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Stepping forward with PEP

Canute Thompson

Sunday, September 09, 2018

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The Government's implementation of the New Standards Curriculum (NSC) has been met with mixed reactions. Under the NSC, students moving from the primary level are placed in secondary schools using the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) assessment, which replaces the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT).

Newly installed president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) Dr Garth Anderson signalled in his inaugural address that “…the implementation of the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) element of the National Standards Curriculum is on track to fail. PEP remains a mystery! Teachers, students and parents are still anxious….” The president went on to say that:

“The principals, who are the chief instructional leaders in their schools, have also made it clear that they are not fully prepared to effectively supervise this new curriculum… Many trainers have demonstrated and expressed their lack of understanding of the curriculum, and as a result, teaching is not standardised across the system and so is its interpretation.”

Notwithstanding these reservations, the president gave the assurance that “the JTA fully supports the concept and philosophy driving the curriculum”.

A perspective on the PEP

I fully support the vision and objectives of the NSC and its assessment element the PEP. The NSC is completely consistent with my world view of what education should do. Education should, as its most basic function, teach children to ask critical questions; instil in children the courage to doubt; and give the confidence to debate.

This foundational capacity is what then leads to the ability to solve problems and innovate. Solving problems means, among other things, findings ways around obstacles, and inherent in that is the ability to use the very obstacles themselves to create solutions. This is what innovation means. The NSC is closely aligned to the paradigms of TVET / STEM which involve drawing on insights from multiple sources and bodies of knowledge to create sustainable solutions designed to improve the quality of life.

As a country, we have been lamenting the fact that our education system is misaligned from the needs of contemporary society and that we are preparing children for a world that is long past. The performance of children in foundational subjects such as mathematics leaves them vulnerable and unable to cope with the demands of modern society. But have our educators stopped long enough to examine how we teach mathematics? The NSC, in its broad conceptual approach, is designed to facilitate more real life application of concepts in math and thereby enable students to see the immediate value of investing in learning.

One of the mistakes we as educators have made in our conception of the differences between how we teach adults versus children is to conclude that the adult learner needs to be able to see the immediate relevance and application of what is learnt to their work and life. By contrast, there is not that sense of urgency and immediacy of application when it comes to teaching children.

There has been the tendency to believe that children should be willing to learn for learning's sake without concern for application. I am of the view that this is a big mistake we have made over several decades. Children, like adults, will value the learning experience more if they can see how what they learn is applicable to what they are doing or would like to do.

The NSC addresses this important deficit in the approach to teaching and learning that we have practised for too long. But when one thinks closely about it, the approach used in technical schools has long emphasised application to life.

I recall being envious of my peers who attended St Elizabeth Technical High School and Holmwood, when I was attending Manchester High, as they were doing subjects like technical drawing and building construction. Now, in my side work as a builder and real estate developer, I have had to depend somewhat more heavily on technical experts even while I acquired competencies on the job. The NSC has the potential to support the foundations of economic growth and so I welcome it. How well it is implemented becomes all the more important.

Moving from Planning to Implementation

One of the criticisms that has been reasonably levelled against the Government apparatus of this country for decades, and across several administrations, relates to our weaknesses in implementation. We just take too long to get many things done, and we conduct studies to study the study that was done on the study. The business person who has to solve problems facing his or her business knows that it is better to make a decision on imperfect information which is good enough than wait forever on perfect information which, when received, is useless as the business opportunity has been taken by the competitor. Government needs to operate like a business and must seek to strengthen capacities in implementation.

In this regard, I believe that had the Government waited until next year to implement the PEP there would be some people who would say teachers, parents, and students are not yet ready; and the same would be likely if the Government had waited till 2020. There is never a perfect time to implement radical change, though there are often opportune times. There are four points which implementers of public policy would do well to bear in mind:

(1) It is not always sensible or practical to wait for all to be on board. While it is fundamental, in the implementation of policy, that stakeholders be on board, with so vast a body of stakeholders in the education sector, it is impractical to attempt to wait until ALL stakeholders are on board.

(2) Success attracts support. One driver of stakeholder buy-in is the evidence of success of the initiative. Thus, unless the process begins, the chances of winning over some will never arise.

(3) Learn while implementing. The notion or expectation that a good policy is one that is seamless in its implementation is nave. Even the best thought-out policy with the most comprehensive implementation plan can face hitches. The key is to be responsive to the challenges and be willing to make amends and fixes on the journey. Thus, my advice to the minister of education is that he keeps a keen eye on how implementation is progressing with the NSC and make modifications and such other responses as may be deemed strategic and tactically helpful, not merely politically but practically and functionally. In this regard, the continuation of workshops for teachers is vital.

(4) Admit error. In the face on error, either in the design of the policy or its implementation, an astute leader's best defence against those who make a big moment of the error is not to counter-attack but to concede, commend, correct, and continue. If the policy implementer gets into a back and forth with those who use the occasion of the error to highlight flaws in the policy, the back and forth then becomes the brand, as every PR expert knows, and the brand having been stained by cass-cass may suffer a mortal blow. Again, my advice is that the minister takes on board accounts of assessed error, fix what's fixable and move on.

Two Risks

It appears to me that the two greatest risks which face the NSC and the PEP are:

(a) That the problems that they are intended to solve are misdiagnosed. In this regard we have to ask, “What was wrong with GSAT?” Part of what was wrong was that a student could “do well” merely by rote learning. Will the introduction of PEP correct that? I note that the Ministry of Education has planned sensitisation camps for parents and teachers at which there will be exposure to performance task questions, curriculum-based type questions, abilities type questions and the objectives from the curriculum. Unfortunately this sounds like a rote learning type of activity. If PEP is to be different, the fundamentals of teaching and learning methodology which emphasise reasoning and the ability to gather and analyse information must be the focus.

(b) That the additional resources required to make them truly different from that which they seek to replace are in place. The teaching and learning aids and other school infrastructure issues must be addressed if students from schools that have not traditionally done well are to fare any better than they have in the past. This is about equity.

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