Caribbean Education: New Wine, Old Wineskins?

“Since the education system in the region was not designed to be inclusive, it is not surprising that in the absence of fundamental reforms, it is proving to be unfit for education provision in a 21st Century context, where the focus is on democratisation of access, inclusiveness, equitable provision of education for all learners and addressing the individual needs of each student. ”

 Dr. Glenford Howe, Senior Programme and Research Officer, University of the West Indies, Open Campus

students_learning_computersThe captioned statement by Dr. Howe can perhaps be considered a telling indictment on the status of educational reform in the Caribbean. We are currently being swept along a global tide to see education transformed; away from the focus on the rote memorisation and tidy rows of homogenous students in the industrial era, to a dynamic, exciting, multi-cultural and student-centred context in the digital age. At least that’s what we want in our heads and on paper. While the demands for equity are being sounded loudly in our ears by international agencies like the UN who are requiring more of us, we are perhaps beginning to question the voracity of the philosophy of exclusivity, which has been foundational to Caribbean education. I am not convinced, therefore, that we are willing to make the drastic changes needed to render our systems fully inclusive and equally accessible.

The socio-cultural history of Caribbean post-slavery societies is one built on educational privilege, elitism and separation of the “sheep from the goats” to use the local parlance of some teachers. Education was about labelling, separating and excluding those who did not fit the preferred profile of academic acuity because it reflected deeply entrenched social divides, emerging from our history. Fast forward to an era where the global collective voice on education as the undergird of national development, is the refrain “each one matters”; this reflects the shared official perspective among nation states, that all deserve access to quality education. Education for All (EFA), the global movement led by UNESCO, has both agitated for and led this move, through its global initiatives to broaden the scope for educational access in the developing world. In Caribbean nations like Barbados, where this access is widespread and guaranteed for children from preschool to Secondary, the question is not just access but the quality of such access.

We must begin to question the extent to which an edict like “each one matters” is being reflected enough in educational policy changes. In several regions, we retain a secondary school entrance exam that is grounded in a “pecking order” of schools which is suggestive of superiority and inferiority among school types. This is one critical developmental roadblock as it breeds school climate, student behaviour and academic achievement issues. We tout differentiated instruction at our teacher training colleges but maintain in our schools and universities an excessively slavish loyalty to traditional paper pencil tests, even in areas like Fine Arts and Theatre. It is as if each subject discipline must be validated by the essay, because unless you can write a thematic essay, there is no evidence to the traditionalists, that learning has, in fact, occurred.

We welcome droves of technological equipment from funding agencies but at the organisational level, our educational leaders remain suspicious and afraid of technological use that will employ student cellular phones and or tablets in the classroom. These critical issues cause us involved in educational research and commentary, to wonder what it will really take for Caribbean territories to re-imagine educational systems in the 21st Century.

I think that truly creating congruence between the aims of the digital age and the aims of current education in the region, is critical. We are already living in a digital, globalised environment where the internet and easy technological access has changed the power brokerage in education. Students and teachers can be easily empowered to craft their own learning and teaching journeys and the educational system, as one which promotes formal assessments, must catch up with this reality. It must show how it is willing to adapt to fit what isn’t going away in a hurry- the digital economy- if it is going to improve its relevance. This will have implications for educational funding, resource allocation, teacher pedagogical practices and on-going professional development.

Maximising the potential inherent in education in the digital age and the need for policy innovations, will require a significant amount of risk-thinking which is always preceded by discomfort with the familiar. Its akin to the need to put new wine into new wine skins since the old ones will definitely be inadequate. Admittedly, new policy development is often dogged by political bureaucracy and the malaise which this brings. Educational and classroom leaders willing to seize the very real moments of creative and incremental change, which lies within the ambit of their professional power, can nonetheless provide tangible hope for a new educational day.

Author: Denise J Charles © 2017


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