Commentary: Can schools change?

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Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands

By Oliver Mills

Schools and their function continue to be discussed in many circles. In the wider Caribbean, there are attempts to introduce a new system of transfer exams from primary to high schools. In other countries, new developments in the curriculum are being enacted to modernise educational practices. But these two major activities face issues such as training teachers in new methodologies, and subject content to match the new initiatives.

The big question, though, is can schools learn? And an even bigger one is can schools change?

Many Caribbean countries have, over time, introduced transformations in their educational systems, resulting in some success, but eventually, the initiatives fall apart.

This is often due to teacher apathy, and an inability of some educational leaders to communicate with competence what the new systems are about and how they should be implemented. Further many educational managers are often not keen on the new processes, and have not come to grips with understanding the dynamics of what the new systems require.

We are then faced with the questions can schools learn, and can they change? If schools cannot learn, they cannot change, since learning involves understanding, managing subject matter, and communicating what is being taught. It is also about being creative, adding new ideas and methods to make what teachers do more interesting and receptive by students.

Learning is also about fostering an environment where students want to learn, with teachers managing their own learning to continuously update their skills and competencies.

Learning therefore drives change, and enriches the educational environment. But even though learning may take place, does it ensure change will result?

Change involves having a new outlook, a different, more positive attitude, and a willingness to go through with a project to its successful conclusion. It is about mustering the enthusiasm to make things happen for the good of education.

Although some schools are exposed to new developments, they continue to operate as they always did. Managers and teachers see different ways of doing things as not matching their experience, or harmonising with how they operate. Change is therefore a challenge, too difficult to undertake.

This means new transformations will fall by the wayside, or be attempted without the initial clarity required to work with confidence towards stated goals. Even the goals might not be clear, resulting in a “make do’ situation by teachers.

Educational change then becomes a difficult undertaking, particularly if accountability is not a part of the educational enterprise.

But there are other schools where effective learning takes place, followed by fundamental changes in how they operate. For these success is natural, and anticipated. These schools need to share their culture with others enabling education to be about both learning and change.

In relation to the ideas above, Arnie Duncan, the former Education Secretary in the Obama administration, has recently written a book titled, “How Schools Work.” In an interview on CNN, he states that the education system runs on lies, since we say we value teachers, but don’t support them.

Indeed at many school graduations in the Caribbean, we hear speakers say how valuable teachers are to the education system, but the teachers themselves often complain of poor salaries, and working conditions that are not the best. Even when they pursue some form of action, to bring attention to their concerns, society often decries them for leaving their classrooms unsupervised.

Saying we value teachers does not often match the attention, respect and resources they need to function professionally.

Duncan goes on to note how the educational models we use are imported. This suggests a lack of local innovation and input into the education systems of the different countries. Imported models, fail to capture and reflect the objectives, and culture of education we wish to promote.

We adopt practices that are not relevant to our context, and fail to realise that imported models are designed from principles not reflective of our history, heritage, and present circumstances. Failure is then built into the system.

The former Education Secretary then says that schools create a factory worker mentality, when what is needed are reasoning skills. This has been in many ways the early concept of what schools were for. It was felt that with the event of industrialisation, cheap labour was needed, and along with teaching students how to be obedient, and conforming, a primary education served this purpose. You merely did as you were told, and were not to question anything.

The high school provided an academic education for the professions, and to prepare students for managerial posts, and for university entrance. But universities also had their own entrance exam, despite the number of subjects passed by students which ensured their entry. The aim here was to produce society’s leaders, and perpetuate a political, professional, and business elite of a certain class. A primary education was for the “lower classes.”

Society, through its education system was therefore shaped along lines of class and social status.

What has happened is that even in our current period, schools have not basically changed their traditional function. There are now calls for an education system that promotes analysis, critical thinking, and reasoning.

Even the new transfer, or entry exams to high schools has this as its main objective. And despite the use of various types of technology in some schools, its impact on educational performance and change remains to be determined.

Graduates of schools of various types have to undergo further training in more advanced types of technology, as part of their on the job training. And authoritarian methods of teaching and school management still persist in schools.

So can schools change? Is there the energy to effect change? Is not learning a prerequisite for real change?

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