Beyond the Boundary

Dear Readers:

Prior to our independence, the system of education in Barbadian primary and secondary schools was very effective in providing graduates with a strong academic foundation, which facilitated high achievement in any field once the graduate was given the opportunity. Persons who graduated from those primary schools were also reportedly more functionally literate than most graduating from our primary and secondary schools today. What has happened to cause such a drastic change?

Defenders of the existing curriculum claim that declining academic standards is a complex and worldwide phenomenon, and use this claim in defence of the status quo. They are correct in that it is a worldwide phenomenon, but it is not complex. Barbados simply undervalued its effective system of education that prepared students to take advantage of opportunities, and adopted an inferior foreign one that tended to retard all students.

Despite continuous criticism from experienced educators like the late Gladstone Holder, the current system of education was allowed to remain. This was to be expected given the typical reluctance of governments worldwide to change policies that they have introduced. I had therefore decided a long ago that I would rather teach my children myself than have them retarded them in the current system of education.

I was therefore elated when our minister of education recently stated one of the principal solutions to education’s problems so soon after receiving the education portfolio. Two weeks ago, while reporting the now expected mediocre common entrance examination results, our minister of education reportedly stated that our curriculum needed to be revised. Due to my avid interest in education, I am still feeling buoyant with excitement at this wonderful opportunity for Barbados. Therefore today and for the remainder of this month, we shall examine the issue of educational reform.

In 1960, a Harvard professor named Jerome Brunner devised a theory to facilitate curriculum development based on how he thought infants learnt. The theory was designed mainly for teaching mathematics to children in a controlled environment.

After Brunner’s theory was published, nations that had no effective system of education prematurely adopted Brunner’s theory and used it to develop syllabuses for all subjects. However, other nations that had established and effective educational systems inexplicably rejected them and adopted Brunner’s system. Barbados falls into the latter category of nations, and despite clear evidence of Brunner’s system’s inefficiency it continues to be used for all subjects taught at primary and secondary schools in Barbados.

Brunner’s system is commonly called the spiral curriculum and the title is descriptive. It is based on the philosophy of cyclic repetitions with the subject becoming more complex with each successive repetition. The strict adherence to the system should generally lead to learning by students. However, the curriculum promotes a mediocre overall achievement even when it is successfully implemented. Brunner’s system has been successfully implemented in Barbados for approximately 30 years with predictable mediocre results. The question is, are we satisfied with the mediocre or do we want excellence.

While the system may appear to work with infants in nursery school, it promotes an unnatural structure that forces students into a controlled cycle of learning that essentially stifles excellence. The system does not encourage students to learn beyond the boundaries of the syllabuses allocated to that cycle. Interested students must wait for one or more years until the material is taught in another cycle, at which time the desire to learn that information may have subsided. Alternatively, they can attempt to learn the information independently. However, this is becoming more challenging since satisfying the requirements of an increasingly packed syllabus leaves students will little free time.

The spiral curriculum is at variance with the more natural method of teaching to satisfy the hungry minds of students. Students who excel, do not allow the spiral curriculum to restrict them, and instead satisfy their own minds by going beyond the boundaries of the syllabus.

Next week, I will suggest an outline curriculum for primary school students.

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