Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Battle To Engage Students

The discourse surrounding the lack of interest by some students have been making the rounds in recent times. As we look ahead to the start of a new academic year it is perhaps a good time to revisit the issue from another perspective. There is huge problem in Jamaica regarding student under-participation at all levels of the education system. The time has come for us to put measures in place to capture the interest and imagination of our students, especially our boys who are grappling with male underachievement.  We need to ask the question how can schools build a culture that takes students beyond mere engagement to ownership of their learning? It is difficult perhaps even impossible to have a discussion about student ownership in education without mentioning John Dewey. In his book, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916), Dewey, showed a link between student involvement and student ownership. According to Dewey, the type of activities that stimulate real involvement “give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results”. In Jamaica, the disconnect between student involvement and student ownership is chronic and ever widening. We have created and continue to foster a school climate where students’ views and opinions are not taken considered seriously enough in the planning of schools activities. This disjointed approach to education, if not corrected soon will continue to have negative consequences for learning as well as student outcomes.  
Student-Centered Approach
Historically, our education system has been one of teacher centeredness which invariably has turned off many of our students. Interestingly, the education ministry will be introducing a new National Standard Curriculum for the start of the 2016/2017 academic year. This new curriculum will replace the Reform of Secondary Education (ROSE) curriculum and is more student-centered with an emphasis on the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT).  Those who plan policies and programmes for our education system need to spend some time engaging with students,  it will then become clear that the issue of relevance is of great importance and concern to students. Students by nature are curious and are desirous to know what relevance education is to them especially as it relates to their real life. It is a fair question and we too went through a similar process during our time as students.
Students will always feel a sense of attachment and entitlement when pertinent issues which reflect their interests, their passions and their identities are addressed. Gone as those days when students will sit still in a teacher- centered teaching and learning environment.  Given the proliferation of social media and the diversity of the internet the world has become a global village. We are all connected to each other no matter the geographical divide. Regardless of whether these issues are related to curriculum or extra-curricular activities, roles that students consistently identify as meaningful ought to enable them to participate in the design, facilitation and assessment with the aim of improving their schools and enhancing the teaching and learning environment.
The Five E's
We need to move away from those practices which were ineffective for the learner of the 20th century.  The new National Standard Curriculum is based on the 5 E’s of the 21st century learner. These are: engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration and evaluation. The learner of the 21st century is one who must be engaged at all steps throughout the teaching and learning process in order to maximize his/her outcome more so in an era of globalization. The 21st century learner is one who is engaged in a student-driven educational planning programme with avenues for exploration and explanation. Too many students are falling through the cracks simply because they find school to be a dull and boring place. We are losing out on the creativity of our youth population if we just sit idly by and allow students to drop out of school.
Students As Teachers
One area of student involvement which needs more examination is that of students as teachers. We need to view students as teachers. Dennis Harper, an advocate for the student as a teacher and founder of Generation YES, developed a programme where by students instructed teachers how to use technology in their classroom. This collaboration between students and teachers creates a framework for the architecture of ownership of the learner. Jamaica education system would certainly benefit from such a programme and would curtail the high dropout rate of our students, especially our boys.
STEM Inclusion
The new curriculum is intricately woven to embrace STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. These critical areas in education are where the jobs of the 21st century are to be found. STEM also provide a backdrop for problem solving which a vital element and lacking in the wider society.
What Gets In The Way
A culture of ownership by the learner will also have positive benefits regarding the reduction of violent incidents at schools. According to data from the Ministry of Education, between 2011 and 2013, a total of 1288 violent incidents were recorded in the nation’s schools.  Student who feel a sense of entitlement and attachment to their schools are unlikely to engage in violent acts.       
We need to engender a culture in which our students are more involved in decision making.  This is what meaningful student involvement entails. We need to reawaken student government across all our schools. Additionally, student government provides an avenue for leadership skills and human capacity building. It bears thought that the State needs to narrow the digital divide which has separated our schools. We are aware of the budgetary constraints; however, much more needs to be done to level the education playfield with regards to having computers, overhead projectors, white boards etc. This should be common place in all schools. We also need to build a culture of transparency and accountability in our schools as it relates to storage and use of equipment. It ought not to be business as per usual for the 2016/2017 academic year.  We need to fashion a culture in which we see our students as partners as we move forward in embracing the 21st learner in building architecture of ownership. Our education system must be interactive in which all students will benefit from this experience.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.