Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Random conversations: education and work

The old are always wise. The young are always catching up. Are the needs and challenges of the 21st century more or different than in generations past?

Our education system is turning out the wrong people.  I agree. But inside I reflect, how could people be "wrong," it has to be the system that's not appropriate any more, that's outdated; lost its way - perhaps because there was no "way" in the first place. Yes, our ways of teaching children must be different. This envisages a different approach from parents; teachers; and the need for mentors, coaches and role models. The Trinidad education system is by its nature, conservative, a "factory" approach for twenty-thousand new entrants each year, unwieldly, inflexible and archaic. Through the system, we dispense information, with the love for learning an accidental by-product if it is ever engendered at all. One only has to look at the schools - large, institutional, impersonal.

The product of one of the best schools in the country, I absorbed everything like a sponge. The teachers couldn't decide whether I should be streamed to science or literature, geography or mathematics. I didn't choose. I tried to do everything. But math was my favourite; and I had great math teachers. I grew up on a farm; and school was the escape from manual labour. Farm work however gave me hours in my own head, day dreaming about everything and nothing. My mother made sure I could cook, that I knew what weeds to pull out of the garden beds. I became an expert with a broom and vacuum cleaner. My sister, on the other hand, with the same home and school background, gravitated to sewing and art.

I like to think that I grew up in a "golden age" Trinidad, without pressure and plenty potential. Today, I think that there are thousands of children who are lost inside and outside the pressurised education system, who are being deprived of the opportunity to make sense of who they are and what they might be good at. And who is to change that? Every one of us who grew up in the "golden age" must shoulder the task: in every interaction with children. Indeed, how did we lose our golden age?

The big companies would like to import labour. They can't find people to do skilled labour. Can't find, or can't keep? We weren't taught to respect the work of people who had to learn skills, do manual labour, who went to craft school. If there's a shortage of these skills, maybe it's because there's a shortage of respect for these skills. So good technicians are promoted to managers; and we have too many managers and become top heavy! There's something to be said for a system in which there's greater equity between manual and intellectual resources.

From an early age, we figure out it's demeaning to work with our hands. Most parents, even those who work with their hands, want the child to be something "better" which means doing something more respectable. It's re-inforced in schools: the academic over the trade. Most people coming through the school system want to work in an office. School does little to open the child to the possibilities of enterprise, making things, fixing things, cooking, building, manufacturing and services. Indeed, the "service" side of every profession is poorly developed. Being a doctor seldom conveys the notion of help and care. We fear doctors in the way we fear people with superior knowledge.

Bring in more people from China. They are good workers. You think I could borrow a few to build my house? So what are we saying: let's revive the indentured (and slavery) systems that brought so many of our ancestors here, shall we? Because those systems ended in us, they must have worked well, eh! Are our people inherently lazier or less skilled - or have an inclination towards brain work - than in other countries? Trinbagonians generally do well in other countries - in manual or intellectual jobs - where they conform to better systems. Why not at home?

 How do we change the education system? Should we educate heads or hands? We need to change expectations among people, from as early as possible. An early childhood education centre for every child that's born is a good thing. But we all know that learning and teaching is more than being in a pretty building. Teachers in these centres need to see themselves not as teachers, but service providers to a community. Each child represents a family. The child takes home the learning. Perhaps we need smaller schools, more intimate classrooms.  We certainly need teachers with purpose and compassion, seeing themselves responsible for the next generations. Teachers who identify disability, shortcomings, special talents, and who can provide useful alternatives for children who are gifted or challenged. Perhaps we need different approaches to training and motivating teachers; develop a version of national service in which everyone teaches for two years.

And what about those who don't even get to school? Social officers need to be the bridge between home and school for the children most "at risk." Children at school should be children at play, in an environment that encourages learning, and doing, and working. Some schools might again become sanctuaries for those who want to use their hands, as much as their minds. All schools should take their places once more at the heart of their communities.

And the Chinese workers? The fault is not in the Chinese or their workers. It is in our desire for grander buildings than we need; for more than we can use. It is the nature of our greed.

Are we who are wise, too late to make a difference? What might we yet do, so that the young may find the way that we lost.


  1. 1. Who is to blame? ( better : who is responsible?)
    2. how did we take the wrong turns?
    3. where are the parents in all of this?
    4. doesn't the individual (child/teenager) take responsibility for (part of ) the outcomes?
    5. some of the problem lies in how we define the (measurable) outcomes,yes?
    6. if I feel the pain ( and no one else does), is there a pain?

    "when all is said and done, more is said and less is done"

    Time for coffee ?

  2. Second comment ( am I passionate about this?)

    Teachers make schools, for better or worse.
    Teaching is (relatively) low-pay, low-status work.
    It doesn't always attract the best talent.
    So are we trying to squeeze gold out of brass?