, or have little knowledge of the factors mentioned above and how they impact on a studentís desire to learn. We have accepted the notion that these individuals (myself included) are effective educators simply by virtue of the fact that they have a university education. While pedagogical training does not guarantee the production of an effective teacher, it can only improve not worsen the performance of an educator.
Through my teaching career, I have observed that there are several misguided notions implied through the teaching practice of both "trained" and "untrained" educators that contribute to the less-than-desirable performance of our learners. These include: 1) only a small fraction of the class can be considered "good" students; 2) you cannot expect everybody to pass a course - at least half of the class will fail; 3) all students should be able to learn effectively using the same pedagogical tool - usually the lecture style, in other words, different students do not have different needs; 4) students do poorly because they are lazy and uninterested in learning; 5) teachers are not responsible for the failures of their class; 6) the context of the curriculum is not important; 7) the teacher is the authority on knowledge, and hence should not be challenged by students; 8) teachers always do their best; 9) the teacher knows best what is good for the student; 10) the parents are not interested in their children, so why should we be? I would conjecture that these attitudes/beliefs are widely held by educators in our system. It is clear that teacher play a pivotal role in the education of an individual. I do not believe that teachers are poor. Career teachers often start out as very zealous professionals. But that there is something systemic that inhibits sustained excellence from our teachers.
To improve student performance, we have to focus on controllable factors, and on factors which allow the use of influence to bring about change. These include, school environment, teaching skills, curriculum design, school culture, and parental participation in the childís education. Some specific suggestions are as follows:
1: Adopt a Zero Defect Philosophy - If we define an "educational defect" as a studentís failure to achieve a minimum standard in a class, then we must direct our efforts at facilitating the needs of the learner in order to achieve the minimum standard. Hence, only 100% success is acceptable. 2: Teachers must establish clear expectations of their students along with guidelines on how to achieve what is expected of them. Nothing is more frustrating than being in a classroom with no sense of what is expected of you. 3: Use a variety of pedagogical tools to maximize the involvement of the class in the learning process. The use of role plays, videos, group projects, presentations, research exercises, class discussions, real-life cases, on-the-job assignments, and term papers will greatly enhance a studentís ability not only to manifest their intellect, but also to better function in society. 4: Deliver courses in project-oriented modules. Modules allow students to focus on and be tested on one aspect of the subject matter at a time. The project-orientation requires that knowledge be imparted by focusing on the development of a tangible product - a book for a literature class, an ecosystem for a science class, etc. The theoretical competencies are learnt in the process of developing the product. Research has shown that individuals better retain knowledge when the learning was experiential, as opposed to purely theory-based. Such an option calls for a near-complete redesign of our school curricula. 5: Search for innovative ways to get parents directly involved in the process of education. Inviting parents to speak to the students can go a long way in improving parental involvement in the school. This is a very valuable form of parental recognition. The use of activities that bring parents, students, and teachers together in a collaborative relationship can be very powerful. 6: Teachers must ensure that they understand the culture and sociology of the environment within which they live and work. The culture and sociology of a people is not automatically understood by simply being a member of the group. We have to study ourselves. This is a crucial dimension to effective educational delivery. The curriculum must be culturally relevant. Hence all teacherís should be required to take a course in Caribbean and African Culture. 7: All teachers (degree and non-degree) should have some background in pedagogy. The Division of Teacher Education at Sir Arthur should develop an appropriate course which becomes mandatory for all teachers in the system. The course should be offered in the evenings to facilitate the teachers, and offered at different locations throughout the country.
Recognizing, that it is not possible to do thorough justice to such a complex topic in a few paragraphs, I would hope that this article stimulates discussion on how we can improve the learning ability of our students. It is extremely important that we not use examination results (eg., CXC and Aí Levels) as an indicator of where the "bright" students are, but rather, as an indicator of how resource inequity is distributed throughout the education system. The critical value of such information, is in helping the Ministry of Education design an effective strategy for bringing about resource parity in schools. In that light, I would encourage the Minister of Education and his or her technocrats to meet with all the stakeholders of the system to conduct an educational audit of the entire system with a view to designing and implementing a value-driven paradigm shift. It is also important that teachers, parents and students alike, make that demand on the officials responsible for ensuring quality educational delivery. We must be ever vigilant not to allow complacency and mediocrity to survive. Please do not accept what one teacher recently said to me - "the students at Saint Maryís College do better because they have higher IQs!" I wonít touch that one now, thatís another workshop.
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