Whenever the name of Barbados comes up in any discussion related to social and economic development, especially within Caribbean circles, but also sometimes in the wider world, education almost inevitably features in the discussion. It is not surprising: Barbados and education have become somewhat synonymous, given the significant strides which this island has made in developing its human capital over the last 50 years through a policy of 100 per cent publicly-funded education.
With universal access from primary to tertiary level, until two years tuition fees were introduced, education without doubt ranks highly among the success stories of Barbados’ first 50 years of Independence. A significant education achievement was an enviable 99.7 per cent literacy rate which was known to exist up to a few years ago.
However, as we heard last week from an education specialist attached to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), some worrying issues have emerged in the education system over the last decade and a half. And these issues raise questions about whether the current education model, which we inherited from the British colonial era, is effectively meeting the needs of a changing society and economy in the dynamic environment of the early 21st century.
Basing her assessment on the findings of studies conducted from 1999 to 2012, Dr Mariana Alfonso said although Barbados remained a regional leader in education, the system in some ways was not delivering to the required standard. She noted that many students were performing below average, with many leaving school without attaining the minimum certification and not adequately prepared for entry into the world of work.
“We’re seeing that students are not necessarily well prepared to support an economy that is based on knowledge and innovation . . . ,” she observed, noting that employers too were complaining that school leavers lacked “the ability to work with other people, the ability to lead, to think critically, to respect authority, to be punctual to work, to be on time for a meeting”. In other words, having the so-called “soft” skills.
Criticism sometimes inflicts an uncomfortable sting because it may not be what we may wish to hear. However, it can serve a useful purpose by drawing attention to shortcomings which may have been overlooked, thereby providing an opportunity for corrective action to be taken in a timely fashion. Given similar criticisms heard previously, it seems that such a case does exist.
Obviously peeved by the critique which has triggered much public debate, Minister of Education Ronald Jones promised yesterday to provide a detailed response. “Some of the current discussion comes from the ill-informed and the uninformed relative to what is taking place in Barbados. So I am going to shatter shortly, a lot of the grunge really, [that] I am hearing out there,” he said.
Doesn’t this mirror the typical official response we have come to expect in such circumstances? A Barbadian weakness — and it is evident especially at the political level — is the tendency to treat criticism generally as a personal attack when sometimes it is not. It is always better, however, to heed the message than to try to shoot the messenger.
For whatever it is worth, Dr Alfonso’s critique draws attention to the need for policymakers in the Ministry of Education to seriously consider more far-reaching reform of the system.
A major flaw of our education system is that it is still very much based on rote learning when critical thinking is more relevant to the time in which we live. Rote learning involves memorizing information through repetition. This approach is heavily criticized by some educators and parents on the grounds that it encourages students to parrot facts without necessarily understanding them, and does not encourage students to question or analyze information they have learned.
Critical thinking, on the other hand, involves the ability to observe, apply, analyze, conceptualize and reason. The education system of many countries today emphasize critical thinking which is indispensable in the 21st century workplace where problem-solving is an integral function of most jobs.
It is understandable why rote learning was the preferred method during the colonial era. The underlying purpose of education back then was to legitimize rather than challenge the status quo which would occur with an education system geared towards the promotion of critical thinking.
The colonial era, however, is 50 years behind us. As we look towards the next 50 years of Independence, Barbados would be better served having an education system which equips persons with the skills to challenge the status quo as part of a national quest to continuously improve on we have for the betterment of society.
It is time for us to face up to reality and frontally address the issues instead of sweeping them under the carpet.