Fri | Apr 19, 2024

Dennis Minott | Skanking in the muds of Jamaica’s classrooms – Part 3

Published:Sunday | February 18, 2024 | 12:10 AM
In this 2022 photo students are seen writing the PEP exam.
In this 2022 photo students are seen writing the PEP exam.
Dennis Minott
Dennis Minott
1
2

Forget about chaos, traffic, stocky iron-willed hombres, ever-bulging señoritas and smog, I love la locura mexicana, the language, culture, science, and mathematics Mexicans helped teach me.

Once when I lived there, my wife and I decided to visit el Mercado Jamaica in the small barrio called Colonia Jamaica. We set out from swank Polanco by taxi and metro and arrived south-east of the historic Zócalo about two miles off the beaten path. The small colonia (neighbourhood) known as Jamaica (pronounced ‘ha-MY-ca’, which means ‘hibiscus flower’), barely extends beyond the hundreds of stalls that make up its market. Visitors who love the exotic food at Mercado San Juan in the historic centre or the homestyle comforts at Mercado Medellín in Roma will fall all the more for Jamaica. This vast food forum offers fruit and vegetables, meats so fresh they’re not refrigerated, cheeses rustic and fine, seafood and practically everything else in between.”

Duck behind the produce sections to reach Jamaica’s mind-boggling flower market. Dodging carts and avoiding puddles, explore two aisles jammed with gorgeous, multihued roses, daisies, sunflowers, gerberas, birds of paradise, chrysanthemums, irises, lilies – and that’s before you’ve even got to the houseplants. You’ll see everyone from trendy design types to septuagenarian church ladies and just regular joes loading up on blossoms.

In answer to the friendly question in Mexican Spanish about where we came from, I cheerily volunteered “Jamaicanos”. After ever-so-brief a pause, the daughter of the vendor serving us muttered in correction “Jamaiquinos” and smiled awkwardly. We took note but concealed our curiosity and body language until we were alone. By the next Monday, I began to take note that northern Mexicans rarely referred to Jamaicans as “Jamaicanos”. That is a name they reserved for residents and workers from Colonia Jamaica. My precious Controls Engineer and mathematician friend, Modesta, finally, gave in, and gravely explained: “El barrio de Jamaica, cerca del mercado, es un poco feo. La Isla Jamaica es un paraiso en el Caribe, jamaiquino Dennis.” (loosely translated: “the neighbourhood known as colonia Jamaica is slightly ugly. Your Island called Jamaica is a Caribbean paradise, jamaquino Dennis)”

In her measured and polished way, Moy had used the words poco feo instead of the direct word chiqero (pigsty) that the mostly male engineers on our team would have insensitively spat out to describe messy, unsmart instrumentation wiring or pneumatics that was “chaca chaca” on a plataforma design.

MESSY AND UNSMART

That brings me to the messy and unsmart way in which we teach mathematics in Jamaican education circles.

What are the messy, unsmart ways that our low-scoring Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) education jurisdiction teaches mathematics to our young? What are the consequences? And how have successful countries in math, science and technology development remedied such policy failures?

The PISA assesses the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, science and mathematics. Low-scoring jurisdictions such as Jamaica often exhibit certain characteristics in their approach to teaching mathematics:

Pigsty Object #5. Rote Memorisation: Here, mathematics education focuses primarily on rote memorisation of formulas and procedures rather than understanding concepts and problem-solving skills. This can lead to students lacking deep conceptual understanding and struggling to apply mathematical knowledge in real-world contexts.

Pigsty Object #6. Teacher-Centred Instruction: Traditional, teacher-centred instruction where teachers lecture and students passively listen or copy down notes can hinder active engagement and critical thinking. Students may lack opportunities for hands-on exploration and collaborative problem-solving.

Pigsty Object #7. Lack of Differentiation: In Jamaica’s classrooms where there’s little differentiation, teachers may teach to the middle, leaving struggling students behind and failing to challenge high-achieving students. This can lead to disengagement and a lack of motivation among students.

Pigsty Object #8. Emphasis on Drill and Practice: Excessive focus on drill and practice exercises without meaningful context can make mathematics seem disconnected from real life, leading to disinterest and a shallow understanding of mathematical concepts from even Kindergarten and PEP stages.

CONSEQUENCES

Consequences of these approaches can include:

Low achievement levels: Students may perform poorly on assessments like PISA and struggle to meet academic standards in mathematics.

Limited problem-solving skills: Students may lack the ability to apply mathematical concepts to solve real-world problems, limiting their potential in higher education and future careers.

Negative attitudes towards mathematics: Students may develop anxiety or aversion towards mathematics due to a lack of understanding and confidence in their abilities.

Successful countries in mathematics, science, and technology development have remedied these failures by implementing various strategies:

1. Focus on conceptual understanding: Successful countries prioritize conceptual understanding over rote memorisation. They design curricula and instructional practices that help students develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts through exploration, problem-solving, and inquiry-based learning.

2. Student-centred approaches: These countries promote student-centred approaches to teaching and learning, where students actively engage in collaborative problem-solving, critical thinking, and inquiry-based activities. Teachers act as facilitators rather than lecturers, guiding students to discover mathematical concepts themselves.

3. Differentiated instruction: Successful countries recognise the diverse needs of students and implement differentiated instruction strategies to meet those needs. This includes providing additional support for struggling students and enrichment opportunities for high-achieving students.

4. Integration of technology: Technology is often integrated into mathematics instruction to enhance learning experiences, facilitate personalised learning, and provide interactive simulations and visualisations to deepen conceptual understanding.

5. Professional development for teachers: These countries invest in high-quality professional development programs for teachers to enhance their pedagogical knowledge and teaching practices. Teachers are continuously supported in adopting research-based instructional strategies and assessments that promote student learning and engagement.

IMPROVE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT

By addressing these issues and implementing effective teaching strategies, successful countries are able to improve student achievement in mathematics and prepare students for success in an increasingly technology-driven world.

Now, to Pigsty Object #9: Mistaken Mercantile Market-Driven Mathematics.

What is the major mistake in mercantile market-driven mathematics teaching to high and primary school students?

The major mistake in this approach is the prioritisation of short-term gains and commercial interests over the holistic development of students’ mathematical skills, critical thinking abilities, and problem-solving capabilities.

Focus on memorisation over understanding: Mercantile-driven mathematics education often emphasises rote memorisation of formulas and procedures to achieve quick results on standardised tests or exams, rather than fostering deep conceptual understanding. This approach can hinder students’ ability to apply mathematical concepts in real-world contexts and adapt to new problem-solving situations.

Narrow curriculum: Market-driven mathematics education may lead to a narrow focus on topics that are deemed to have immediate economic value or are heavily tested in standardised assessments. This can result in neglecting important mathematical concepts, such as mathematical reasoning, geometry, or statistics, which are crucial for developing well-rounded mathematical proficiency.

Emphasis on competition: In Jamaica’s increasingly market-driven educational environment, there can be an overemphasis on competition and performance metrics, which may create a high-pressure learning environment that undermines students’ intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics. This can lead to increased anxiety and disengagement, particularly among students who struggle to meet arbitrary performance benchmarks.

Neglect of critical thinking skills: Mathematics education should not only focus on computational skills but also on developing critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. However, a mercantile market-driven approach may prioritise quick solutions and memorisation of algorithms over fostering students’ ability to analyse problems, formulate strategies, and communicate mathematical ideas effectively.

Inequitable access: Market-driven approaches to education can exacerbate existing inequalities by privileging students with access to resources such as expensive tutoring programs or specialised instruction. This can widen the achievement gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds and perpetuate inequities in educational outcomes.

MAJOR MISTAKE

To me as a somewhat seasoned practitioner coaching bright students for college through A-QuEST, the major mistake lies in treating mathematics education solely as a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace, rather than recognising its intrinsic value in nurturing students’ intellectual growth, problem-solving skills, and ability to engage meaningfully with the world around them.

We would do well to treat special interest “philanthropic” funding of standardised test exam fees in the Caribbean with caution.

PISA champions like Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and South Korea do.

Oh how I wish that my friend Justice Dennis Morrison still dwelt and moved among us. I feel it and I feel it for the boys and my “family” at Dunn Cox where we met before he ascended to the Bench. Dennis was one of the fairest persons that I have ever known. I shall miss conversing with him. For instance, what would his deep, humorous yet theatrics-free mind have made of this series of three articles?

Dennis Minott, PhD, is the CEO of A-QuEST-FAIR. He is a multilingual green resources specialist, a research physicist, and a modest mathematician who worked in the oil and energy sector. Send feedback to: a_quest57@yahoo.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.