Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Schools feeding prisons?

There are several types of schools serving the secondary school aged population. There are “traditional” high schools in which the Ministry of Education (MOE) places the “brightest” students. There are “non-traditional/upgraded” high schools, formerly referred to as “Secondary” schools. There are “Technical” schools which prepare students to enter occupations in technical fields. And, there are a number of “vocational schools”. The MOE distributes the “other” students among these schools.

The “non-traditional/upgraded” high schools have been in the news recently, not for their accomplishments, which are many but for less flattering reasons. Before, we look at the cause of their perceived notoriety, let us just take a look at the structure of a “typical” “non-traditional/upgraded” high school in relation to how the school allocates students to classes. The school places students in classes based on test scores, often the scores from the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). For example, the school streams students according to ability from stream one to stream eight. There is the extreme from the highly literate students in the first stream to the illiterate students in the last stream. This streaming at grade seven may be reflected up to grade eleven.

While the students in the streams one to six, for the most part, have the potential to achieve much from their schooling, those students in streams seven are usually barely functionally literate while those in stream eight are illiterate or borderline illiterate. Most of these students go through classes in a glassy-eyed daze. Because most of them lack the foundational skills for learning to take place, they cannot appreciate the content of the lessons which teachers are trying to pass on to them. To relieve their boredom, many of them engage in activities which antagonize their peers like throwing missiles across the classroom at them. Some of them ignore the teacher by participating in their own conversation about whatever is of interest to them. Some of them start fights in class and outside of classes. Some of them have in their possessions contraband which should not be on the school’s compound. Many of them are just plain disruptive.

But why wouldn’t they be disruptive? Many of these students come into the school unable to read or write. And, in spite of the best efforts by teachers they have not improved their skills in the areas of reading and writing. Moreover, many of these students are from communities which glorify violence and the perpetrators of violence. And, in these communities, the leading philosophy seems to be material success by any means necessary. In a number of cases, many of these students replicate the relations in their communities into the setting of the school. So, what kind of future are these students looking toward?

These students have come into the school community in a disadvantaged position.  Many of these types of schools do not possess the expertise to help students to overcome the challenges of underdeveloped academic ability, of violent communities and of peer pressure. Therefore, many of these students will eventually choose unorthodox ways to make a living which will have negative consequences for them and society in the end. While these types of schools are not creating criminals, they seem to be holding areas for many of the future criminals. This will be so until these schools introduce interventions to address the educational needs of many students who attend all types of schools and are now just passing through the education system without being touched by the good intentions of the schools.

Recently, the findings of a police commissioned study were published. One of the major findings of this study, it would seem, is that there is a correlation between type of school which students attend and the likelihood of going to prison. That is, “most” of the persons in prison seem to have attended “non-traditional/upgraded” high schools.

As a result of these findings, the MOE has decided to institute interventions in a number of schools whose graduates pre-dominantly people the prisons. This action on the part of the Ministry/Minister has been met with shock, anger, criticism by the leaders of schools and other stakeholders in the education system. In publishing the names of schools from which prisoners have graduated the Ministry is casting a shadow on the schools and is suggesting that these schools are creating criminals, some say. How dare the Minister do this? Others ask, instead of introducing interventions to the schools, why doesn’t the government introduce them to the communities? Most of the problems with these students have their roots in the communities, they say. And stakeholders from the universities have chirped in declaring the study to be flawed in its methodology which means that its findings are not reliable. The furore continues.

While we may challenge the findings of this study on several grounds, we cannot deny that there are serious social problems which we need to address if the society is going to be one of choice for raising families, vacationing and investment. Correlation is not causation, on this we agree. The causes of persons going to prison are many and deeply embedded in the structure of the society. School type may only be a confounding variable, or not. However, starting interventions in the schools is not a bad idea. But, the government also has to come up with strategies to improve the lot of everyone in every community if it wants to reduce anti-social behaviour in the society.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Effective communication (speaking): building bridges to understanding (Part 4)


Most of us engage in speaking whether verbally or by sign language. And most of us speak more in informal settings rather than in formal ones. Formal settings have rules. The classroom is a formal setting which has rules which many students see as constraining. While a number of these rules are unwritten, students are still aware of them. For example, there is the expectation that students will converse with the teacher, their peers not so much, in the Standard Language. So while students may have much to say to their peers inside and outside of the classroom, they may not have much to say to teachers who are seen as authority figures and the enforcers of rules.

In the Jamaican classroom, teachers expect that students will respond to questions when they ask them. However, many students remain quiet in classes. In addition to students seeing the setting of the classroom as being formal, students have a number of other reasons for being silent in the classroom. Some students may believe that they do not know enough about the content of the lessons which the teacher is presenting to comment on it. Or, some students genuinely do not know anything about the content which the teacher is presenting to them. Or, many students do not care enough about the content of the lesson to do research about it, therefore not having anything to say about it. Or, some students do not want to say anything. They learn best by listening. If the teacher wants to have an interactive classroom where learning takes place, these are challenges which s/he he will have to overcome.

In the school setting, teachers assign students communication tasks. Teachers require students to read, at least about the topics they study in classes. However, many teachers will be happy if their students read widely. Teachers also require that students write about the topics they study in classes. In addition, teachers expect students to pay attention, to listen to what they teach and what their peers have to say in classes about the lessons. The communication tasks of reading, writing and listening in which students engage in classes are preparing them to speak knowledgeably about the issues which arise from their lessons as well as in their daily interactions with their peers and other people with whom they come in contact. However, many students will speak knowledgeably about many things, but not about their lessons.

How can we who are teachers help students to communicate in classes about what teachers are teaching with the expectation that students will learn it? We have to, initially, allow our students to speak what they know. That is, to communicate in the language in which they are competent. Here, I am loosely using the concept of language.

In many societies, there is the standard Language and there may be a non-standard version of the standard Language or there may be multiple languages through which people communicate with each other. In Jamaica there is the Standard English which is the formal language. It is the language of books, the language of the mass media and the language of the education system. Many students come to school understanding this language. That is, they understand Standard English as spoken by others. And they are able to read texts presented in this Language. But many do not write well in this Language and many do not speak the Language. They are not able to competently engage speakers of English in conversation because, while they understand what the speakers of English are saying to them, the speakers of English, unless they understand their language, will not understand what they are saying. Therefore, no communication will take place.

The “Language” of most students through which they communicate very well is what Linguists refer to as the Jamaican Creole and by Jamaicans as Patois. Some Linguists, see this as a Language separate from the Standard English which has its own nature and structure and should be treated as such. Some social commentators see the Jamaican Creole as “broken English” which should be eradicated from the system (an unrealistic expectation because of the cultural “embeddedness” of this “Language) citing a number of reasons. There are other views between these two positions. However, the proponents of the different sides of the English/Patois debate have not yet forged a consensus on the way forward for English teaching.

One strategy which teachers may use to get students to speak about the issues which arise in their lessons is to, initially, allow them to speak what they know. If every time students speak a sentence in the Jamaican Creole in the classroom we tell them to paraphrase in English, they will be reluctant to ever speak in class again. So, we should allow them to express themselves using the Language in which they are most comfortable. After all, every Jamaican understands the Jamaican Creole.

After students have expressed themselves, teachers should reinforce to them the importance of being able to speak the Standard English. This is assuming that the teachers speak the Standard English in classes.

Teachers may provide this reinforcement by devising targeted speaking activities for students which they may engage in through role play, for example. These activities should reflect the subject matter which teachers are teaching. Students will still not consistently speak the Standard English outside of the classroom. But the targeted speaking activities may help to build their vocabulary which is useful in communication.

Speaking is the key mode through which communication takes place for many students. Teachers should continue to encourage students to speak, first in their language as long as the parties involved in the conversation understand each other, then in the “ideal” language. The aim of communication in the classroom is to ensure that students understand the concepts which teachers introduce to them. If students understand the concepts which the teachers introduce to them, learning will take place. If learning takes place, most of these students will be on their way to being productive members of society.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Effective communication (writing): building bridges to understanding (Part 3)

Writing is one of the main requirements of students in the education system. Teachers require that their students write compositions/essays, responses to questions among other writing tasks. They are asking students to communicate ideas through writing. Teachers then give students grades based on how “well” they communicate their ideas on a given topic/issue/assignment. This grade is a measure of the students’ competence on this given topic/issue/assignment. However, many students find it difficult to communicate their ideas through writing.

From my experience as a teacher, I have realised that many students are reluctant to do any extended piece of writing. And I have determined a number of reasons for this reluctance.

One of these reasons is that many students do not have the content or the creativity to accomplish the writings tasks which teachers assign them. That is, they lack the life experiences which they can get through reading, listening to “experts” as they share their knowledge, taking an interest in the issues being discussed at any point in time by joining the discussion and generally being observant as they go through life.

Moreover, many students are reluctant to write because they lack the vocabulary and the competence in the use of the standard language which is often the language of education to coherently put their thoughts down on paper.

In addition, many students are reluctant to write because they do not have a clear idea about structuring the writing task even after teachers have taught them how to do so.

Furthermore, many students are reluctant to write because they do not like to exert themselves and writing requires mental effort. Many students cannot be bothered to exert this effort. 

Yet another reason that students are reluctant to write is that they realise that writing is one of the facets of communication through which teachers expect them to share a part of themselves with “strangers”. Teachers are these “strangers” who may get the opportunity to peer behind the masks which students wear. Many students, among others, are reluctant to open up even a little bit of themselves to the scrutiny of others. Therefore, they are unwilling to take the first step to begin the journey of writing.

One student admitted as much. He was not willing to write about himself, he said. He was reserved, he said. He was shy. He was not comfortable “to put himself out there” for all to see.

Whether we directly write about ourselves or we write about random things, we reveal a part of ourselves to others. If we choose to write to persuade others about the “rightness” or “wrongness” or justifiability or un-justifiability, and so on, of a course of action, we are revealing something about ourselves to the discerning reader – our stance on the issue.

If we write about an issue providing an explanation for its occurrence, or to provide a step by step guide to understanding an action, or to describe a process, a person or a thing, we are revealing something about ourselves to the discerning reader – our knowledge or lack thereof about the subject of our writing.

If we write about an issue, discussing its implications, exploring it from all angles, we are revealing something about ourselves to the discerning reader – our balanced judgement.

If we write a story/narrative about any subject we reveal something about ourselves in the telling of this story – our interests, our inclinations, our thought processes, our fantasies and so on.

Teachers ask students to complete tasks which require that they write to persuade, to explain, to describe to discuss and to narrate among other writing tasks. Unfortunately, for the student, s/he does not usually get the chance to independently write about something in classes that s/he or he deeply cares about. We teachers select topics for them bearing in mind the requirements of internal and external examinations which the education system uses to determine students' competence in particular subjects.  

Students write examinations because it is through the process of examinations that the education system judges their readiness to engage in further education and/or the world of work. It is through writing examinations that they communicate this readiness. We who are teachers, therefore, starting in English/Communication classes but also in every class, need to equip students with the tools and the confidence to communicate effectively through writing.

Many students will be reluctant to exert effort on the process of writing. However, with careful guidance they will learn to communicate competently and effectively in writing. But, we who are teachers need to, first, acquire the tools of writing, learn how to use them then pass on this knowledge to our students.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

"The world is a book..."

Saint Augustine is credited with saying, "the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page". When we think about this saying, we may think about literal travel from one place to another, learning about different cultures. This may have been his intent, maybe not.

Here, though, I am inviting you to vicariously travel the world of education with me by reading what others have said, and are saying, about the issues in education in their spaces.

If we confine our interest in issues in education only to our location, we will only be reading one page of the book on issues in education from which we may draw inspiration in our quest to understand and improve our systems. If we explore as much of the education world as possible, we will be reading many pages of this never ending book on issues in  education across spaces which make up this word of education. This may provide us with much inspiration from which to draw in our attempts to create improvements in our "small" educational spaces.

In this blog, you have been travelling through the education world of Jamaica by exploring with me some of the issues in education with which Jamaica is grappling. Let us continue our exploration of other educational worlds.

The Institute of Education's, IOE London blog, explores some interesting issues relating to education in England, issues which may provide some insights to those educators who may want to start an exploration of their education systems with a view to improving them.

Explore the link here: http://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/

Every country, I am sure, has voiced concerns about wanting to improve its education system. Many people have an opinion of what the problems in the system are and many people will offer solutions to the problems they have identified.

The government, on the other hand, may take note of the suggestions and incorporate them in its planning for education. Or, it may totally ignore them. This should not stop us from continuing to think and talk about the issues in education.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Effective communication (reading): building bridges to understanding (Part 2)

We all know the adage, “reading maketh a man” or [woman]. Many of us have never stopped to figure out what this adage really means. But, some of us assume that if we are able to read we will possess knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge here means information, while wisdom is our ability to act on the knowledge which we possess. That is, to manipulate it for our ends.

Reading is an important part of communication. There is much information which is hidden in books and in other media. But many of us do not bother to seek it out. We are content with what we already know. Or, we say that the written or other texts are of not much use to us since “life” is a great teacher, which it is. But, the perspectives of others from all fields of knowledge which have been published in books and in other media have, for a long time, been shaping/impacting the way we see and interact with our world. We owe it to ourselves to acquaint ourselves with some of these perspectives.

When we read we must realise that we are beginning an exploration into the perspective of the writer. The writer has taken a set of “facts” and has interpreted them to derive her/his perspective. Therefore, whatever we read in books and in other media should not be accepted as is, uncritically. There are many writers who have presented varying perspectives on an issue. These perspectives all have some legitimate claim as being knowledge. We should tell our students this. We should expose them to as many perspectives of an issue as is possible. And we should provide them with the strategies to interrogate these perspectives.

When we read, we do more than pronounce the words correctly.

We want to know why the writer has produced the bit of writing. We are looking for reasons. Is the writer writing to inform us about a phenomenon or some phenomena, to persuade us to accept a particular perspective or to entertain us, among a number of other motivations?

What is the writer’s stance? Is the writer neutral? Has the writer taken a position? That is, is the writer supporting a position or is the writer against a position? Why?

When we ask and try to answer questions as we read, we are reading critically. And the answers to the questions we ask will help us to understand the writer’s purpose in writing the piece and will, in turn, determine our response to it.

We may ask a myriad of questions about the bit of writing. For example: What is the writing about?  What evidence does the writer provide to support her/his point of view? From what ideas is the writer drawing? How does the writer view the world?  How do I feel after reading the bit of writing? How does the writer achieve her/his purpose? How does the writer use language? What figures of speech does he/she use? What impact do these figures of speech have on us, the readers? To what extent do we agree with the writer’s perspective and why? What knowledge do we lack which is preventing us from fully understanding what we are reading? Who is writing the piece or who is the piece about? Where is the story or where are the events taking place? When are they taking place? Why is the writer telling us these things?

In reading, therefore, we are exploring the perspective of the writer. When we explore the perspectives of others we are not abandoning our perspective/s. We are trying to understand the points of view of others. And in trying to understand the point of view of others we are trying to find meaning in their positions; we are trying to grasp the nature of their positions; we want to know what they are talking about. We are developing our knowledge.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Effective communication (listening): building bridges to understanding (Part 1)

As we experience life, our minds are constantly working. We think about our experiences. They stir emotional and/cognitive responses as we either consciously or unconsciously process them. We process our experiences by critically thinking about them. After we critically think about our experiences, we want to share them as we have experienced them or we want to share our impressions of these experiences with others. In sharing our experiences we communicate.

Communication is an activity which involves a process. This activity should lead to understanding. That is, we who engage in this activity should develop insights into the goals, motivation, biases – that is, an appreciation of the whole person with whom we communicate. This is an understanding that should guide our interactions with each other.

As educators, part of our jobs – possibly the most important part – is to help students to develop the art of effective communication. We realise that if students are to develop this art we have to teach them to listen, to read, to speak and to write. These are the skills inherent in communication. And if we are teachers of English, we would have been taught in college to ensure that every single lesson that we teach engages students in listening, reading, speaking and writing. I am sure teachers of English have all been integrating all these elements in their lessons. But to what end?

In this article, I will explore one element of communication – listening. In doing this, I will present two strategies which teachers of English are fond of using to help students "develop" their listening skills. Then I will show the limitations in achieving the results hoped for as these strategies are now used. Subsequent articles will explore the elements of reading, speaking and writing in promoting effective communication.

First, to “foster” students’ listening skills teachers like to use the game “Chinese telephone”. I am not sure why this game is so named. However, it involves students standing/sitting in a formation which allows them to be next to each other. The teacher whispers a “message” to the first student in the formation, probably something like “Today is a beautiful day”. That student whispers the “message” to the person next to him/her and so the “message” is relayed to the last person in the formation. The last person then relays to the group the message s/he received. Oftentimes, the message that is finally delivered is a garbled mess.

Students and teachers laugh. The students question among themselves how they manage to “lose” the “message”. The teacher tells them that the game is to show the importance of listening. Then, she goes into her “real” lesson. The game is just a warm-up exercise (usually five or ten minutes) to get the students in the mood for what is to come.

Second, there are other “warm-up” listening exercises which require that students listen to a piece which the teacher reads, or listen to any type of recording, after which they fill in the blank spaces on sheets which the teacher provides.

In the two examples of listening exercises provided above, the teacher is asking the students to recall information. Recall is good. After all, we do not want to distort the “facts”.

However, listening should do more than recall information. When we listen we have a responsibility to evaluate what we are hearing. We need to listen critically. We need to ask ourselves some questions which will involve the 5 “ws” and the “h” – “who”, “what”, “when”, “why”, “where” and “how”. We should create questions beginning with these words according to the context in which we find ourselves.

If we evaluate what we hear, we will walk away with a deep understanding of what was said. That is, we can make a judgement as to the merit of the communication.

When we use listening exercises as warm-up exercises for our classes, we should ensure that we introduce our students to the purpose of listening and strategies which they may use in listening. We should also link the exercise to our “real” lesson. When students question what we teach, the answers they get will further their understanding of what is taught. As a result, they will become invested in the subsequent lessons we teach.

Let’s begin to introduce students to listening critically in all our classes, whatever the subject/s that we teach. This is not an easy process. It is something we learn to do with practice.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

What makes you beautiful?


Is it something special about your features – the shape of your face, the slant of your eyes, the size of your lips and ears, the texture of your hair, the colour of your skin, your race? Is it your build – being petite rather than being plus sized or vice versa; being tall rather than being short or vice versa; having long legs rather than short ones? Is it the way you dress? Is it your personality? Is it affirmation from others? Is it your resemblance to somebody who is famous? Is it “looking good”?

We may answer affirmatively or negatively to any or a number of the above questions. We learn our concept of what is beautiful from our experiences throughout our lives.

Today, in Jamaica, possibly elsewhere, some men and women are bleaching their bodies because they want to be “beautiful”, to have a “brighter” complexion; to become “prettier” and so on and so on. See, The skin Bleaching Phenomenon which was aired on Television Jamaica on the 19th of June 2013 at (http://www.televisionjamaica.com/Programmes/AllAngles.aspx/Videos/27218) and form your own conclusions.

Errol Miller, former Professor of Education at the University of the West Indies (Mona), conducted research among adolescents to ascertain their perception of the “beautiful girl” and the “handsome boy”. This research, published in 1969, entitled “Body image, physical beauty and colour among Jamaican adolescents” revealed findings which may be described as having reflected the expectation of the time.

This research revealed that a significant number of the participants, representing many, if not all the ethnic groups in the country, stated that the “handsome boy” and “beautiful girl” possessed the features of the white person held up as the European standard of beauty.

In 2005, one of my former students, in her research for the Internal Assessment (IA) in Sociology for the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), revisited Professor Miller’s research questions. Her research attempted to ascertain from twenty students, ten girls and ten boys, from a number of sixth forms in an urban centre their views of the “handsome" boy and the “beautiful" girl.

This student found that just over half of the girls believed that the “handsome boy” had “curly hair” and a few participants added “money” to the mix. Most of the boys, on the other hand, believed that the “beautiful girl” was “fair-skinned”, had a “nice shape” and had “long hair”.

This research is telling us a whole lot if we choose to delve deeply into the responses. What I take from it is that we have not progressed much psychologically where the issue of identity is concerned. The television programme on “the bleaching phenomenon” cited above confirms this.

Over three hundred years of being governed by others seem to have left us in limbo. The psychological scars seem to run very deep. The history books tell us that in order to make the slaves amenable to life on the plantation, they were de-racinated. Their race was systematically taken from them through a process of “seasoning” where they were taught the norms of the “white culture”. Our forefathers internalised these norms and passed them down to successive generations.
In spite of efforts to develop racial pride – Garveyism, for example – some of us seem to still be trapped by the experiences of the past while being shaped by the experiences of today. This situation seems to be creating some confused individuals.

As a result, many of us seem to have a warped perception of ourselves. Many of us seem not to have developed any real sense of identity as a "non-white" person because we seem to be reluctant to let go of the lessons of the past. We still practice them today. But, we couch them in euphemisms. Black is beautiful but when we bleach it is just a “style”, for example. This “style” has been in existence during plantation slavery and it is still with us today in independence. What does this say of our psychological growth as a people?

If we do not know who we are, how do we know what we ought to do to develop ourselves?

Michael Manley in his book, The Politics of Change: A Jamaican Testament (1974) contended that Colonialism fostered psychological dependence thus the country needed to replace this psychological dependence “with the spirit of individual and collective self reliance” (p. 23). This message has gone over our heads because we have not yet learned how to “free ourselves from mental slavery” (Bob Marley by way of Garvey).

Manley believed that the educator has a role to play in resolving this situation.

He stated that “the first responsibility of the educator is to address his mind – his mind, not somebody else’s mind – to the question of our needs” (p. 22, my emphasis). The Jamaican educator can only do this when s/he has developed or come to a realisation of his/her identity as a person and as an educator. The gatekeepers of the education system have realised that the education system has a role to play in this process of identity creation. But they have not yet been able to develop a methodology to guide this process.

What makes us beautiful? Being considered beautiful seems to be one of the human being’s deepest psychological needs. While everyone has a different conception of beauty, among many black persons “blackness” is not equated with beauty. Therefore, some take steps to “fix” their "blackness" by bleaching. Others live vicariously through those with lighter skins than they, not believing that they can accomplish much. Yet, there are others who revel in their “blackness”, not seeing it as a constraining force.
To help black people develop their identity as black persons who can “accomplish what [they] will” (Garvey), those who are leading the identity building process must believe in and practice what they "preach".

What makes you beautiful? I welcome your comments, so feel free to start a conversation by leaving your comments below.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Critical thinking (Part 3)

A. Binker, K. Jensen and H. Kreklau, and R. Paul, in their work, Critical thinking handbook: A guide for remodeling lesson plans in language arts, social studies and science (1990) also highlighted the cognitive dimension of critical thinking.

Cognition according to the Encarta English Dictionary is the “ability to acquire knowledge...by use of reasoning, intuition or perception” and it is also “knowledge acquired through reasoning, intuition or perception”. Cognition as defined by this dictionary is not only our ability to acquire knowledge but it is also the knowledge that we acquire. Cognition is thinking.

The cognitive dimension of critical thinking involves the use of a number of strategies. From the list of strategies provided by R. Paul, A. Binker, K. Jensen and H. Kreklau, in their work, I have extracted a number of words and phrases which we often see in assignments we get as students or we use them in assignments that we give to our students. But these words and phrases also reflect what happens, or what ought to happen, in the practice of education.

These words and phrases are: evaluating, analyzing, exploring, assessing, questioning, comparing, contrasting, reading critically and listening critically. Let us look at these words and phrases in turn.

A major theme that runs through the processes of evaluating, analyzing, exploring, assessing and questioning is studying something by examining it. When we engage in these processes, we do a careful, methodical examination of the merit of something – an issue, a point, a lesson, a phenomenon. But, this careful, methodical examination is based on some pre-determined, accepted criteria such as the objectives of the organisation – the school, for example.

How do we engage in these processes? We study the phenomenon under consideration by looking for the strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages and costs and benefits, for example. Do the strengths, advantages and benefits outweigh the weaknesses, disadvantages and costs or vice versa? What does this mean? The aim of these processes is to get to the “why”, the reason, an explanation for the phenomenon, to come up with solutions. We are searching for understanding.  

In comparing, for example, education systems, performance of schools and like educational concerns, we are looking for similarities between/among them. But in comparing, we cannot help but notice the differences as well. So, in comparing things we are looking for similarities but will also take note of the differences. We do not just accept the similarities and differences that we identify. We question them; we evaluate, analyze, explore and assess them in order to understand whatever it is that is “under the microscope”.

In contrasting, on the other hand, we focus on the differences between/among the issues/phenomena which we are studying. Again, we go through a process where we examine these differences because we want to understand them.

Critical thinking also requires that we read and listen critically.

First, what do we do when we read critically? We go below the surface of the writing. The writer is telling us a story, presenting an argument, an expose, sharing ideas. But why is the writer sharing her/his ideas with us? We need to search for the writer’s intention. It is there and it impacts the meaning of the piece.

This is the heart of comprehension and it is where a majority of our students have problems. They can answer questions at the literal level. For example, “what is the colour of Miss Mary’s cat?”  But questions at the inferential level pose a challenge. For example, “why did the writer write a story about Miss Mary’s cat?” Reading critically is a skill that should be developed in children at the very early stages of their education if they are to later take advantage of what the education system has to offer.

Second, what do we do when we listen critically? When we listen critically we not only hear what is being said but we also evaluate, we analyze, we explore, we assess and we question what we hear. In putting what we hear through these processes we are attempting to arrive at an understanding of what we are hearing. Again, what is the intention of the speaker? We want to understand.

If we are critical thinkers, we will be able to see interrelationship of ideas from various disciplines, we will be able to apply concepts to achieve tangible goals; we will deepen our understanding of issues.

A number of scholars/educators are advocating a critical pedagogy following up on the work of Paulo Freire. Critical pedagogy, here, is an approach to teaching which attempts to help students to question and challenge any "oppressive regimes" as well as the beliefs and practices which sustain them.

Whether or not we support the idea of instituting a critical pedagogy in the education system we must see the need to help students improve their critical thinking capabilities. We should aim to help students to develop these capabilities by adopting a pedagogical approach which will teach students at all levels of the education system how to think critically. For, in thinking critically, we will find understanding.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Critical Thinking (Part 2)

What does critically thinking involve? Though many other scholars have provided us with some insight on critical thinking, I will, very briefly, engage with the work of R. Paul, A. Binker, K. Jensen and H. Kreklau. In their work, Critical thinking handbook: A guide for remodeling lesson plans in language arts, social studies and science (1990), they have developed a list of thirty-five dimensions of critical thought. (See a summary at http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/envrnmnt/drugfree/sa3crit.htm).

These writers conclude from their study that critical thinking involves affective and cognitive strategies. These strategies are useful, I believe, in helping us to strengthen our capacity to think critically. I will cursorily examine the affective dimension of critical thinking as presented by these scholars in this article.
 Affective strategies refer to the approaches which we may use to understand and keep in focus the emotional dimension of our thinking.

If we allow our emotions to cloud our thinking this will influence our conclusions which will, in turn, affect our decision making. Therefore, we should attempt to develop a number of skills to, as far as possible, keep our emotions at bay when we critically examine issues.
We should develop the skill of thinking independently. That is, we should learn to form our own opinions of issues after examining as much as possible of the available information on that issue. Second, we should be reflexive. We should study ourselves. We should question our motivations, our thoughts and our actions. Third, we should refrain from being judgemental. Instead, we should try to be fair. This is possible if we take into consideration all the “evidence” on the issue with which we are dealing. Fourth, we should develop the art of reasoning. That is, we must learn to analyse issues.

We have all heard people make statements which they do not substantiate with any evidence. Or, we have all, at times, made statements which we do not substantiate with any evidence. “It is my opinion,” we say with much belligerence when other more critical souls than we challenge our positions. Since it is our opinion, the statement should be unquestioned, we tell our challengers. But, we should not be unwilling to welcome challenges to our points of view. Neither should we be wary of entertaining other points of view  which are different from ours.

Part of being critical thinkers is the willingness to intellectually engage with issues even if they run counter to our accepted wisdoms. We do not have to accept/support them, if after we have critically examined them, we find them wanting.

It is all good that we have independent thoughts but we should ensure that we are not reflecting the biases of our social or other groups when we make statements. We should aim to be fair. Therefore, we should do more than a surface examination of our thoughts, motivations, influences and so on. We must learn the art of reasoning and hold back on our tendency to judge others.
Do we as teachers think critically about our students as we develop strategies to help them get the most from their schooling? Not all the time.

From my years of being a student and also being a teacher I have realised that some teachers have a tendency to negatively judge students. As one teacher puts it, some teachers tend to “look down" on students. For example, it seems that some teachers, no matter where on the socio-economic ladder they fall or have come from still equate students who come from poor circumstances with "dunceness" while those from privileged socio-economic positions they equate with "smartness".

However, “dunceness” and “smartness” run the gamut from poor students to rich students. It seems that most students who come from poor circumstances will remain in these circumstances throughout their lives as Derek Gordon, in his work on Class, Status and Social Mobility in Jamaica (1987) has shown us. This situation, however, is not as a result of any innate academic disability on the part of many of these students. This situation has arisen as a result of the persistent deprivation that has dogged successive generations.
As teachers, we need to develop the art of critical thinking. It is in mastering this art that we will truly be able to understand ourselves, students and others. After we have come to an understanding of self, students and others, then we will be able to make informed decisions on how to solve the problems in education that we face daily.

To be continued

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Critical Thinking (Part 1)

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What is critical thinking? Let us “unpack” the meaning of this phrase by examining each word in turn. A dictionary will provide us with a number of synonyms for the word “critical”. Some of these synonyms are “significant”, “important”, “key”, “vital”, “essential” and “crucial”. These are words loaded with meaning. But what we can take from these synonyms is that if something is “critical" it demands attention.

What is thinking? I will say it is a response to the stimulation of our senses. We see, we hear, we smell, we taste, and we touch “things”, not necessarily at the same time. When our senses are stimulated, impressions are left with us. These impressions are the thoughts that continuously flit through our minds. And, in engaging with these thoughts, we are in the process of thinking.

How do we engage with our thoughts? Some of our thoughts are random. They pass through our minds and then we dismiss them. Other thoughts are tenacious. They demand attention. In order to fully grasp the implications of these thoughts, we engage with them by asking ourselves questions. What exactly is this? How does it work or how does it come into being? Why? In thinking, we interrogate our thoughts. We ask questions and we seek answers to these questions.

When we think critically, we are seeking to come up with a thorough and balanced way of looking at the issues about which we are thinking. Examining an issue from only one perspective is unsatisfactory to the critical thinkers. They want to unearth every bit of substance, every nuance from the issue about which they are thinking because they want to understand it.

When we think critically, we have “problematised” the issues inherent in some of our thoughts. That is, many of the issues which our thoughts reflect we see as problems which need solutions. In thinking critically, we aim to find answers/solutions to these problems. We hope that the answers/solutions that we come up with will help us to further understand other issues and to successfully engage with situations with which we are faced.

Critical thinking is a difficult process. It requires effort, much effort. The effort begins when we take hold of one of these ideas, stop it in its tracks and examine it from all angles. We do this with every idea. And, we do this through a process of systematic questioning.

Critical thinking and critical thinking skills have been prescribed by the drivers of change in the public sector as necessary prerequisites for all workers to possess. The possession of critical thinking skills and the ability to think critically are “critical” to the achievement of the goals of public sector organisations, they tell us.

To what extent do we possess critical thinking skills and to what extent do we think critically?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Challenges in the education system

The education system faces many challenges. However, there are, in my opinion, three pressing ones which must be addressed in order to restore some balance in the system.

The first challenge which the system, as a whole, must take steps to begin to address is the poor performance of the just over fifty percent of students who are floundering in the education system. It is no secret that the education system has produced much talent, talent which can rival any found regionally or internationally. One expert on the education system believes that the country produces more talent than it can absorb. As a result, there is the constant stream of skilled labour from Jamaica to other countries where these skilled workers perceive work opportunities exist.
However, the importance of education to development has been touted by multilateral agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). They cite developed countries as examples of the "truth" of the education/development link. Jamaica may, therefore, want to develop this link. And the first step in doing this is for the caretakers of the education system to put measures in place to address and correct the challenges to learning with which half of the students in the education system seem to be grappling.
The second challenge that the education system needs to tackle is that of releasing itself from the “deadening hand of bureaucracy”. In spite of some improvement in making the Ministry and some schools responsive to the needs of clients, there is more effort on the part of these institutions to strengthen the bureaucratic principles which ground them. In order to get audience with an administrator, one has to navigate a number of channels which do not provide smooth sailing. After weeks or months, in many cases of waiting, you may be given audience. However, follow-up, on their part, more often than not, never happens.

Frustrating clients seems to be a strategy on the part of these administrators/managers/leaders to get clients "off their backs" so they can continue to attempt to wade through the depths of the bureaucracy with which they have buried themselves, a bureaucracy which instead of being in place to allow for order and some measure of control, is there to insulate them from annoyances which clients seem to represent.

Administrators/managers/leaders of schools as well as workers in the Ministry of Education (MOE) must begin a process of re-visioning their purpose in the education system. Probably, they may want to begin this process by attempting to absorb some of the rhetoric for change which agents of change in the system are spouting.
The third challenge that the education system faces is the need to improve the relationship between the MOE, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) and teachers. Last year was a rocky one in terms of MOE/JTA/Teachers’ relationship. And this situation has been ongoing. The MOE, at the top of the system, needs to take the first step in an attempt to improve this relationship. The first step has to be improving the flow of communication in both directions among the MOE, JTA and the teachers. However, the flow of communication must also be improved within the departments of the MOE, between the JTA and the teachers they represent as well as between the administration/management/leadership and staff of schools.

A major issue of contention for teachers has to do with the roll-out of policies by the MOEwhich impact them. In attempting to improve the relationship, policies which will impact teachers should be arrived at through very wide consultations. Ideally, those individuals who are involved in the creation of these policies should be practitioners in the education system. The aims of the policies arrived at must be spelled out to teachers and sufficient warning should be given in terms of the intended date of implementation of these policies.
In making an effort to address these issues of concern, those who are caretakers of the education system will begin to right the system and put it on a course of continued development. At the moment, if these issues are ignored many teachers will continue to go through the motions of teaching and the system will continue to fail half of its students.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Are principals of schools administrators, managers or leaders? Part 2

Stephen P. Robbins and David A. De Cenzo in their text, Fundamentals of Management... (1998) provide one definition of leaders as “people who are able to influence others and who possess managerial authority” (p. 389).

Leadership, then, may be defined as an ability possessed by these leaders or, as some may say, a strategy used by these leaders, to guide those whom they lead towards achieving the goals of the organisation of which they have responsibility.
Leadership involves a process and it requires that those who are leaders possess specific skills and qualities such as the ability to communicate effectively; energy because jobs now-a-days require continuing innovation on the part of leaders; initiative because gone are the days, if they ever existed, when a senior authority figure provided subordinates with step by step instructions to get the job done; willingness to accept responsibility because the environment in which organisations now operate is demanding new standards of accountability; the adherence to ethical standards if leaders want to engender trust in the organisation. Much more can be gained in organisations where there is trust in leaders than in those where there is distrust; the exuding of confidence on the part of leaders. Workers do not respect, or are not willing to follow leaders who are deemed to be “wishy washy”, that is, lacking in confidence. Leaders must also have knowledge of the requirements of the job. While leaders of schools will not possess knowledge of all subjects, for example, they must understand the goals of the education system, their roles in the school as well as the nature and structure of their jobs.

Part 1 of this article, Are principals of schools administrators, managers or leaders? showed, probably not too clearly, that administration and management, while not exactly synonymous, are bound together in some way. This article will show that administration, management and leadership in the organisational context are integral to the organisation achieving its objectives. Therefore, the administrators/managers/leaders in the organisation who possess management authority should, ideally possess leadership ability. Moreover, leadership skills should not only be possessed by administrators/managers/leaders but also by everyone in the organisation.
There are as many theories of leadership as there are scholars who have done research in or are involved in research in this area of study. And, there are many scholars involved in this area of research. Much of the research on leadership started in other academic fields has been built on by scholars in the field of education to explain leadership in the sphere of education. Among the theories on leadership from which educators may choose to seek understanding about themselves and the process in which they are engaged are theories classified according to the factors on which researchers concentrate in order to interrogate the concept of leadership.

For example, do successful leaders possess certain [universal?] traits? Do successful leaders possess certain desirable behaviours? Is the success of leaders as a result of situational factors as well as leadership style? Are successful leaders charismatic? Are successful leaders transactional leaders or transformational leaders? Do successful leaders possess a combination of traits and behaviours as well as a particular leadership style that determine success? What can we learn from studies of leadership?
Those who are involved in the administration/management/leadership of schools may be familiar with some the educational theories of leadership – facilitative, transformational, instructional, administrative, post modern  among other derivatives – with the transformational style of leadership seeming to be privileged among these theories at this time. Though these theories may have some explanatory force as regards practice in the field of education, they must be consulted with care.

 That is, the leadership role that administrators/managers/leaders of schools play must not be divorced from the environments in which they operate. In moving into their roles, administrators/managers/leaders of schools must start from the beginning, that is, the purpose of the school. The major goal of the school, they will agree, is to improve the academic and/or, vocational performance of students, depending on the nature of the school. But, in order for this goal to be realised the administrators/managers/leaders of schools must strive to create an environment that will not only be conducive to students’ learning but one that will cater to the needs of all members of the school community. If all the stakeholders of the schools have reason to feel invested in the schools, performance at all levels will improve. Just ask some teachers and students.
After administrators/managers/leaders have come to an understanding of the goals of their schools they should share these goals with their staff. They should also embark on a campaign of building trust in the organisation. And, since a number of staff members will have leadership roles in the schools and since the administrators/managers/leaders realise that as part of their roles they should be involved in succession planning, they should open up leadership training opportunities to all members of staff. In addition, these administrators/managers/leaders of schools should seek out opportunities to access courses on leadership because they may learn something new about leadership. Research on the subject is ongoing. 

These administrators/managers/leaders should realise that they have a major role to play in the success or lack thereof of their schools.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New year resolutions for stakeholders of education systems


Every New Year brings a set of challenges, some new, some carried over from the old year. And every New Year we make resolutions, some personal, some career related, that we hope we will fulfill in the year. This year, I am suggesting a number of resolutions for stakeholders in the education system.

Workers in the Ministry of Education

  • To be more responsive to the needs of clients than they were last year. For example, respond to queries in a timely fashion
  • Improve the channels of communication between the Ministry and the schools
  • Ensure transparency in decision making as regards policy implementation
  • Try to really understand the nature of their jobs and the interrelationship of their jobs with other jobs
  • Research the issues that come up for decision and think before they speak

 Boards of Management

  • Learn about job; learn about the education system; read and try to understand the Code of Education and its provision
  • Hold principals accountable
  • Have a plan to improve the schools for which responsible
  • Listen to principals but also listen to teachers, students and other staff
  • Offer timely and sensible advice to the Minister

Principals

  • Have faith in Vice-Principals and support staff
  • Sensibly delegate responsibilities to Vice-principals
  • Take advantage of the training courses offered by the National College of Leadership (NCL)
  • Arrange Continuous Professional Development (CPD) activities for staff
  • Develop knowledge and use of the Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) that are available
  • Try to lead by example

 Teachers

  • Familiarise selves with the Information and Telecommunication technologies (ICTs) that students are using; where possible try to incorporate them in teaching
  • Take advantage of training opportunities when they become available
  • Build on the knowledge gained from college and/university
  • Try to enjoy the job
  • Try to understand every student in class


Students

  • Always try to learn something new from each class every day
  • Try harder to understand school work than was done in the past
  • Demand more from teachers than they sometimes give
  • Try to balance study and play
  • Try to be honest with self about ability

Parents

  • Help children to set goals
  • Try to understand the issues with which children are trying to cope on a daily basis
  • Give advice even when children do not ask for it
  • Support teachers and school
  • Help children with homework or seek help for them if can’t help
  • Accept the frailties of children; you were once children
  • Don’t place unreasonable demands on children; have realistic expectations of them

At the end of the year, we may find that we did not fully fulfil all our resolutions. But at least we would have tried to make a positive change in the way in which we approached the tasks with which we were challenged. And, we will continue the process the following year.
Have a great new year of realised possibilities!
                                                                                                             Photo credit: pixabay.com