Monday, April 29, 2013

Education Redefined?

Recently, a reader and grandmother of two high school students asked me if I thought that our responsibilities to teach our children today have changed.  She pointed out the many drastic changes in the lifestyles and attitudes of young people today compared to when we were teenagers in the 1960’s.  She suggested that perhaps we need to redefine the meaning and purpose of Education in the 21st Century.  My response is that I firmly believe that no matter what age we live in, our responsibilities to teach young people, especially our own children, will never change.  A large part of our responsibility as parents is to guide our children as they grow, and continuously stimulate them to learn as much as they possibly can in order to become self-sufficient, productive and independent.  After all, the ultimate goal for all children is to grow up and eventually “leave the nest” (home) to lead their own lives, become independent, create their own families, and so on and so forth.  However, no matter how much young people may change from one generation to the next, my unequivocal response regarding redefining Education is: NO.

Change is never really a surprise, no matter how massive it may be.  We can neither cover up nor ignore change, no matter how very much some of us prefer to keep doing things “the old way”.  Change is change: we are born; we grow up; we die.  Nothing is permanent in this life.  So, it’s not the meaning or purpose of Education that we need to redefine to fit this new century; rather, what we must make every effort to change/adjust is the content, or “what” we need to teach young people so that they can learn to become self-sufficient and productive.  Moreover, in order to constantly adjust to newer times, we also need to change, partially or completely if necessary, the “how” we go about educating or teaching our children.  By all means, the many variables of Education (who, what, where, when, how) will always change from generation to generation; about that there is no doubt.  As an example, look at the many children and teenagers today, in Belize and throughout the world, who everyday easily and casually use so many mobile technological gadgets that fit in one hand; yet, so many of us who are parents and grandparents have NO idea whatsoever of the many uses of those gadgets!  How many of us who are past retirement age regularly and adeptly use today’s handheld/mobile devices and touch screen technologies?  (Only five years ago my teenage sons had to show me how to send text messages via cell phone; they have been texting almost since they were able to read.)  Nevertheless, despite the fact that the many variables of Education constantly change, what will forever remain constant, no matter which generation is at the receiving or giving end, is “why” we are educated.  No one is born self-sufficient; each one of us, though, can learn how to become self-sufficient and productive through a process called: Education.

The “why” for Education never changes; but there are many different ways to offer as well as receive an education.  Schools are fully structured and exist to educate many students everyday in structured settings, i.e. teachers in specific classrooms, with Principals and Heads of Departments to guide them.  On the other hand, how do the young people and juvenile delinquents who do not attend school obtain their education? They receive their education, not from schools or in structured settings, but rather by observing, associating, and imitating others in their (home) environment.  Their education is not at all structured, but more akin to “survival of the fittest”.  Yet, do they learn how to become self-sufficient and productive?  They certainly do!  Unfortunately, whatever productivity and survival they learn is criminal and totally harmful to others and to their very selves.  How sad it must be to have to live most of one’s life trying to escape/avoid the arm of the law.

What is at stake when a country’s Education system does not adequately serve and prepare its youth to survive?  The visible and immediate future becomes that of an under-developed country that lags further and further behind everyone else in the developing world.  Today, more than ever, schools in Belize are at a huge risk and are failing our students because as a country we are falling further and further behind in this rapidly advancing age of technology.  Failure is also defined as having hundreds, even thousands, of highly educated young professionals who have no employment opportunities -- nowhere to work.  Why should we pay so much for a Secondary or Tertiary Education when after graduation we are not given the chance to put that education to use?  Why risk losing the cream of our crop and all the brilliant young minds of our youth who will not think twice about moving to more developed or “developing” countries instead of staying at home unchallenged and unemployed?  Are we encouraging entrepreneurship in our youth?  So, my continuous and unabashed polemic cry to our government and to churches that tout Education as a key component of their evangelism is for them to embrace and instill positive change in our Education systems (how we teach school) in Belize, effective immediately.  Those of you who set up and run our Education systems in Belize need to take your blinders off!  Do you realize how very far behind, or lagging, you are in overhauling the “how” and “what” our young people need to be learning today? 

Our government and churches today seem totally oblivious to any sort of Education reform whatsoever, especially at the Primary and Secondary school levels, and seem quite content to keep running schools today the same way they have done for generations before.  (Our own diplomas still mean absolutely nothing without foreign CXC, previously GCE, passes after high school.  Don’t even think of getting any higher education without those passes!)  The refusal to revitalize and modernize our schools puts our entire nation at a total risk of failure within the next twenty-five years.  Our schools today need to step up to the plate and offer students, young people who are our country’s immediate future, ways and means to become adept at new and global technology.  Gone are the days of spending hours upon hours teaching the three R’s by rote to young students in Primary School.  Example: Today at the high school level and above, no teacher wants handwritten assignments/projects; rather, all work must be printed (on a computer not a typewriter).  Let’s start, therefore, to teach students, from the very onset of Primary all the way through Secondary school, how to stay abreast of the increasing role of technology and globalization in our lives.  Since I graduated from high school in 1969 so much change has come our way in Belize, and so much more will continue to keep coming at even faster rates!  Are our young people being prepared to face even more changes?  My generation may not need to worry so much about learning how to be self-sufficient or productive and proficient in this new age and century -- most of us are retired now.  But, what about our children and their children’s generations to follow…

Upcoming articles will explore how high-tech can come to the rescue of our unique Belizean cultures.  (My father and his parents, who lived in Northern Corozal District, were polylingual and spoke fluent Maya in addition to English and Spanish.  Sadly, today I know but a phrase or two in Maya.)  How many young people in Belize today can fluently speak Maya, Quiche, and Garifuna?  What are we doing right now to preserve and pass on our rich native languages and cultural traditions to future generations? 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Responsibility to Whom and for What?

In my articles I try to point out and describe to readers, both inside and outside of Belize, the many responsibilities as well as the essential needs of educators, students, parents, and the community/country at large. The bottom line and ultimate goal of each article presented in is to encourage each individual, not only students but the entire country of Belize, to keep improving and growing productively in the new 21st Century. My recent observations and striking descriptions (with apologies to no one) of “learned helplessness” throughout Belize have elicited quite numerous and varied individual responses throughout social media such as Facebook, Blogs, and emails. I respect and will honor each individual’s request for privacy. Nonetheless, it was very encouraging to see that, despite the scant or few comments usually posted under each new article, so many of you readers “do care” about how our Education Systems in Belize work, and whether or not they serve the nation productively. Most encouraging of all was to see how many of you, according to the many emails you sent me, are genuinely interested in improving our Education systems in Belize.

It is always good to be able to identify and understand what strategies are most helpful to teach students, as well as to use our own selves, so they/we can develop productively in this 21st Century. However, before we go delving into the many strategies that can be used to motivate and/or turn around students or ourselves, from unproductive to productive, we should first understand WHY we want or need to put these strategies into practice. To whom are we responsible, and specifically, for what? Why do we constantly need to bring innovative solutions into classrooms to match today’s technologically advanced times vs. keeping old and antiquated teaching systems under which we parents and grandparents studied, and/or that worked for us? Why does it matter whether we do, or not, respect students today or address their emotional, social, in-school and out-of-school needs and problems?

The answer to each of these questions is basic and will never change:  young people (students) today are our world tomorrow.   Most pertinent is the simple fact that each ‘today’ that we live, really, is our own ‘tomorrow’ that has come to pass! Of course, there are those among us who could care less about ‘tomorrow’ and are merely content to live from day to day on a “take it as it comes” basis. These are the people who, day in and day out, never really care what happens to anyone, student or not.  However, despite them, and regardless of whether or not we can attribute our country’s rapidly-increasing criminal and Dickensian population to “learned helplessness”, the fact remains that no one is born a criminal.   Numerous studies that have been carried out in Belize, and throughout the world, show conclusively that juvenile delinquency (criminal behavior) is a behavior that is learned through association, imitation, and observation in one’s (home) environment. When we adults (parents, educators, the entire community) ignore young peoples’ needs, wants and desires then these young people often turn to criminal behaviors to satisfy their needs because no one bothers to show them attention, or cares about them. Sadly, very sadly, juvenile delinquency in Belize will continue to exist and “be on the rise” until adults, especially parents, fully accept that negative patterns of behavior cannot be wished away, nor locked away, but must be addressed early on in our children’s lives!    “Adults” also includes educators as well as those who run the country, and any other adult who is involved in each of our children’s daily lives.

Being an educator (guidance counselor and teacher) I know fully well, from more than 30 years of experience working in schools, that educators are often misunderstood by students, parents, and by the community. On the other hand, students too are often misunderstood and misused or abused by parents who are blind to the grievous harm they cause their children when they constantly pressure them for high grades. No doubt, it is always a source of pride to parents when their children/students do well in school; however, the main purpose of sending our children to school is NOT for them to get high grades to make us parents proud, so we can then boast to other parents. Students attend school in order to learn as well as to be able to “grow up” and develop their own goals, visions, ambitions, and aspirations in life. Parents should give them the opportunity to do just that, instead of pressuring them, term after term, to bring home grades that are the highest in the class. By all means, we parents and educators should always encourage and help students to “set and achieve (high) goals”; but those goals and achievements should belong to the students, not the parents or educators. If we don’t teach ownership to our children from an early age, then we have no right whatsoever to scream out in desperation when we see that as adults they refuse to take ownership and responsibility for anything!

The unintended consequences of emphasizing test scores in school as the primary focus of our children’s education are many and detrimental to our entire society. The high-grade stress that an emphasis on grades brings to students may lead them, whether directly or subtly, to try cheating or to disregard the main reason why they need to learn:  to develop into productive and happy human beings.  So, what is our responsibility to our children, and for what?  Of course, we all want our children/students to be winners not losers, and to be high achievers – but for themselves, not for us. So, if and when schools/educators and parents set education policies and goals for students, we need to ensure that their achievement of those goals (through hard work) will benefit them first.   After all, who are the biggest winners and losers of education outcomes (testing/grades) that benefit parents and educators not students?   Therefore, I urge all parents and educators to encourage students, from an early age, to learn how to set challenges, face them, and overcome them – with no added stress from us. Let’s allow them to set their challenges and then work to see their own dreams come true in school, in academics as well as in various extra-curricular activities, including sports.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Educators for Social Responsibility

In previous articles I pointed out that presently many of our people in Belize are struggling, day in and day out, to survive ever-increasing hard times. However, as pitiful and miserable as our current violent situations may be, positive change for the better is always within our control. We will improve on any out-of-hand or dangerous situations in which we live today once we choose to cease living in pathetic, but comfortable, conditions of “learned helplessness”. It is sad that many of us choose to live under such negative conditions, and prefer to firmly insist that everything is beyond our control, and that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. However, in direct contrast, I encourage you to look closely at teachers and educators to see how they deal with the problem of learned helplessness. On a daily basis they give students (our children) the “boost” which they very often desperately need in order to bounce back from total burnout situations where/when everything may be going wrong for them, either academically, morally, or otherwise.

Educators (teachers, principals and administrators, school counselors, assistants and anyone who works within a school system) are often misunderstood by students, parents, and by the community. Actually, some educators themselves often misunderstand their own purpose or disregard the reason why they chose to work in Education as a profession. There is no doubt that, despite any lofty ideals they may have, all educators need to earn a living just like everyone else. So, yes, educators work everyday for a salary. However, above and beyond earning a living, educators’ ultimate goal is to prepare young people to live productively in our society. To fulfill this goal, educators willingly take on tremendous social responsibilities which, sad to say, too often are misunderstood and not at all appreciated by many in our society, beginning with the very students whom educators try to help everyday. Consequently some educators, after repeatedly being misunderstood, become disheartened enough to work in the field of Education each day merely to earn a living, nothing else.

For the record: educators do not work in their profession simply to oblige students to memorize required information and/or data from books, day in and day out (rote learning), and then “spit it all back out” in frequent tests and examinations. Yes, students take tests at schools regularly as a way/means to show teachers whether they are learning anything or not. But, in addition to creating standardized testing, each day educators encourage young people to shape equitable and productive lives by providing them with educational resources that show them “how” they can develop. Educators show students, especially from the high school level upwards, how they can embark on the path to becoming productive citizens as future teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, business men and women, entrepreneurs, and even sport professionals.

An important part of the social responsibility that educators fully embrace everyday includes working productively with young people who are high-achievers, low-achievers, and everything in between. What employer in the everyday world of work takes the time and makes every effort to accommodate low-achievers, and make sure that they feel “accepted”? Educators are professionally trained to help students, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, feel accommodated, appreciated, and challenged at their own individual levels. After all, only by being challenged will students make every effort to soar higher and higher each day at school. In the adult world of work, employers challenge employees to be productive by offering financial incentives (salaries, bonuses, climbing the corporate ladder etc.); in schools teachers challenge students to be productive academically and otherwise (sports) with the promise of high grades and outstanding recognition. Educators are professionally trained on how to take “first steps” toward changing and improving failing situations in which students at times find themselves. By all means, it would behoove us to follow closely how our children are educated everyday at school. Hopefully, by following in our children’s paths we might learn how to overcome our own conditions of learned helplessness.

Let’s not continue to live in conditioned and helpless states, give up all hope, and put forth no effort whatsoever to change. Let’s not be like students who get homework assignments or individual class projects to complete by specific deadlines, yet keep putting it off and putting it off by finding every single excuse under the sun why they cannot do the work. Let’s not fail the class (life) for not doing the class (life) work.

Another important part of the social responsibility that educators embrace and practice in the classroom and at school everyday includes showing young people/students how to move forward by setting specific short-term and long-term goals and then making sure the students work to achieve them. At the start of each school term/semester teachers present students with a set curriculum – a set of specific goals and objectives that need to be learned in each class subject/topic by the end of the term/semester. Students take tests and exams regularly to ensure that they are learning the curriculum (academic goals). Students who do not pass the regularly administered tests/exams see that they are not working hard enough, or may need additional help. What sort of regular tests do we adults take to see if we are achieving the goals we have set? Are we even setting any goals? Or do we prefer to simply prod along the path of life from day to day…

Have we, individually or collectively as a nation, set short-term or long-term goals in the last 12 months to challenge and try to halt the fast-paced and extremely negative turn-around of what was once a productive and peaceful Belize? Let’s stop feeling sorry for ourselves and living in helpless situations by looking mostly at the negatives in our lives. Let’s break free from learned helplessness by imitating our children’s educators! Let’s embrace our social and individual responsibilities and think like optimists not like pessimists, and stay motivated even in the face of our daily challenges and disappointments, instead of constantly looking for pity. Most importantly, like teachers and educators do with students, year in and year out, let us set specific short-term and long-term goals, and work to achieve them, instead of merely feeling jealous of others and sorry for ourselves when things don’t go our way.