“To trade school with you!” By Grenville Phillips II
Whenever examination result 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 need 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 realised that I was actually understanding the work. However, I soon recognised 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 leaks water, so that there was very little left to recall during tests and examinations.
After the first term, they handed out yellow report books. I never saw these at Primary School. 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 realised 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 knees 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.
As a nation, we cannot simply do nothing and hope that things will improve. Our secondary school students need to remain 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 3 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 2 years will be reserved for adding the more theoretical CXC requirements.
The foreseen criticism is that Barbados needs all types of workers. That is accepted. However, who gets to choose another’s vocation? The educational system is currently set-up for those who mentally develop earlier. They get to choose their vocations. The remainder simply take what is available. There is an attempt to formalize this by forcing a set of persons who mentally develop slower into the trades.
The point of this article is that we can all choose our vocation. Some will select a vocation based on the value that the market places on the trade or profession, some will select it on personal interest and fulfillment, while others will select it to meet temporary cash flow challenges, but we should all be allowed to choose.
It should be noted that this article does not address persons with permanent clinical mental deficiencies, but rather, persons who natural developed slower. Had everyone taken the Common entrance exam when they were 20 years old, then almost everyone would pass for a ‘top’ school. Had everyone taken their CXC exams when they were 25 years old, then almost everyone would pass. Why, because by that time, everyone would have a similarly developed brain.
Clearly we cannot wait until all of our students have passed puberty before testing them. Therefore, we should do perhaps the next best thing. We should keep them all interested in the practical aspects of subjects, where they can all experience the immediate benefits of the subjects for the first 3 years, while they continue to develop mentally without thinking that they cannot learn. This should give them the encouragement to persist in order to enjoy the latent benefits of schooling.