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Reinventing Education

In The Caribbean

OVER THE past 20 years, Caribbean education has been through several reforms, most of which have sought to address perceived deficits or problems in the system. In very few cases have these efforts sought to fundamentally ethink the function of education in society and articulate the goals of education with the reshaping of the post-independent Caribbean. Many of these reforms became projectised initiatives shaped in accordance  with prevailing paradigms promoted by the multilaterals and donor agencies.


Historical background

The evolution of Caribbean education systems has followed a path of progressive expansion of access to increasingly higher levels of education from the advent of public education in the post-Moyne Commission period to the post-colonial era.


Taken in historical perspective, it can be argued that this linear progression represented an extension and modernisation of the inherited educational paradigm (Bacchus; Miller; Jules). At every stage of our national development, education provided the human-resource scaffolding that facilitated the modernisation thrust.


In a very general historical sense, it was the attainment of universal primary education that facilitated the struggle towards Independence and the transition from plantation economy to more inclusive modes of production. In like manner, the move towards a service economy requires universal secondary education as the new educational standard that will guarantee the human-resource capacity to successfully make this transition; and it is universal access to tertiary education that will facilitate our participation in the information economy.

Why we need to redefine education

There are five main reasons why we need to redefine education in the Caribbean:


1. Tinkering with the system no longer works; we need a new vehicle of human empowerment and social


2. The implications of the inter-nationalisation of education in a globalised world.

3. The rapid obsolescence of knowledge and the information revolution.

4. Our education systems are no longer working.

5. Education is too rapidly becoming a panacea for all problems.

Today, we will examine the first two reasons we need to redefine education. The remaining two will be  discussed in part two of this article, which will be published tomorrow.

Tinkering with the system


There is a point at which tinkering with an education system can no longer work. Education systems are ecosystems within which changes made to one dimension carry implications for other dimensions that necessitate corresponding adjustments if the system is to function effectively and efficiently. For a change in curriculum to have the desired impact and result, textbooks must mirror those changes, teachers must be oriented to them, instructional methods must accommodate, assessment and examination modes must test accordingly ... even classrooms might need to be retrofitted to provide more conducive environments for new and different learning.


We are at an historical juncture in the Caribbean when we must take careful stock of where we are, where we seek to go and how we intend to get there. So much has happened internationally in the global economy, in society and in technology, and so much has happened on the regional front as well, that necessitates deep reflection on our options and our possibilities.


Taking these challenges into account, the Caribbean today needs an education system which is an effective vehicle of human empowerment and social transformation. To create this, we must first ask ourselves, "What must education achieve in the contemporary Caribbean?"


Tinkering with our present education systems has not worked. A couple hundred millions of donor and taxpayer dollars have been spent in the last 20 years on projects of all kinds in curriculum development, education administration reform, primary school improvement, secondary-education reform and more but the system is yet to show levels of improvement commensurate with these investments.


Additionally, this does not take into account the even greater sums spent on physical infrastructural expansion and enhancements. It is not that many of these projects have intrinsically failed, it is more that we have failed to create the synergies and apply the lessons of many of these projects to drive systemic transformation.


A perfect example of this is the recent USAID funded project - Caribbean Centres of Excellence for Teacher Training (CETT) - which set new standards for the teaching and learning of reading at primary level in eight Caribbean countries. Despite the amazing results obtained, there are still challenges in having the CETT methodology universally adopted across the primary-education system even in the pilot countries.


We are failing to apply and universalise the lessons of projects that have worked well. When we do seek to incorporate them, we do not take sufficient account of the systemic ramifications that need to be addressed in order to guarantee successful implementation. Equally important, we fail also to digest the lessons of those initiatives that have not worked and so miss opportunities for understanding the factors which contributed to that result.


Besides the inherent limitations of tinkering with reform is the need to base reform on meta-perspectives of the changes required. Attention to quality in secondary education will not yield the anticipated dividends if we do not fix primary education; and primary education is stymied in the absence of attention to early childhood development - (note one speaks of early-childhood develop-ment and not simply of early-childhood education, because early-stage development is a much wider construct than just education, involving nutritional-status issues, child and maternal health, etc).


Implications of the internationalisation of education

The most immediate consequence of the internationalisation of education is its emergence as a major industry. Privatisation and the inclusion of education as a tradeable commodity in the WTO negotiations have contributed to intense global competition for market space especially in the tertiary education sector.


The financial strength of this educational industry is indicative of its educational reach. Intense competition among universities in the OECD countries in particular has created a western intellectual hegemony that is able to determine trends and dictate the paradigm. Challenges have been mounted by some of the Asian Tigers including countries like Singapore, Dubai, and Malaysia involving considerable investment in trying to establish global centres of intellectual excellence.


The essence of the internationalisation process is that it leaves little room for small states in particular to fashion an educational paradigm that is significantly divergent from the dominant global one.


The rapid spread of international schools which now cater for primary level education predicated on OECD models are testimony to this reality. Increasingly notions of national curricula are yielding way to 'foreign' or international curricula that literally prepares a student even from the primary stage 'for export' (packaged as seamless entry) into tertiary education institutions located in OECD centers. This is in direct contradiction to the effort by many nation states to utilise curriculum at primary and secondary levels to help shape nationalist identification and build citizenship.


The first two reasons why we need to redefine education in the Caribbean are: Tinkering with the system no longer works, we need a new vehicle of human empowerment and social transformation and the implications of the inter-nalisation of education in a globalised world.

Obsolescence of knowledge and the information revolution

A third reason is the impact of the information revolution and the increasing pace of the obso-lescence of knowledge.


Information and computer technologies have completely changed the game for education. Research and access to information is now instantaneous and the technologies have facilitated the hybridisation of knowledge to an unprecedented extent. As a result, it has been estimated that by 2020 the knowledge base could be changing every two hours! Whatever the exact pace of change, it is sufficiently rapid to mean that traditional syllabuses and curricula will no longer serve as adequate registers of received knowledge.


A major implication of this paradigm shift is that the age-old question of what is to be taught will shift to what are the competencies that are required to certify mastery in any particular knowledge domain. Content will give way to competence; analytical skills will supersede memorisation; and interdisciplinary will reinforce key competencies.

Our education systems are no longer working


Because we have not approached reform in a truly systemic manner, the knock effect of problems in one subsector creates other problems in another - inattention to early childhood development is impacting performance in primary, the deficits in primary education translate into weak performance at secondary, and the absence of core competencies required for excelling at tertiary education.


Ironically, Caribbean governments spend a much larger percentage of public money on education than many developed countries, and in most Caribbean countries educational expenditure as a percentage of GDP is higher or on par with many OECD countries but performance is not commensurate to that investment.


These challenges appear daunting but at CXC we believe that the solutions are simple. The scope of what needs to be done is immense, but it can be manageable if we take a systematic and systemic approach. There are four pillars that are foundations to the solution:


1. Agree on a philosophy of education in the contemporary Caribbean.

2. Establish seamless education system.

3. Make learning fun.

4. Attune our assessment to key competencies and global competitiveness.


A philosophy of education in the contemporary Caribbean

Articulating the philosophy of education is an essential first step which establishes the vision and purpose of education. Accepting that education is central to any national development strategy, and taking account of the unprece-dented changes that have taken place in the world over the past decade in particular, and the grave challenges as well as opportunities posed to developing countries, we must start with basic principles.


The articulation that philosophy of education must ensure that there is consistency between the regional and the national. These two agendas are not inconsistent because the region must provide the architectural framework within which we can productively establish our particularities


At CXC, we have been promoting two essential principles to inform this philosophy: the 'Statement of the Ideal Caribbean Person' and the 'UNESCO Imperatives for Learning in the 21st Century'.

Establish a seamless education system


As has been argued earlier, educational quality cannot be resolved by focusing on only specific stages. Educational quality is not a compartmentalised thing - it requires consistent effort across every level of the system. Attention to quality at each level is like the passing of a quality baton in a lengthy relay race - only when it is successfully passed can we expect exemplary performance in the succeeding level.


In order to realise this, our education system needs to be reshaped as a seamless system in which opportunity is open to all with varying pathways to success according to interests, capability and development pace. The paradigm of Education for all promoted at the international level by UNESCO, and adopted by the multilaterals with significant input from civil society internationally, has created a positive environment for the realisation of this solution. The notion of access to education from the cradle to the grave has now moved into the policy mainstream.


A seamless education system is one in which there is an adequate articulation of levels and the rationalisation of the competencies and outcomes expected of every stage. Unlike the inherited post-colonial paradigm, it does not naturally assume wastage as one moves up the educational ladder, but facilitates continuous learning through different pathways.

Make learning fun


A major challenge is to engage young people in education in ways that they find exciting and which inculcates a strong desire to learn, to think critically and to improve themselves. We can only achieve this if we are ultimately able - at every level of the education system - to make learning fun.


To make learning fun requires a simultaneous reinvention of curriculum and the encouragement of new pedagogies of engagement and discovery. In every knowledge domain, our curriculum must embrace familiar Caribbean reality as a launching pad for discovery and for questioning in order to help our students to both understand and to transform that reality.


The focus on Caribbean realities must not, however, represent an introspection that excludes an understanding of the global and the international - in this regard, we must be guided by the slogan of "thinking local and acting global". Caribbean people are among the most migrant populations in the world, and this dimension of our reality necessitates that our education be world class and globally acceptable.


This requires greater levels of inventiveness and stronger competencies of our teachers, whose own professional formation must be changed to empower them to utilise these new approaches.

The current technologies of play which are so addictive to young people - Nintendo Wii, the Internet, mobile phones, Gameboys etc - must all be turned to educational advantage. The power of ICT can exponentially improve the pace and quality of learning and facilitate students taking greater responsibility for their learning.


Assessment attuned to competencies and to global competitiveness

As the value of education increases in a highly competitive world, qualifications and certification becomes even more high stakes. Hanson (1994) asserted that "The individual in contemporary society is not so much described by tests as constructed by them."


If we say that the purpose of Caribbean education is to produce the Ideal Caribbean Person and that this person should have the ability to learn, to be, to do and to live together, then our assessment processes must reflect these competencies and attributes. Assessment can no longer simply be a test of academic ability or retention of knowledge; it must attest that the candidate demonstrates the knowledge, skills and competencies reflective of the total person.


At this juncture in history, the human race is facing almost unmanageable problems, many of which are the consequence of our own greed and insensitivity to nature.

The threats are environmental, political, social, economic, and so on. In virtually every sphere, the problems beset us.


And in the midst of all of this, the fragile archipelago of Our Caribbean sits like a fleet of fragile boats buffeted by the international storm and incapacitated by its own limitations.

There are many things that need to be fixed, and fixed urgently, but the preparation of the next generation is one of those responsibilities and challenges that cannot be postponed. And this ultimately is the urgency and the necessity of reinventing education.


Didacus Jules is registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council.

By Didacus Jules;

Registrar of the Caribbean

Examinations Council