In the Caribbean, education is an extremely competitive and valued thing. Many embrace it as one of the primary means of social mobility and in most regional budgets it stands as one of the top 3 most funded sectors each year. However at the same time international metrics such as the Pisa Worldwide Ranking for education placed Trinidad and Tobago 53rd out of 70 nations in 2015. Since then, TT and most of the Caribbean are notably absent and unranked while relatively small nations with little in the way of lucrative resources such as Singapore and Estonia dominate at the top 5. Finland as well, stands in this inner circle and is lauded as having one of the most progressive and empowering educational structures in the world.
Reassessing the Old
Is it time for the Caribbean to begin a move away from its olden days ‘English Grammar School’ model of education with its fixated focus on rote learning, exam based ‘survival of the fittest’ advancement and idealization of a handful of fields at the expense of others? It’s no secret that while many Caribbean nations value academic pursuit the scope and method are extremely traditional and status based. The aforementioned success stories are such due to them having rejected these methods for innovative modern solutions.
A breakdown from the Finnish Government’s Education Ministry website notes that, as a core value, their education system attempts to push learners away from ‘dead ends’. Consider the analogy of learning being like a large river. This river branches out into various tributaries and not all of them lead out to sea. The Finnish education system attempts to ‘stream’ children from young into fields that are both marketable and expandable based on their capabilities.
Education As A Tool of Actualization
An analysis from the World Economic Forum notes that Finland has shorter school days, fewer exams and generally frowns on standardized tests. To many traditional educators here in the Caribbean such notions may seem preposterous and asinine. Instead, pre-school attempts to ‘teach’ thinking skills through engagement and enjoyable learning while basic education, which comes after, lasts for 9 years and starts at the age of 7. During this time children are granted a considerable degree of autonomy in ‘choosing’ their future educational paths with advisement and input from their teachers.
This process is not a matter of the teacher’s tastes and personal thoughts however. Rather, teachers are all expected to be highly educated, have their Master’s Degree and instead utilize a more scientific approach to this process based on the child’s performance and aptitudes. Thus, a child’s capabilities are observed, rated and fairly assessed with recommendations forthcoming based on what they display. Just because one child isn’t a mathematical genius, this doesn’t instantaneously render them ignored or ‘written off’. Instead, if they display aptitude for writing or more physical, practical skills like crafting and repair they will be advised accordingly.
Holistic Higher Education
As a constitutionally enshrined right, Finland’s government has deemed all levels of education free. Flexibility in choosing one’s own learning, schedule and even the ability to switch paths means that very few individuals ever ‘fall through the cracks’. Meals and other support also come free or heavily subsidized. Once basic education is complete a student can, if they so desire, move on to Vocational or General education according to LeverageEdu. The former takes a practical approach to learning via studies coupled with apprenticeships and early jobs. At the end a student is given a ‘competence’ based learning certificate.
Don’t scoff at this as more and more one’s job experience counts for more when hiring as opposed to increasingly common degrees and diplomas. On the other hand general education focuses on the more expected study based learning with the nation’s only standardized test at the end of this 3 year process.
Further from this, universities are also either general or ‘applied sciences’ with the latter emphasizing skill application while the former focuses on research. As we can see, there’s a lot of choice here for anyone and the ability to move between paths means that changing needs does not leave one condemned.
Beginning The Process
On the other hand, Singapore’s top rated educational system, also deemed a global standard, focuses on constant streaming via rigorous examination throughout the entire schooling system. Some have even deemed it so stressful that the government opted to lessen and remove some exams for younger children. Regardless, this ‘streaming’ system constantly assesses and places students in educational programmes based on their performance as well as in different types of schools such as ‘normal’ or ‘normal technical’ with the latter being applied and trade based learning. In stark contrast to Finland, Singapore’s educational system heavily emphasizes science, mathematics and technology as core subjects.
Thus we see two vastly different systems that both wear global crowns for educational excellence. How can the Caribbean improve its own circumstances? Should we base ourselves entirely on one or the other? The answer is not so simple.
Setting Foundations Before Replicating Success
Before reforming and remodeling education, Caribbean nations should take a page from Finland and ensure that education is accessible and convenient for everyone involved at any age. They can then strive to ensure the same, serious, professional focus on educational personnel by pushing for higher education qualifications. Both these actions can help set the framework for future reforms.
Furthermore, it would then be imperative to modernize elements of education. This can include replacing heavy textbooks with digital books accessed through tablets or other devices as well as creating branched educational systems which both Singapore and Finland have. Thus, those more cerebrally focused can delve deeply into STEM while others, who have immense skill in practical application and skill based trades are also allowed to shine. These simple actions can set the tone for any future reforms as, any drastic change, be it in the vein of Finland or Singapore’s, would likely be met with huge opposition unless explained and initiated skillfully.