Letters & Opinion

Our School System

Challenging The Unspoken Assumptions

Our School System

By Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

AS a child, impetuous and rebellious, Winston Churchill suffered from a severe speech impediment and had a poor academic record in school. His life was apparently a trajectory of disparate events. However, those deficiencies and misfortunes were easily overcome by the strength of his character and the underpinnings of an enabling environment. In a speech at Harvard University in 1943, the late British wartime Prime Minister and 1953 Literature Nobel Prize Winner indulged his audience by promulgating the vision that empires of the future would be empires of the mind. By published account, our own Sir Arthur Lewis, a development economist, also identified human capital as the main determinant of economic performance; a key to economic development.

A flourishing civil society requires an enabling environment– laws and policies that allow, favour and mainstream a socially responsible private sector and education system. Such an environment stimulates local initiative and draws inward investment, both of which can have rapid and dramatic effects on employment and human resource development. Written in stone and plastered on permanent mental billboards, a holistic education (touched by character) is relished as a fundamental prerequisite for a civil society and for economic efficiency. As most developed and emerging economies have proven, economic development depends to a large extent on the four Ts: talent, technology, tolerance and thinking (mentality). Given the fact that we have no mineral or natural resources to buoy our growth outlook in St. Lucia, the economic value that we strive to create can only be achieved by supercharging our talent machines and going against the unspoken assumptions of education policy.

With laudable regularity, our political and educational leaders take pride in emphasizing the importance of good schools and the significance of early childhood education. But is St. Lucia’s system of education and training adequate in the new global environment? Are we shaping up by producing the right combination of talent in preparation for what the future proclaims as a complete transformation of motive rather than a straightforward substitution of activity?

Everywhere you turn today; the new buzzword is “talent” intensive, rather than “labour” or “capital” intensive. Large parts of industries are becoming “knowledge-based” and “service oriented”, rendering old economic characterisations such as “manufacturing and industrial centres” obsolete. Even the literature on traditional economic sectors such as primary, secondary and tertiary have been revised to include “quaternary” and “quinary” sectors. Activities associated with the quaternary sector include scientific research, information technology and culture. Quinary is about the highest levels of decision making in the society from universities to think tanks.

By just looking at the available Caribbean labour statistics, it is clear that those without the benefit of a good practical education have fewer chances on the region’s capricious labour markets. The corollary is that opportunities for economic advancement and social equality depend on the nature and relevance of the technical, conceptual and human skills that one has acquired through professional training.

But how and what should we be teaching our kids in modern classrooms? Traditionally, education has relied heavily on texts and lectures with precious little emphasis on lateral and critical thinking. The right approach in the 21st century should be collateral learning and contextualized training that make extensive use of case studies, business games and management exercises.

Such role plays invariably indulge the minds of our kids and help them think about old problems in new ways. It favours learning by doing rather than learning by lecture and reading. It indicates a preference for experiential and active learning rather than cognitive or reflective learning. Our children need to engage in complex interactions that require a high level of judgment, and rethink ideas that they had not questioned before. Employing such inductive methods might even help rake up a few geniuses from obscurity. My experience as a lecturer tells me that the important thing in tailoring education to an individual’s brain is to let the individual do the tailoring. Didn’t someone say that the true adventure is in our heads, and if it’s not there, then it can’t be found anywhere else? Countries such as Finland and South Korea have demonstrated time and again that it’s not necessarily technical knowledge that is the key to competitive advantage, but imagination and lateral thinking.

The bottom line is that we need to readjust our national educational priorities. If we are to develop an economy that actually designs, builds and sells stuff, we’ll need to produce more scientists and engineers in the future. Moving forward, our primary emphasis should be on the STEM-related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Out of necessity, let’s rise to the challenge and encourage our students to take degrees in those fields. The process of preparing and equipping our kids for the future starts at the elementary and primary school levels. The raw materials of innovation are technical skills, insights and the commitment of teams and individuals. From an early age, our school system should be imparting innovation-related soft skills such as team building and compensation strategies, and other essential project and work-related skills like time management, intercultural competence and conflict resolution.

If St. Lucia is to position itself educationally and economically to take advantage of the opportunities that this new world order presents, new approaches will have to be explored and more resources invested. This will include upgrading Sir Arthur Lewis Community College into a full- fledged university. Another issue which we’ll have to tackle head-on is that of foreign language instruction. In an increasingly globalized world, why aren’t we exposing ours kids to other languages right from the kindergarten level? Why should we have to wait until secondary school to commence foreign language instruction? That makes no sense to me. We are depriving our kids of an opportunity to compete globally. Furthermore, research has shown that bilinguals tend to be more creative thinkers than those who speak one language. Exposing children to a second language from early may actually pique their intellectual curiosity in terms of foreign cultures and perspectives, and thus broaden their professional horizons.

Education can be improved by context and adapted to our national needs. It’s perhaps an opportune time to commission more studies to shed some more light on the correlative or causal relationship between our own education system and economic performance. In an effort to solidify our understanding and address key issues in the debate on education policy, research would help us determine the rightful roles of national agencies and the private sector in educational development in St. Lucia.

Total Quality Management is definitely a concept we should be looking at in order to improve standards and deliver high-quality graduates at every level of the education system. This can be achieved by setting rigid curriculum standards, fostering a culture of educational governance and remodelling our assessment mechanisms. At the same time, it’s imperative that the Education Ministry embark on a quest to employ the best teachers and get the best out of them. We are reminded time and again that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Like successful economies already do, only the best trained teachers should staff infant and primary schools considering that this is a crucial developmental stage in forming and shaping our kids for the future. An unfortunate wrong start in the system can have disastrous effects on a child’s development. These bolds changes which I am proposing can only be pursued and brought to fruition through educational leadership and commitment.

Education is an investment in human capital that pays off in terms of higher productivity, economic engagement and even civic participation and good health. A democracy needs an educated and informed people otherwise it will be starved of vibrancy. When citizens lack the educational background to understand the increasing complexity of many social and economic issues, the result is widespread corruption, governmental complacency and eroding social capital. Democracy is not a delivery system and requires active citizen involvement. Perhaps more political education and community activism may be one way to stir the daydreamers and navel-gazers out of their civic lethargy.

(For comments, write to Clementwulf@hotmail.com – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a former university lecturer, business economist and author.)

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