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by Dr. Dan C. Carter
Unlike previous years, the opening of a new term at the primary level is now fraught with several challenges. One of the most recent and persistent impediments has been the concern over the completion of repairs to schools.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its own uncertainty as teachers quite rightly seek to ensure their safety within the school environment. While these matters are very legitimate in themselves, the one that caught my attention at the beginning of this term came from the host of a popular call-in programme.
With the current engagement of parents and the Ministry of Education in preparations for this year’s Common Entrance Examination (CEE), the moderator emphasised the need for the CEE. He went on at length to state that children later in their schooling will have to sit examinations and that preparation for this exercise should start as early as possible.
He gleefully stated that examinations should begin as early as possible at the primary level. I got the impression that the moderator was equating learning with examinations.
The moderator called for increased mock examinations which children could take at schools other than their own. He was obviously a supporter of the CEE and believed that an obsession with examinations will cause academic success.
The talk show host reminded me of a time when the Ministry of Education introduced Criterion-Referenced tests in 1996 for students aged seven and nine in Language Arts and Mathematics to inform teachers as to the strengths and weaknesses of their students.
The initial reaction of some teachers was to treat the tests like the CEE. These teachers then engaged in mass preparation for the test. The idea of the tests was simply for teachers to diagnostically see how they could improve the performance of their students in Language Arts and Mathematics.
I believe the moderator should have interviewed some teachers on this matter of examinations to have a more informed opinion.
He would have realised that in preparation for the CEE, past papers are used in Classes 3 and 4, routinely, throughout the school term. Previously, school funds were lavishly used to ensure that past papers were ready for immediate use by the children. These papers were then kept safely and recycled yearly.
However, in recent times, the Ministry of Education has made these papers available to each parent at a cost. In fact, there was a time when schools invested substantial sums of money in the purchase of photocopiers to ensure that CEE papers were available.
In addition to the children practising on past CEE papers, there emerged about the 1980s an abundance of workbooks targeting those taking the CEE. These were mainly authored by Trinidadians and copiously used by local Class 3 and 4 teachers. In fact, so eagerly were these texts used in the system that primary school book lists began to emerge as an important part of school preparation.
While formerly, only secondary school parents worried about book lists which were subsidised by the government, primary school parents began to bear the burden of the increasing high cost of books. Most of the books were workbooks to enhance the CEE past papers.
In fact, the Common Entrance Examination became such a national issue for parents that the Nation newspaper joined in seeking to widen opportunities for children to enhance their chances of passing the CEE by publishing their own workbook.
Prominent educator Jeff Broomes has also published a text which sought to make life easier for children taking the CEE in Mathematics and Language Arts.
The workbook has now become a necessary tool in the education of children. While the workbook has its value, it should not be used as a time-wasting measure.
Effective teaching means more than constant examinations, especially at the primary level. It is at this level where the fundamentals of language and numeracy are taught. Children need to be exposed to as many disciplines as possible to encourage a sense of inquiry and discovery. They need, even at this early age, to enjoy their environment and engage in activities that engender personal satisfaction. For example,
play should be an integral part of the educational process and an excellent method of social interaction.
Our system still sees our teachers instilling knowledge verbally, instead of encouraging their children to work towards their own understanding. All the learning methodologies of discovery and constructivism are often brushed aside for a “quick fix” fast-track CEE paper.
Fortunately, the Ministry of Education has already spelt out its philosophy of education in a series of articles since 1998, which is consistent with the fundamental educational philosophies of Montessori, Dewey, Garland and others who generally see the child as the centre of the teaching learning process.
Thus, the process provides an environment that brings out those talents or aptitudes in the individual that will make them unique and purposeful contributors to society. Unfortunately, the examination-driven practice that informs the curriculum very often undermines effective teaching.
A classroom that sees the child as the centre of learning will not need poor, labouring class parents to spend hundreds of dollars on work books, most of which are untouched at the end of the school year. Or for their children to spend hours in meaningless mock examinations when they could otherwise be engaged in the arts, sports or music.
The prolific use of examinations, as suggested by the moderator, serves only to satisfy parents who see their children’s education only in terms of being part of the few gaining entry to Harrison College or Queen’s College.
The point must be made, however, that “bright” children will always do well cognitively. My experience tells me that previously (in years past) ordinary Barbadian children, with no excessive “coaching” or “burdensome” lessons after school, made it to the top grammar schools in this Barbadian educational system. What prevented some of them from accessing those schools would have been poverty and
a lack of secondary school places.
I must submit that encouraging an escalation in examinations linked to the CEE is misguided and sends the wrong message to parents. The success of your child at school is based on the quality of the teaching and certainly not on a constant and repetitive re-sit of past examination papers.
Dr. Dan C. Carter is an educational historian and author.