Education in crisis: How are the mighty fallen? (Part I)

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By Leonart Matthias

One solemn Monday night in September 2017, savage, relentless winds from Hurricane Maria ravaged Dominica as never before, reducing the island to rubble. This violent hurricane taught Antigua-Barbuda a lesson that its citizens are yet to learn. Worn, tattered, traumatised and disoriented – many students from Dominica came to Antigua to continue their schooling. These Dominican students, wherever they were placed, did better at CSEC (CXC) exams than the students schooled in Antigua.

Now, the selection and placement of these students were not contrived or deliberately manipulated.  The past performance of these students was not taken into account when they were placed in Antigua. The selection was rather haphazard and random – simply children who had relatives in Antigua that could accommodate them.

What has happened to education in Antigua-Barbuda is a question that no one is asking, that no lessons have been learned, and that no one is bold enough to answer. It is clear though that something is wrong. But how wrong, is the question.  During the 1960s, Antigua ranked neck and neck with Barbados as having the best education in the West Indies. The teacher-training college, police academy, nurses training of the Leewards, along with other institutions, were  centred in Antigua. Students from all over descended on the island. Today, the Edvocate ranks Barbados in the top 20 Educational systems in the world. Antigua-Barbuda is nowhere to be found. What has happened to Antigua that great seat of education?

Or in the words of Israel’s King David, wailing in astonishment, ‘How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle?‘ The mighty men of David were not ordinary men, but almost superhuman. We read of them in 2 Samuel 23. One of them, Adino the Eznite, ‘lifted up his spear against eight hundred, whom he slew at one time’They were ‘swifter than eagles and stronger than lions‘. Yet in 2 Samuel 1 v 9, David could not contain his disbelief. Tell it not in Gath, the King pleaded, publish it not in Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice.

The administrators of education in Antigua have taken the same position: Tell it not in Gath …lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice. But the silence has created a monster. The problem is being ignored while swelling out of control. As more and more teachers fade into retirement, the supply chain of new teachers is ill-equipped for the task it is asked to perform.  Many of the new guards are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the subjects they teach. As a result, of this lack of foundation, many more are incapable of passing the now diluted teacher-training exam.

Consequently, the problems are compounded, knowledge and imparting the knowledge are prevalent weaknesses in the system. However, that is not all.  Observers of the students from Dominica noticed a marked difference in their attitude and behaviour in class. They had the ability to sit still, concentrate, and pay attention in class. Additionally, there was another astonishing, but particular trait. Coming from different schools, backgrounds and situations – these students were all uniquely organised with military precision. All had their work, SBAs, and projects on one flash drive, that made their transition to Antigua seamless; as though they were months in preparation for Hurricane Maria. What can cause that?

One would think that the inability to focus in class is no big deal. But this is the most fundamental aspect and prerequisite of learning. All of us are born with almost zero concentration span. Little by little, this span is widened until it reaches the intended capacity for absorbing specific modes, techniques and disciplines. Simply put, unless a child can focus or concentrate s/he cannot learn.

What I have noticed is that the bathwater has been thrown out of the educational system with many of the critical tools and aids necessary for early development of concentration like: recitation, transcription, dictation, round robin games, story-telling, choral-speaking, singing, multiplication and addition tables etc. Many, many of the modern teachers do not understand the value of these ‘games.’

I was once commenting to a teacher that many of these tools have been discarded. The teacher responded that many of them are useless, for example, she stated that there are many better ways to teach spelling than ’round-robin spelling’. I was shocked. Round-robin spelling does not teach spelling, but prepares students for the most commonly utilised method of learning in Antigua – focusing (concentrating) on the teacher.

In round-robin spelling, the teacher puts the word on the black board: ‘BREAD’. She then points to the first child at random who says the word ‘bread’, she arbitrarily points to another child who spells the whole word ‘bread,’ she then points to another child who calls the first letter ‘b,’ then the next who says the second letter ‘r’ until the whole word is spelt. Now each child in the class of 20 or thirty has to focus on the teacher until the whole word is spelt, or else the first child that is distracted gets called upon to recite the next letter or is shamefully embarrassed if s/he misses it. This process begins over again, re-enforcing another method of teaching, that is the consecutive, repeated, cyclic activities.

Dictation, another tool of incalculable importance utilises not only all of the methods by which a child learns, (visual, hearing, and doing) but also incorporates, focusing on the teacher, sitting still in class, association, ear and hand coordination, sight-hand coordination, word-visualisation, while enhancing spelling, writing and most importantly, learning English, in the process. Obviously, from the stories circulating about the temperament of the students from Dominica, these are certainly some of the tools still in use in that island.

My mother was a teacher from 1952 until 1996. Four of my siblings were teachers also. I too had very high hopes of being a teacher also, but just never made it (maybe some day I will be successful). Therefore, methods of education were frequent discussions at home. Not just among us, but sometimes there were conclaves of teachers and ministry officials that would congregate at home, including the then CEO Whitfield Harris, Alfred Blackette, Molly Dickson, Hewlett Defraitas (a zone officer who lived nearby, along with his wife), Mary Quinn, Mrs. Oliver, Joycelyn Henry and many others, especially when the Canadians came and held workshops.

The new wine from the Canadians always precipitated intense discussions. One of my siblings at one time thought he had some newer wine to offer, that my mother had not drunk. This was the new thing in teaching, consisting of workbooks and xeroxed materials. This new wine was presented to my mother as an innovative alternative to the archaic old-school methods that my mother was still promoting.

My mother simply responded by opening an exercise book and wrote the numbers 1234. She said that, if she wrote that number on the blackboard and a child copied it in his book as 4321 then she would immediately know why the child got the problem wrong and may also identify a problem with the child from his or her first day in class. On the other hand, she proposed, if the child does the work in a workbook, a teacher may never know why the student got the problem wrong, and it could be years before that problem with the child is identified.

Those methods, she concluded, were for use where there are filter systems that separated special children from normal ones, but our [Antigua’s] system includes all types, hence our methods of teaching must be all-encompassing. Therefore, if that new wine is placed in our old bottles, invariably the bottles will burst and the wine spill out.  So said, so done: the bottles have burst and the new wine spilling out in abundance. This workbook/xerox method is the method most prevalent in schools across our island today. Toddlers now have bags laden with useless books that they are unable to carry. Sandboxes, marbles, paper planes, paper boats, paper shapes, tracing paper, home-made play dough, lolly/match sticks, egg shells and papier-mâché are no longer in use.

It would be very difficult to put a price-tag on the cost of this wine that is being lost in floods; but it does not require any genius to determine that the cost to the nation in resources, books, classrooms, teachers, and the age at which school-leavers enter the work force, is an exorbitant bill that the nation cannot afford. The things that should be xeroxed like the old West Indian Reader that are no longer in print, are not being copied.         In significant contrast to every other country that does CXC O’ Level exams, Antigua-Barbuda is unique: the largest group taking exams in Antigua are 19 years old and over. In comparison the largest group in Barbados is the 16 years old. To give some context, for the June 2018 exams, a little more than one-third of the students doing exams from Antigua were from the 19 and over category. This gives an idea of the price the nation pays to ignore the foundation, but still try to build the house, or to use the proverbial adage, building the house on sand.

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