Wed | Sep 22, 2021

Asburn Pinnock | Opportunity to innovate and do things differently in education

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2021 | 12:05 AM
Asburn Pinnock
Asburn Pinnock
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The COVID-19 pandemic and the billion-dollar damage to the country’s infrastructure brought on by recent flood rains, will require that Jamaica perform some audacious financial and scholastic acrobatics to remain buoyant.

Where COVID-19 is concerned, vaccines are being administered in many nations around the world, with leaders of some of the biggest economies placing orders for millions of doses for their citizens. But smaller markets such as Jamaica will find it challenging to secure the volume it needs and then to administer programmes to vaccinate the population. We will be constrained by costs and cultural beliefs will be a deterrent to the country’s ability to effectively deal with COVID-19, as some Jamaicans are already voicing their intention to resist these vaccines for all kinds of reasons.

Until Jamaica is able to get the number of doses it needs, and the cooperation of everyone, it will have to find a way to get around COVID-19. No long-term test has been done on the vaccines to tell us whether COVID-19 will behave like the flu, which requires annual flu vaccines. So COVID-19 could well be here to stay. Know, too, that life as we knew it pre-COVID-19 has changed. Teaching will not be the same again, the society and the economic systems have already moved on. Face-to-face shopping as we know it will not be the same. How people react in the entertainment industry, in media, will not be the same again. The world is moving on and we must, for our survival, keep apace.

I believe that education should be the vehicle to navigate us successfully through this COVID-19 experience in Jamaica and enable us to move forward. Education should be the vehicle for any kind of long-term solution for societal problems. Education and other institutions should research and bring the required data, information, the skilled personnel, the intellect and the brainpower together. In fact, the main objective of education in the first place is to prepare persons to function effectively in society, and that functionality is largely problem-solving. Education should prepare us for a society that is not static, one that is always changing and is impacted by international phenomena, economics and political issues and others such as this current pandemic.

It is therefore ironic that, while we require education to equip us to take on challenges such as COVID-19, this disease has exposed cracks and major flaws in our education system. Nevertheless, I urge us not to panic. Instead, Government and all educational stakeholders should use this experience as a data-gathering opportunity, what lessons we have gained thus far, what are our strengths and weaknesses. We should not rush to fix without extracting the lessons learnt.

DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY

COVID-19 has handed us a glorious opportunity to do things differently, things that we might have contemplated but did not do because of the feared fallout and inconvenience that come with change. Well, we have a grand opportunity now that the cause can be placed on the pandemic. As was said before, we should find out the lessons learnt, see what we can build on, fill the digital divide, and provide the necessary technology and connectivity that will allow more, if not, full Internet access.

Part of the new conversations with the Internet service providers such as FLOW and Digicel is how Internet will be made accessible to every nook and cranny of Jamaica, because that is part of our 30-year development plan, not a four- or five-year election manifesto. We have allowed these giants to get away with almost murder for years. So here’s an opportunity to correct our mistakes.

I observe that many of us are currently in a frenzy and panicking to return to the pre-COVID-19 state of affairs, which, by the way, will no longer exist; although, to be frank, some of those pre 2020 years have not been the best of us anyway – we have had economic slowdown, a health sector in a mess, crime continues to rise, our education continues to cater mostly for the elite performers, with teacher education woefully underfunded. The real world has been moving on. The society we are preparing the students to operate in has moved on. The way business is done has changed. We must now prepare our students to function in the real world, as is being demonstrated by companies such as Amazon, Apple, as well as those in the banking sector, medical science, to list a few.

We therefore need to train the teachers to operate in this new COVID-19-influenced mode. We have to pay close attention to teacher education. We, who will now guide the students, nurture them and prepare them for the next generation and for the new society, have a significant role to play.

If we are going to continue on that mission to make education the bedrock of our response to changes, crisis and development, then we must start with a teacher education system. This is where the cradle of the system is, and we have to see it as such and invest in it. We need to rethink the preparation of teachers to match the new demand of the sector. This new thinking requires mind-set change. We need well-thought-out professional development and tooling to ensure that our curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are in alignment with the new world order and new normal.

FOCUS ON HYBRID SYSTEM

I note the Ministry of Education is pushing to get back to normal as soon as possible with the phased re-opening of schools. While I understand and can appreciate the logics behind this effort, I am proposing that we not rush to get back to face-to-face teaching and learning at this time. Instead, I think the country should give serious consideration to making a hybrid (face-to-face and online) education the new reality for our system.

We need a dual system where all students will have an opportunity to benefit from face-to-face interaction and the social benefits that we know come with such, but we should not abandon online remote learning. We should find out from the students and stakeholders how to improve it. Although many are complaining right now, there are significant numbers who will wish to continue as long as the environment is conducive. I do not believe that the challenge we currently face in this COVID-19 era is an inherent flaw with remote learning as such. I believe it is the problems that come with our lack of infrastructure and general unpreparedness to take on this challenge.

In this regard, I commend the recent pronouncements from Minister of Education Fayval Williams that the ministry intends to maintain online learning as part of the teaching-and-learning experience. This is good news for the future of our education in Jamaica. Therefore, I encourage the minister and her teams to support that, by ensuring we put adequate resources behind making that a sustainable reality.

To that end, I wish to boldly advance a proposal for a 50-50 scenario where, at any given time, 50 per cent of the students, especially at the upper high-school and tertiary levels would have access to their education online while the other 50 per cent would be face-to-face, and this could be rotated. I am cognisant of the fact that it could well be that some persons need to spend more time face-to-face than others. Therefore, the ratio could be 70-30 or 80-20, depending on their need and what is required for success.

While we are discussing these issues we should also have a serious look at how we teach, what we teach and how we assess our students. The over-reliance on standardised test and focus on content is doing us an injustice. We need to re-examine concept teaching, mastery learning, decide on the core skills that are required for life as well as specific vocations and professions.

Critical thinking skills, innovation skills, social skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, communication, cooperating, and entrepreneur skills are the tools of the 21st century. They were the skills of the 20th century, but we missed them and now we are paying the price. Content is the means to the end. It is what should be used to achieve the main objectives which should be the skills, some of which are listed above.

COVID-19 has also exposed the need for literacy in communication technology (ICT) and I believe that it should be a compulsory component of the curriculum in primary schools. Not only has ICT become necessary, it would be so unfair and a travesty to our students today, to deny them of this experience. This would render them disabled to function in the future, or in the present.

There is much we can learn from this COVID-19 experience, and we should not waste it.

- Asburn Pinnock, EdD, is president of The Mico University College. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com