What will it take to turn around Guyana’s education system? This is the question on everyone’s lips, and over time, many have offered suggestions. But while many of those suggestions call for added investment in terms of money and resources, there are a number of things that can be done with the infrastructure that is already in place.
To begin with, there must be ongoing professional teacher development and a process that ensures the mentoring of new teachers so that they are kept abreast of the latest pedagogy and thus would be armed with a plethora of programmes and strategies to meet the needs of all their students, in a context where differentiated instruction replaces one size fits all. Professional development should not end with graduation from university or Teachers Training College.
Additionally, training in classroom management without corporal punishment will help teachers to move away from coercive teaching and use of fear, which do not really motivate students to take responsibility for their learning, and which, in fact, can be self defeating, as students either cheat (especially by copying from fellow students) out of fear or become resentful and/or passive aggressive in response to coercion. This kind of training will arm teachers with tools and skills to motivate students, develop empathy and emotive connections and build trust, all of which are critical to the teaching/learning dynamic. Ministry of Education specialists, UG lecturers, education officers, administrators and lead teachers can be resource personnel.
Also, classrooms need to move from teacher-centered to student-centered environments, so that the major part of each period is spent by students inquiring, analyzing, discovering, collaborating, problem-solving, synthesizing and creating. To foster this process, double periods should be placed on the teaching schedule, for Maths and English, wherever these do not already exist. Student-centered classrooms would see the teacher providing about 10 to 15 minutes of instruction and then acting as a coach, while students reinforce comprehension and application. In such a classroom, students become responsible for, and take ownership of both their learning and the environment in which that learning takes place. Group work, which encourages accountable talk, teamwork and collective inquiry, sharing and critique, is one strategy to foster this. And while this is going on, the teacher can work with a select group of students. Also if classes are small in size, classes can be combined and team teaching can take place.
Additionally, students should be given scope to take charge of establishing a print rich environment, so that they develop pride in their work and strive to excel. Responsibility can also be imbued by consequences, such as after school, homework workshops, for students who don’t do homework. Teachers and administrators can take turns supervising and monitoring such students so that the task does not fall on the shoulders of only a few, and the more responsible students can help out as tutors. Other strategies could include incentives, such as extra PE or library time, trips, class parties and so on.
Now it is generally known that each student learns differently and at a different pace, and possesses different abilities and aptitudes. Thus using one type of evaluation – standardized testing ‒ would not comprehensively or genuinely measure the learning growth of every student and does, in fact, become inhibiting to students who are not good test takers. Thus a range of evaluation tools would be fairer and more encompassing, including portfolios, special projects, group work evaluation, field work (which can be done in any subject area), book circles (that can be adapted for almost any subject) and reading evaluation with students being graded on the basis of evidence provided via graphic organizers, for example, or where possible, use of computer technology and programs such as spreadsheets, Photoshop or Powerpoint which also can be adapted for any subject. This would provide scope and greater possibilities for all students to do well, and naturally, success will drive success. And with regular and continual classroom success, students’ self confidence and self esteem would drive them to do well at the CXC/CSEC, because by then, their fear of test-taking would have been redressed.
Furthermore, students who lag behind in whatever areas, can be helped by strategies such as peer tutoring, the buddy system, small group pullouts and after school, small group or one-on-one tutoring. Also, help at home can be provided by older siblings, parents or knowledgeable others. In fact parents should be tapped to play more significant roles in their children’s education by ensuring that their children do homework and engage in practice. As many from my generation would testify, our parents had no idea what was supposed to be done but they ensured that we got the work done anyway and often stayed up with us, providing milk or some other beverage and snacks and ensuring that we were focused on the work. Such supervision is even more critical today when distractions include TV, cell phones and computers. Schools must be proactive in this respect by establishing and maintaining contacts with all parents, so teachers can be familiar with students’ home environments and provide appropriate support to parents. Parents are also in excellent positions to apply consequences and rewards.
To ensure that academic fatigue does not step in, schools should broaden and enrich their co and extra-curricula range of activities, and perhaps part of one day each week could be set aside for such activities, as was done when my generation was at school, many moons ago. Activities such as debates, drama and quizzes call for very little financial outlay. And schools can tap into parents’ associations, VIPs in the community and former students, especially those residing overseas, to help provide scrabble, and chess sets and other resources. In addition to staff, community and governmental personnel can also be harnessed herein. After all, it is well known that not only do students need to explore their potential every which way, but also a well-rounded student is more inclined to be academically successful.
Also, the general practice of students writing a great number of subjects should be replaced by specialization, whereby students choose a particular stream – business or science for example ‒ and focus on related subjects with English and Maths being core subjects. Finally, the Ministry of Education must ensure that every school has the capacity to harness expertise, to help identify the learning and emotional disabilities that may stalk some students, and to put strategies and mechanisms in place to address these, and provide the supports that such students need. Where knowledgeable staff does not currently exist, social workers and other related personnel can step in, part time to help out. The reality is that nothing above is new or radical. In fact, some of it had existed in past years, some of it may already be practised to some extent, and most of it can be implemented with minimal investment of resources – financial and human. Also, I’m aware of the fact that there are many Guyanese born educators in the US who would be more than willing to take a couple weeks off their summer to volunteer their skills and experience, to help with a range of interventions and training; they simply need to be facilitated. I am one such educator and I can easily put a team together at any given time.