Whenever examination results are announced in Barbados, there is the predictable call for fundamental changes to our educational system. With approximately 60% of our secondary school students failing to achieve grades 1 or 2 CSEC passes, the system clearly needs improving.
However, an analysis of the recommended changes reveals that the aim is not to reduce the failure rate, but rather, to divert those whom they consider ‘non-academic’ into trade schools, where they can learn to ‘work with their hands’.
Hands do not work by themselves. The same brain activity required to guide a surgeon’s hands is the same that is required to guide an artisan’s. Further, the consequences of failure for both can be disastrous. A surgeon’s error can result in the death of his or her patient, and the artisan steel-bender’s error can result in the collapse of a multi-storey building.
With proper training, the surgeon can learn to do the steel-bender’s work and the steel-bender can learn to do the surgeon’s. The reason why one became a surgeon and the other a steel-bender is based on the incorrect assumption that some secondary students are not academically suited, and should be sent to ‘work with their hands’. All of our secondary school students can learn – they just need time and encouragement.
In primary school, I had difficulty understanding the school work. My teachers did their best, but I simply could not understand most mathematical concepts – like the square root. In response, for one year, my mother taught me English, my father taught me mathematics, and I was not allowed to enter the ‘living room’ which contained the television. With much effort, I passed the Common Entrance Examination for Combermere School.
I entered Combermere School in 1975 in lower first form. I remember the feelings of accomplishment when I realized that I was actually understanding the work. However, I soon recognized that I had another problem. While the teacher’s and text book’s explanations were understandable, I had difficulty remembering the material once the teacher left the classroom, or once I closed my text book. My brain seemed to leak knowledge like a sieve, so that there was very little left to recall during tests and examinations.
After the first term, they handed out yellow report books. Mine read: “Number of boys in Class: 29. Position in Class: 29”, and occupying the highest possible position, I thought that I came first. I proudly declared that to anyone who asked me, until I happened upon Peter Riley, who claimed that he came first. I was about to challenge the accuracy of that assertion, but then realized that Peter was the brightest boy in the class, and I was not. As God is my witness, it was only then that it began to dawn on me that in this case, the highest number was not the most favourable.
In 1976, I was promoted to upper first form, and girls entered the lower first form. In 1977, I entered second form. However, they abolished the upper first form and there were suddenly girls in my classroom. I was now 13 years old, and the novel feelings associated with puberty made the girls an impossible distraction to me.
When an attractive girl sat next to me in class, and her skirt rose above her knee to expose her thighs, then the teacher taught me in vain. The only subjects that I had decent marks in were technical drawing and industrial arts – where I worked with my hands. Recognizing this problem, I read the textbooks at home, but the challenges of recalling information persisted well into 4th form.
Occupying the bottom third of the class for most of my secondary school life, I observed too many boys giving up prematurely. One senior teacher revealed his observation that most boys gave up in third form. Sometime between late 4th and mid-5th form, my brain seemed to mature, and I began to both understand and remember the work. Had I not kept persisting, had my parents not kept encouraging me, then I would not be a structural engineer today.
The solution is to keep all of our secondary school students interested enough in the school work, until their brains have had a chance to develop to both understand and remember information. In a Solutions Barbados administration, the secondary school curriculum will be redesigned, so that the first three years will be dedicated to teaching the more practical aspects of subjects, like: music-by-ear, conversational languages, applied sciences, English literature, art, technical drawing and home economics. The final two years will be reserved for adding the more theoretical CXC requirements.
(Grenville Phillips II is the founder of Solutions Barbados and can be reached at [email protected])