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Drastic changes needed in education system

Published: 
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Water bottles lie on the ground which were allegedly thrown by students during the protest by teachers of Teachers of St Madeleine Secondary School ,yesterday

Whatever the facts behind the teachers’ protest and the students’ pelting incidents at the Ste Madeleine Secondary School last Monday, the issue would probably have never reached that unacceptable stage had proper communications protocols been in place.

Last Monday, about 14 of the school’s 48 teachers, along with executive members of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), staged a protest with placards and bell in front of the school calling for the suspension of the principal. No sooner had the protest started, however, than approximately 100 students came out carrying their own placards, which read “Teachers come and teach us!” and “Stop the nonsense” and singing chants in defence of the principal. When the teachers ignored them, the students began hurling bottles of water.

Clearly, the teachers felt moved to protest because their concerns were not being addressed by the Education Ministry in a timely fashion. Equally clearly, the students felt that a counter-protest was the only way to get their opinions heard and, when ignored by the teachers, some of them resorted to pelting.

The latter incident has naturally drawn the most comment, with many people seeing this as a sign of the students’ delinquent tendencies, with concomitant calls for punitive action to be taken against them. TTUTA president Lynsley Doodhai told the Guardian that “when students are throwing bottles at their own teachers, that alone can tell you discipline has broken down at the school.” Allegations have also been made that the principal incited the protesting students.

But focusing on these students’ actions will not address the core of the problem, either at the Ste Madeleine Secondary School or more generally in the education system. Surveys of the best education systems from around the world have certain common traits, and these include principal and teachers working together as a team while, in the most advanced schools, students often have an active hand in how they learn.

But such an approach goes against the authoritarian mindset so prevalent in T&T. While the Education Ministry pays lip service to “child-centred learning”, little has been done to actually implement this principle. In terms of pedagogy, for example, advanced education systems engage in practices which test how teachers deliver the curriculum and modify the approach according to how well or badly students absorb the information. In countries like Finland and Japan, this involves teachers developing their own curriculum and lesson plans. Teaching children to teach themselves is a core principle in such nations, with Singapore, whose students are always in the top rankings in international tests, having the slogan “Teach less, learn more”.

Similarly, many advanced schools have student representatives on their councils sitting alongside teachers and parents. In some schools, the students are given responsibility for disciplining their delinquent peers; their criticisms of curricula and other school practices are taken seriously; and in certain private schools, the students can even decide whether a teacher’s contract should be renewed.

Needless to say, nothing like this happens in T&T. The very idea of students being formally allowed to critique teachers is anathema to most adults. Similarly, the technocrats at the Education Ministry will be similarly aghast at giving principals more autonomy, just as principals might be reluctant to cede authority to teachers.

The end result is a moribund approach which falls far short of meeting the Education Ministry’s vision of “a quality education system that is responsive to the diverse needs of 21st century learners”. And this is hardly likely to change unless the policy-makers re-think their basic principles.

In countries like Finland and Japan, this involves teachers developing their own curriculum and lesson plans. Teaching children to teach themselves is a core principle in such nations, with Singapore, whose students are always in the top rankings in international tests, having the slogan “Teach less, learn more”.