In a NationNews report of 17 August, Director of the National Transformation Initiative, Dr. Allyson Leacock highlighted the inability of students, some of them apparently university graduates, to complete NTI courses on account of “literacy challenges”.
In this article, we will critically assess Dr. Leacock’s statements and try to get to the truth of the matter as one Facebook commenter on the report suggested we do, especially in relation to the UWI’s role in literacy.
This exercise matters because we are moving to depose the Queen, hopefully breaking any remaining ties with colonial educational system in the process and because we are hearing this charge all too often. The reader is asked to bear with our analysis which is lengthy, for this medium at least, by our own standards.
For our first point of analysis, we will examine in reverse order, elements of Dr. Leacock’s statement that, “some Barbadians, even those with university degrees, are having literacy challenges affecting their ability to complete online training courses”
Most of the training courses offered under the aegis of the National Transformation Initiative are held online in what is known in instructional design (ISD) circles as, “asynchronous delivery”. This means that participants can login at any time and complete the course activities, (including assessments), at any time and at their own pace.
Take note that we said “most” and not “all”. For example, some NTI courses are held face-to-face at the BWU Labour College.
Completion of Courses
When the director speaks of “completing the course”, we assume she means, primarily, passing all the assessments. If you have taken any of the courses yourself, as the author has, you will know that the basic course design is usually broken down into units. The participant interacts with the course material in each unit and then must pass an end-of-unit assessment exercise in order to complete that unit. The participant has to repeat this process to finish the entire course.
Given the nature of online asynchronous learning, the assessments are typically administered as what professional educators call “objective tests”. This means that most of the questions are multiple choice, true/ false or similar questions where the participant has to choose one or several predetermined answers that apply.
By way of comparison, the alternative to objective tests is “subjective tests”. The essence of these is that they dispense with “closed questions” such as the multiple choice, true/ false etc. in favour of “open questions” (such as short answer or essay type questions) that ask participants to, “list”, “describe”, “discuss” etc.
In passing, it should be noted that one can also have “competency-based” assessments where the participant is required to produce something or execute some activity to some standard; for example, set a table for dinner to a five-star hotel standard. In many of these practical assessments, the “compositional” use of language is minimal.
It is in the subjective type of assessment that the participant has to construct an “extended answer”, that makes sense, to an open question such as the ones described above. Here, the participant’s ability to devise sentences that meet subject and verb agreement as well as use words such as “they”, “their” and “there” correctly etc. come to the fore.
It would appear then, that in the case of most NTI courses, completion of the regime of objective type assessments involves actually “ticking a box” or some equivalent, for example, selecting from a dropdown list.
We are justifiably confused, therefore, when Dr. Leacock insinuates that a flaw in the educational system is that “we are still guiding people to tick a box and to complete a course”.
Is that not what she is overseeing at the National Transformation Initiative? So what was the NTI set up to do differently? Or is this her hyperbolic way of saying that the real issue is thinking critically and having a “breadth of vocabulary and functionality”? There is clearly a breakdown in logic and / or communication here.
Coursera and The Literacy Issue
By literacy, the Director seems to be implying “grammatically correct use of the English language”. But how does this apply to a regime of objective type tests, if you understand what was explained earlier?
The stated goal of the NTI is to provide training courses to help prepare Barbadians by “Retooling, Empowering, Retraining and Enfranchising every Barbadian worker”. Given that it has taken the MLSP Coursera regime of course offerings under its aegis, how is this going to help with the problems of literacy?
Coursera is an online American educational product where a substantial amount of the assessment, if not all, is deployed as objective tests such as those described above. It is the same type of testing regime that police officers in America must prepare for and pass to receive promotions.
In case you have forgotten, it is the same regime of assessment that nursing students at the Barbados Community College could not pass even at the second and third tries!
Reading between the lines, therefore, the failure to complete NTI courses may very well be more related to critical thinking than to literacy, by which we mean the nuts and bolts of grammar or syntax.
Contrary to what students and non-educators might believe, it is not that easy to pass objective tests, especially if the test developer or examiner knows his or her M&E (Measurement and Evaluation) stuff well. What is also not well known is that even a well constructed True/False question can pose problems for uncritical students.
So, it is of more than passing interest when the director intimates that the NTI is planning to address this. How? By offering courses in the use of English? And how will they be assessed? By the same objective test method? We envisage such a test item below:
Readers need to understand that many of the individuals taking NTI courses are likely to be people who have been working already and therefore, want to improve their workplace skill sets. I doubt many are focused on the sort of literacy issues that the Dr. Leacock is intimating.
Therefore, one fears that the Director’s comments might be perceived as an assault on NTI participants and, by extension, on their self-esteem, a perception that would be diametrically opposed to the stated ethos of the NTI.
UWI at Fault?
One Facebook member, in commenting on the report, raised the question of whether graduates of UWI were implicated in the Director’s assessment.
“I know she doesn’t mean UWI students? Since she said university students…. There is no way to pass through UWI and have literacy challenges or you would get a FAT FAIL”
The fact of the matter is that there are several categories of UWI students that are required to take a course called “FOUN 1001: English for Academic Purposes”. As the UWI prospectus for this course available here shows, the course has several alternative prerequisites. Quite interestingly CXC English at Grade 1 is the first of these prerequisites.
If the UWI student cannot meet the primary prerequisites, the student must take a basic course called the ELPT (English Language Proficiency Test) which, by virtue of its content, addresses some of “literacy” challenges to which Dr. Leacock may be referring.
On balance therefore, the FB commenter referred to above, is reasonably accurate in saying that, “There is no way to pass through UWI and have literacy challenges”.
I am sure that this does not mean that every single graduate of the UWI will be an “expert” on grammar but Dr. Leacock’s statements are likely to convey the impression that there is some failing at the UWI in relation to this matter.
Knocking the Educational System
It is not obvious what the Director means by “gaps in our current structure in education”. If by “structure of education” she means “system of education” then she needs to be more specific about what aspect of the system she is interrogating.
Googling the term does not help very much because the term can mean different things, to different people at different levels of analysis. To avoid being too narrow we will use the following working definition.
An educational system is a set of institutions, technologies, policies and procedures designed to manage the delivery of education in a given society.
By “institutions” we mean such entities as public schools, different schooling levels such as nursery, primary, secondary etc. Barbados has full a full range of educational institutions, both public and private.
Technologically, we are far from where we ought to be. It is well known that a previous incarnation of the ruling party bungled the EDUCTEC project which might have saved much of the technological fallout in the current covid-19 crisis.
As expected, the publication of the controversial comments was yet another occasion for a few persons to knock the educational system. Knocking the educational system has now become a “blood sport” among some elements of the society that want us to believe that they received their formative education in utopia when we know otherwise.
I am by no means suggesting that everything is perfect in the Barbados educational system but the constant bashing of the educational system by those who are products of the same system is quite frankly, disingenuous. Especially so, when most of the individuals speaking cannot drill down to the cause of the problem or worse still, do not have any ready solutions to the perceived problems!
There is no perfect educational system. The USA is perceived to be greatest nation on earth yet it has to periodically “refurbish” its educational system on the policy level by such programmes as “no child left behind” and the use of charter schools, to give a couple of examples.
As an educator of more than four decades experience, the author would like to suggest that the fundamental problem in the Barbados educational system is not so much the curriculum itself but how it is taught; in other words, the problem is fundamentally about teaching methodology.
In many cases, the methodological issue boils down to students not getting sufficient opportunity to engage in “mastery learning”, a matter which the author has had to address in some cases in his own professional practice.
Wikipedia describes mastery learning as a process that “maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (e.g., 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information”.
The idea is that “if a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they [sic] are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information and then tested again. This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery, and they [sic] may then move on to the next stage”.
We submit, therefore, that in the scramble to get students through our educational system by some specific age or to meet some examination deadline, mastery learning is being neglected. This is a policy issue that must be addressed.
The concept of mastery learning can help to explain why students who come from “educationally enriched homes” will always do better in the so-called 11+Exam or Screening Test. In these homes, there is a high level of motivation to excel, a higher level of discipline and, more often than not, the technological resources to explore topics encountered in the school environment for an extended period outside of the classroom.
While the originator of the comments has not actually said so, her references to this matter imply that (1) critical thinking can only be conducted in the medium of writing and (2) that one cannot think critically, unless one can use correct grammar.
Both assumptions are obviously flawed as the many comments on Facebook, radio and town hall meetings show. Most of the time we DO understand what the contributors are saying even if their grammar, spelling or even pronunciation might be incorrect.
Additionally, students of linguistics know that much of the meaning of language is contextual and is often conveyed via paralanguage, of which body language is a familiar example.
In fact, sometimes it is even what is NOT said that communicates more powerfully than what is actually said, as Jesus the Master Teacher often demonstrated.
Critics of the Barbados educational system often fail to specify what they mean by the term “critical thinking”. More often than not, they use the term as a global label or mantra to short-circuit the audience’s thinking.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although the definition is contested, the different definitions all point to the practice of “careful thinking directed to a goal”.
Not surprisingly, the same educator who invented the concept of mastery learning (see the earlier Wikipedia reference ) is the same person who has developed a system for characterizing critical thinking.
Benjamin Bloom, whose work should be familiar to all professional educators, developed a taxonomy which can be used as the basis for elaborating a system of critical thinking. The taxonomy has been revised but the basic idea is still the same: critical thinking is a hierarchy of increasingly complex cognitive skills. See here for a visual overview.
Synthesizing Bloom’s ideas, we can describe critical thinking as the ability to (1) summarize ideas (2) break down wholes ideas into parts (3) apply known ideas and principles to existing problems (4) create novel solutions from available resources and (5) evaluate, that is, make judgements about the adequacy, accuracy or appropriateness of given ideas, approaches etc.
In this scheme, the ability to summarize is one of the lowest levels of critical thinking. So, if I had to choose between Person A who is able put things in his or her own words and Person B who copies wholesale the work of another and presents it as his or hers, I would definitely choose Person A even if the work of Person A contained misuses of “there”, “they” and “their” or other grammatical errors.
With reference to the issues raised in the foregoing paragraphs, educators and examining bodies such as CXC must often make judgement calls on how to mark candidates’ work with respect to spelling and grammar vis-à-vis the level of critical thinking displayed. In the limit, it is imperative that more weight be given to the display of critical thinking than to grammar simply because the former is a more important gauge of functional competence in both the workplace and personal efficacy settings.
I am willing to bet that some of the wealthiest people in the world may not be able to write correct grammar even if you paid them. Some of them, as you might know, were voluntary high school dropouts. Of course, they are now in the enviable financial position of being able to pay lawyers and writers any amount to get their communication right!
At this juncture in our history in Barbados we need to have a laser-sharp focus on what is important at different stages in the educational system. It is agreed that we should get our students to write grammatically correct English, an appropriate goal at the Primary stage, as one FB commenter suggested. This does not mean that some elements of critical thinking cannot be taught at the Primary level. On the contrary.
At the secondary and tertiary stages, we ought to emphasize the higher levels of critical thinking (see description above) while remediating any deficiencies in the grammatical or syntactical aspects of the language, if at all necessary.
Suggesting that grammatical correctness is a PREREQUISITE for engaging in the critical thinking and creativity that this country urgently needs is itself an artefact of the colonial education system.
Therefore, in our humble opinion, we suggest that the classroom actors and ever-increasing army of officers employed by the Ministry of Education spend more time developing methodologies for teaching and assessing the weighty matter of critical thinking as described in the foregoing analysis. This would be more productive, we submit, than squandering time and other resources on identity-signaling, tokenistic exercises such as moving Nelson or becoming a republic, banana or otherwise.
Article by Dr. Aldon D. Tull, retired educator and former Chief Examiner with CAPE, CXC.