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Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Rethinking Education Systems
Last Saturday I met up with a good friend for a chat at a Starbucks in central London. We had not seen each other since 2007 when I left London to return to Trinidad. We enjoyed one of those incredibly insightful conversations that one tends to have as we review life in one’s 30s. Are we where we thought we would be?
We remembered our teenage years. He attended Presentation College in San Fernando and I attended St Mary’s College where we both developed specific notions of what life would be like. We believed that once we studied hard and scored high grades, the world would be ours. How wrong we were!
As we both progress in our chosen fields, we both now realise that life is a whole lot more complicated than we imagined during our teenage years. We both read the best seller Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which was quite critical of the mainstream education system in its ability to prepare young people for the realities of the business world in particular.
At one point, our conversation steered towards Mormonism (an increasingly popular topic given the religious affiliation of the Republican Party candidate for the US Presidential elections) and their apparent passion for business. Although just two per cent of the US population, they are disproportionately represented amongst the business elite and even at Harvard Business School.
There was an article in May’s Economist about this. Beyond Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, there’s the Huntsman Corporation, an $11 billion chemicals giant, David Neeleman’s JetBlue in America and Azul in Brazil, Ralph Atkin’s SkyWest Airlines, the Marriott hotel chain etc.
We discussed the crucible that is their missionary work where young people are cut off from their families (they are allowed only two phone calls home a year) and are expected to proselytise for ten hours a day, six days a week. This is clearly a great way to learn perseverance, independence, self-confidence and interpersonal skills. There were skills that my friend and I had to strengthen when we first moved away from our families and familiar social networks to study and then work.
Shifting from the informal to the formal education system, here in the UK the government is in the process of reforming GCSE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels after the last administration presided over what was clearly a period of dumbing down. The number of students with straight ‘A’ profiles was soaring year on year while England was slipping down the OECD League Tables.
In 2000, 15 year olds here were ranked eighth in the world in Mathematics and by 2009 they had fallen to 27th. It can be quite confusing when politicians interfere with education policy and in so doing, create false notions.
Anyway, to its credit, the present government is proposing a Baccalaureate type qualification which in principle would require youngsters to pass exams in English, Mathematics, a Humanities subject, a language and at least two science subjects. Any approach has its pros and cons but I cannot help but see the strength of this approach which provides a broader academic foundation as opposed to the pressure that traditional O/A Levels put on students to specialize as early as Form 2 or 3.
The English-speaking Caribbean made the transition from British administered GCEs to Cape which also has its pros and cons. My concern continues to be that outside of the region, it does not enjoy the level of recognition that the Cambridge exams, or better yet, the International Baccalaureate possesses.
Of course this is a non issue once one intends to stay within the Caribbean region. When I last lived in Trinidad, my wife taught at the International School in Westmoorings where I gained an appreciation for the strength of the programme and the doors that the Baccalaureate was able to open internationally given its prestige. But as with every system, it definitely is not for everyone.
As for whether my friend and I are where we thought we would be in our 30s—can anyone really say that they are? Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at CIC and later at UWI, where I interacted with students from across the region. It helped me develop my strong Caribbean identity.
The education system, however, is about preparing people to be productive members of the wider society (and wider world?) and if that wider society is evolving, it is only logical that the education system also evolves. Like in other countries, there are ongoing discussions regarding much needed education reforms in Trinidad and Tobago. Do let that public debate continue.
• My name is Derren Joseph and despite our challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope in a brighter tomorrow. Read more on derrenjoseph.blogspot.com
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