Based on its unique socioeconomic dynamic, it is my opinion that Barbados and the Caribbean must embark on a future buttressed by innovation and knowledge intensive industries. The vision is to create a workforce of highly skilled citizens particularly in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) to drive these industries forward.
Developing this talent pool requires action across many sectors such as schools, tertiary institutions, Government, industry and the community, all working towards a common goal.
There must be collaboration across these sectors to develop a future workforce with the skills to drive innovation. I have worked through plans with Ministries of Education (MoE’s) in other Caribbean territories with respect to the creation of their e-learning initiative.
The mission is not only to deliver STEM skills, but additionally the creativity and entrepreneurship skills that empower individuals to take their ideas through to commercial success.
In past discussions with a former registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council, it was recognized by several regional MoE’s that schooling should support the development of skills in cross-disciplinary, critical and creative thinking, problem solving and digital technologies, which are essential in all 21st century occupations. These objectives lie at the core of the strategy.
There is significant activity under way across the region and the globe in schools and education systems, to lift student engagement and attainment in STEM and to support teachers with a view to improving student outcomes. Barbadian students have never been tested against international benchmarks and against the regional standards the performance has stalled or declined as has participation in Science and Advanced Mathematics. Education systems alone cannot overcome the pervading cultural norm that it is acceptable to be ‘bad at Math or ‘not a numbers person’.
International research shows that building STEM capacity across the population is critical in helping to support innovation and productivity regardless of occupation or industry. Consistent with this research, industry surveys show that STEM literacy is increasingly becoming part of the core capabilities that global industries need.
A national strategy should focus on action that lifts foundational skills in STEM learning areas, develops mathematical, scientific and technological literacy, and promotes development of the 21st century skills of problem solving, critical analysis and creative thinking. It recognizes the importance of a focus on STEM in the early years and maintaining this focus throughout schooling. The goal is to ensure that all young Barbadians are equipped with the necessary STEM skills and knowledge that they will need to succeed.
In 2002 Barbados launched an ambitious programme of education reform, EduTech 2000, which featured a strong ICT component. The US$213 million EduTech project experienced significant delays in its civil works component, with those delays reflected in delays in ICT implementation. In contrast, major EduTech activities— reforming the primary and secondary curricula and providing ICT-focused TPD—have been implemented to some extent, and have introduced increased use of learner-centred pedagogies. As of 2007, EduTech ICT planning was revised and the project was moving forward with installation of classroom and lab-based computers. However, no real progress was made on the programme since 2007. It is time to change that dynamic.
According to the US Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17 per cent , while other occupations are growing at 9.8 per cent . STEM degree holders have a higher income even in non-STEM careers. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics workers play a key role in the sustained growth and stability of global economies, and are a critical component of the future. STEM education creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables the next generation of innovators. Innovation leads to new products and processes that sustain global economies. This innovation and science literacy depends on a solid knowledge base in the STEM areas. It is clear that most jobs of the future will require a basic understanding of Maths and Science. Despite these compelling facts, Mathematics and Science scores among our students are on average lagging behind other developing countries.
Barbados’ youth unemployment rate is stubbornly high at 25 per cent and growing. This problem is being compounded by the retirement age being pushed to 67 with the possibility of moving to 70. In addition pressure on seniors to work longer due to economic pressure further displaces younger workers.
The Caribbean Development Bank puts the cost of youth unemployment to Barbados at approximately $120 million per year. This initiative if done even marginally right will reduce the unemployment figure and its attendant cost by developing children with practical real world skills grounded in Science and Technology.
Economies, employers, digital technologies and media operate globally across international boundaries. But education has until recently remained stubbornly inward looking, with national systems only measured against national exams. This is a challenge for many developed and developing countries, not just Barbados. In Barbados we take great pride in our literacy rate and our level of education, the organic step is to transition that platform to real world 21st century applications that result in economic enfranchisement.
Because of globalization and the contraction of the world economies with the improvements in travel, ICT and prevailing technologies PISA has become the world’s most important exam. Yet, Barbados does not participate. South Korea has made a huge investment in education which resulted in an economy that has grown at an astonishing rate. In two generations, it has gone from mass illiteracy to being an economic powerhouse. The prevailing thinking among Koreans is that with few natural resources and comparatively small landmass, the only resource the country has is people. Consequently, its people have to be the best to stand out. Brands like Samsung and Hyundai, Daewoo and LG are internationally known. The country has built itself up through the sheer hard graft of its people. This could be the example Barbados follows.
The vision of the project is to build a school structure that develops a highly numerate highly literate student that is analytical, creative and innovative. This is delivered through three priorities:
1. Ensuring that all students finish school with strong foundational knowledge in STEM and related skills.
2. Ensuring that students are inspired to take on more challenging STEM subjects.
3. Building an effective ecosystem that supports the change.
The vision is to “make every school a good school”. The idea of a good school is one that provides a solid education to all students and encourages them to become confident, self-motivated, lifelong learners.
This is a departure from the current psychology of schooling for in our schools today, teachers typically focus on preparing students to do well on national examinations. Parents and students are very anxious about these exams, particularly the 11-plus. High scores will get students into one of the island’s elite secondary schools, which are considered the first step to a bright future.
O’Level and Advanced Level exams at age 16 and 18 respectively determines whether students will get into a university. Hence the focus in schools is on studying to score well on exams, rather than on lifelong learning or mastering knowledge and 21st-century skills relevant to a career in an ever-changing market.
Now is the time for us evolve.
George Connolly is CEO of Business Technology Solutions Firm and a former candidate of the Democratic Labour Party.