Letter: Transforming education requires decolonisation

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana
Minister of Education Priya Manikchand

Dear Editor,

The declared policy of President Ali’s Government is to use oil and gas proceeds to transform education, health, infrastructure, and the non-oil sectors (Guyana Chronicle, April 26, 2022). This policy is admirable, and will divest the windfall from oil and gas into conventional sectors.

In transforming education, the Government (the people’s representative) must address a fundamental question: What is (are) the outcome(s) from this transformation?
Is it for more job opportunities? This is not transformational. Is it more access to education: building more schools? Free education from the cradle to the grave? More computers, more digital whiteboards, tinkering with the current curriculum, or adding more subjects? This is also not transformational. Or is it the creation of a holistic education system within which creativity and innovation flourish, with opportunities for an individual to understand who she/he is, her/his intrinsic connections to each other and nature, and to craft her/his own quality lifestyle for the 21st century?

The answer is crucial for any meaningful transformation.

This article is not intended to provide an answer, but is a narrative to provoke public discourse to inform the Government’s transformational policy on education.

Guyana inherited a system of education created by our colonial masters (CM) to produce factory workers for the Industrial Era; and programmers, analysts and so on for the current Information Technology era. This system of servitude was about educating students to conform, to gather external data (imposed by teachers following strict preset curriculum and content), and to regurgitate some of the data in standardised tests. It is a “one size fits all” system.

Many countries, including Guyana, have tried to modernise this system, but the tendency is to copycat changes made or suggested by the CM and/or other World powers (WP), particularly the USA.

For example, let us consider the evolution of the call to emphasise Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in schools. In the 1990s, the US Government, with staunch support from US businesses, created a programme called SMET, an acronym for Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology. It did not get much attention. In 2001, after US students had performed poorly in Mathematics and Science among the industrialised nations, as measured by an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, the name was changed to STEM because it was alleged that SMET was not sounding good for marketing purpose. It has since become a wildfire. This is the true genius of the Americans, which no PISA test can measure.

Countries, with notable exception of Scandinavia, assumed the US problem as their own, and began emphasising (in many cases, overemphasising or obsessing) with STEM, which garnered devoted attention within their existing curriculum, or with some minor changes. This became a bonanza for the US. Many of the best graduates from these countries cannot find suitable jobs in their home countries, and this creates a ready supply pipeline of students to US universities and colleges, and employees for corporate America.

What a waste of scare resources and a brain drain for the lower and middle-income countries (LMIC)! Make no mistake, I am an ardent supporter of STEM, but not how it is taught and being overemphasised. In addition, living requires moral discipline, social and natural harmony, and security.

Despite billions of dollars having been spent on STEM by the US Government, State Governments and businesses, US students continue to do poorly, according to PISA scores, and this is an embarrassment for the most powerful country on Earth.

In 2010, US corporations, realising that STEM was not producing workers that can think and innovate and work as teams, strongly supported the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to develop a Common Core State Standards Initiative, called Common Core, which stressed critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. Parents, teachers, and unions fought against its introduction, and this initiative died, allegedly when the then President Obama supported it.

A key debacle in Common Core is the triple-objective of critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving that are now incorporated in STEM. These are competing objectives, and require different approaches in a “one size fits all” system. Critical thinking and creativity come from unfettered individuals, while teaming is best for problem-solving.

History has shown that no magnificent work of art or great scientific invention resulted from a team of people. How do countries such as Guyana start with transforming education? It must start with decolonisation – decoupling from the CM and WP, and developing an education system (see last question in the first paragraph) for the hopes, aspirations, and wellbeing of Guyanese.

Stop copycatting, do not think that the CM and the WP are better than you, and they know best. The transformation of the current education system must allow our children to fashion their path early in life, and prepare them for living a quality life in this 21st century.
No one can predict what life would be like as the 21st century advances, but there are certain trends that provide clues. For example, rapid deployment of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, self-driving (autonomous) vehicles, quantum computing, Internet of Things, pervasiveness of social media, globalisation, climate change, and social and health problems (increasing obesity, increasing loneliness and depression, increasing rate of suicide, diminishing intellect, and so on) would impact our children’s lives. To prepare them to tackle these and other issues and live pleasant lives requires a break from the past, bold thinking away from a “one size fits all”, and “teacher knows best” attitude.

We must coach, facilitate, and provide opportunities for our children to develop their individual creativity; be critical thinkers; be decision-makers; be job creators, rather than job seekers; while at the same time valuing and understanding their connectedness to all things in the cosmos.

Decolonisation does not negate adopting educational innovations in other countries, including the CM and the WP, but must be studied carefully and be modified, if necessary, for our educational outcomes.

Here is a potential example: Sanskrit (Samskritam), an ancient Indian language and mother of the Indo-European family of languages, which includes English, has been demonised by the British in their rule of India. Sanskrit, however, is taught in British schools (eg: St. James Junior School) and universities (eg: Oxford University), and in European and American universities. Many linguists have rated Sanskrit as the “perfect language.” However, the teaching of it in schools and universities is not to resurrect it as a spoken language; rather, it is what it offers for 21st century living. It helps students grasp math, science, and other languages better (it uses all parts of mouth and tongue); improves pronunciation and diction; and is the best language for computer programming, AI, and robotics (Rick Briggs, NASA scientist, AI Magazine, Volume 6 Number 1, 1985). In addition, it helps to alleviate social and health problems through spirituality (this is not religion) and Ayurveda.

Perhaps Guyana should consider teaching Sanskrit as one of a family of languages in a foreign language institute. Teachers should be coaches and facilitators, rather than purveyors of an existing knowledge base. With our mobile devices, we can access all human knowledge anytime and at any place. No teacher can compete with this readily-available, updated knowledge.

Parents have a vital role to play in this transformation. Too often, parents think of their children as extensions of themselves, and not as individual human beings who should chart their own courses in life. They want their children to be successful at things they themselves failed at, or think that their children are inexperienced and prone to failure. Mistakes and failures should not be regarded as taboos, but as means to creativity. In any case, failure is relative, and is a construct of the brain. Many parents want their children to go to colleges and universities as a source of pride and accomplishment in child rearing. But some of these children do not desire to be at these higher institutions of learning.

Rather, they prefer doing other things in life, such as being a carpenter, a plumber, a farmer, and so on. However, this is often unsatisfactory for parents, who think that their children are making mistakes or are on a path to failure in life. Consequently, these children miss creating a life of their own, underscored by their own passions, drives and goals.

Guyana, with a new source of wealth, a small population, and a non-entrenched education system, is in a unique position to lead education transformation for the 21st century. It should begin this transformation on an experimental basis, which can then be progressively enhanced before embarking on nationwide adoption. Any implementation of such a grand, nationwide education narrative requires political will and stability, boldness and leadership, public involvement and acceptance, and decades of sustainable execution and adjustments.

Some readers may conclude that this narrative is utopian and cannot be accomplished by Guyanese (perhaps a legacy of colonial thinking). Indeed, it is utopian, and I make no apology. It is bold, far-reaching, fresh-thinking, self-confident unwillingness to accept conventional paradigm, and a willingness to take risks that are the hallmarks for transformation.

Transformation is suspicious, threatening, arduous, and uncertain, but it provides the opportunity for creativity and high rewards. “Every child is a genius, only to be converted into an idiot in school.” (Attributed to Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrel).

Dr Muniram Budhu