G.A. Dwyer Astaphan

by G.A.Dwyer Astaphan

At this time when Christians reflect on the biblical journey of the three wise men from the East, and all of that other good stuff, I wish one and all a Happy, Peaceful and Blessed Christmas and New Year.

But this article isn’t about Season’s Greetings. It’s about education.

In my opinion, our education system isn’t working.

I believe that it’s failing to deliver to our children, not only the requisite knowledge and skills in the various academic and technical subject areas, but also the broader and deeper knowledge and appreciation of themselves, of each other, and of life; and it’s also failing to inculcate in our children the two critical prerequisites for human completeness, namely, character and compassion

It’s failing because, sadly, there’s been no apparent philosophical framework, no overarching vision, to ensure that our nation’s children are properly and roundly educated and cultivated, and no will to put the proper structures and programs in place.

The evidence of this failed system is all around us, painfully and shamefully palpable and visible, whether in the deep pits of poverty or on the perches of power and pomp.

Knowledge, character and compassion are in scarce supply.

Yes, the home has its role to play in the education of our children,  as do other institutions. But they too are also failing, epidemically. And putting our education system on the right path can do a lot to halt this epidemic. The school can be the catalyst which the whole country needs.

However, for the moment, there’s little indication of a sea change, as we note that successive Governments over the past 30-40 years have presided over, and even unwittingly boasted about, an education system which has in fact not remained relevant, progressive and creative.

And we, the people, have watched the decline without as much as a loud murmur. In fact, we are the decline.

Now, we don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel. All we need to do is to shop around for successful models, or a combination of models, which we can then adapt to our realities and aspirations.

And there are a number of successful education models to which we can refer for guidance.

Let’s look to the East.

A recent global analysis has shown that the top 12 countries in the world for the education of children are: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, Poland and Vietnam.

We can have an in-depth look at all of these countries, and they’ve all been impressive. But the one that stands out for me is Singapore, and for three reasons: first, it holds first place in mathematics and science in the world at primary and secondary school levels; second, it’s a tiny country, smaller than Dominica; and third, it’s a young country, only 51 years old.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was plagued by poverty, crime, unemployment, and poor health and housing conditions. The Government of the day focused, at first, on two main areas: education and housing. And their steady progress in both areas helped greatly to bring the other issues under control.

By 1990, Singapore had become one of the world’s success stories. Indeed, its achievements have been quite amazing.

Think of it. A small, young nation with problems of education, crime, unemployment, housing, and health. Sounds familiar? Yes, but Singapore’s problems in 1965 were far worse than ours in 1983, and far worse than ours in 2016, after 33 years of nationhood.

What its leaders did was to develop a vision and a sensible, practical strategy to tackle the problems.

Let me give you a brief picture of how Singapore approaches education. But before I do so, I hope that you’ve noticed that (i) the top 5 rated countries are all in Asia, and (ii) most of the top 12 countries are relatively small in terms of physical size. For example, Hong Kong is smaller than Guadeloupe, and Taiwan is half the size of Cuba.

Singapore allocates 20% of its annual budgetary spending to education. It takes its education, its teachers, and, especially, its children very seriously. It doesn’t play around when it comes to teaching and learning.

In fact, education is its major investment and that investment has paid off handsomely in terms of economic and social development and stability.

The principal objective of the education system in Singapore is to ensure that  every person has a good sense of self awareness, a sound moral compass, and the requisite skills, initiative and strength of character to face the challenges of life.

Such a person is expected to be responsible to family, community and nation; to appreciate the beauty of the world around him or her; to possess a healthy mind and body and a zest for life; to be of sound judgment; to be an active and committed team player, and an informed, concerned, civic-minded citizen, firmly rooted and a proud and honourable Singaporean.

And the education system, the subject choices and loads, the teaching methods, the training, skills and attitudes of teachers, and the physical environments, etc.,  are all crafted and mandated to produce that type of citizen.

Getting a child to and through school is, for the Government and people of Singapore, a process of holistic, human development and nation building, not a mere exercise designed to pass ‘x’ amount of subjects.

And their vision, strategy and techniques are equally visible at their Kindergarten, their primary, and their secondary school levels.

Kindergarten provides the environment for the children to learn to interact with each other, individually and collectively, and to prepare them for primary school. At Kindergarten, they learn two languages, numbers, personal and social skills, games, music, and outdoor play.

Upon completion of primary school, Singaporean children are expected to be able to differentiate right from wrong; to have a sense of their own strengths and areas of growth; to be able to cooperate, and to share with and care for others; to have a lively curiosity about things; to be able to think for themselves and express themselves confidently; to take pride in their work and in work generally; to have healthy habits, and an awareness of the arts; and to know and love their country.

By time they’re done with secondary school, they’re expected to have moral integrity; to believe in their own abilities and to be able to adapt to change; to be able to work in teams and show respect, tolerance and empathy for others; to be creative and have an enquiring mind; to be able to appreciate diverse and differing views and communicate effectively; to take responsibility for their own learning and their own actions; to enjoy physical activities and appreciate the arts; and to believe in their country and to understand what matters to their country.

And the philosophical framework for Singapore’s education system continues through college/university and to adulthood generally, as people are expected to have moral courage and stand up for what is right; to be resilient in the face of adversity; to be socially responsible and to collaborate and cooperate across cultures; to be innovative and enterprising; to be able to think critically and communicate persuasively; to be purposeful in the pursuit of excellence; to pursue a healthy lifestyle and have an appreciation for aesthetics; and to be proud to be Singaporeans, and understand their country in relation to the world.

It is within this philosophical framework that the mathematics, the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and the technologies are taught and learned. No wonder they’re Number One in the world in mathematics and science at both primary and secondary levels.

A successful education system, a successful country. No magic. Just a clear vision, and sensible policies and practices.

So here’s what I think we in St.Kitts & Nevis ought to do: Let’s look to the East….and learn.