By Deju Nation
This week (March 6 – 12, 2016) our nation, celebrates Mathematics Week, a time where we highlight the critical importance of mathematics as THE vehicle for actively utilizing applied science and technology for economic growth and wealth creation. We must at this time salute the outstanding work done by our math educators in engendering love for a subject which is so generally hated and misunderstood. It is also a time to celebrate the achievements of not only our outstanding math students, but moreso our struggling students who have made landmark improvements in both their attitudes and performance, thanks to the hard work of our teachers and the blessings of God.
As we celebrate Mathematics Week, let us remember that the growth and development of any nation is a direct function of that nation’s ability to sustainably utilize its available resources. Growth configured in this way requires a perfecting of the art of effectively, efficiently and sustainably utilizing the nation’s resources to serve its citizens’ needs, ambitions and strategic plans for the future. The extent to which these resources are efficiently and sustainably utilized, processed and increased in value, is however inextricably linked to the strength of the knowledge and information base of that society. This synergetic meeting of knowledge, information and resources is the key formula for creating economic growth and world leading innovation. The active ingredient in this synergetic binding agent is purposeful and calculated education in applied science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM).
Our current and future governments must therefore create a clear path that links heavy investment in STEM education with a corresponding conduit for its application in new STEM-based industries. The economic rise of the BRICS economies shows us that this is indeed a winning formula! With the right macro-economic environment,key academia partnerships, buy-in from the private sector, well-timed financing and a concentration on STEM-based utilization of our God-given areas of competitive advantage, this is both possible and achievable in Jamaica land we love. What we need is strong visionary leadership and a national commitment to achieving that vision by all our stakeholders; from the household helper to the research scientist!
If Jamaica is to have any hope of realizing vision 2030, it will only be as we focus on fixing our national attitude and most of all, our entire competence and expertise in mathematics and the sciences. The work in repairing this breach must begin at the most formative levels. Here our best and brightest teachers must be actively engaged to bring these beautiful subjects to life before young watching eyes and inquiring minds. Our national strategic and operational policies must not only give casual support to this, they must actively support this thrust through effective resource allocation and attractive financial compensation. Even with the fiscal constraints imposed by our current agreements with the IMF, we must ensure that this important area of our development is nurtured, not neglected. Fiscal discipline is critical and keen economic management is indispensible, but both are meaningless without economic growth, the likes of which can be achieved largely through decided application of STEM education. Our newly elected Prime Minister, the Most Honourable Andrew Holness posited in his swearing-in speech last week, that what Jamaica really needs now is “economic independence”. I whole-heartedly agree with this statement and further posit that economic growth spurred by the aggressive application of STEM-based education is THE vehicle to that ultimate destination of TRUE independence.
A May 2015 report by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), highlighted a study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) on global education in math and science. Of the 76 leading countries covered in the study, the top four (4) countries for math and science education were all Asian, with Singapore being the world leader! Singapore’s performance in mathematics at the 8th grade diagnostic level (Figure. 1) exceeded the international average by over 100 points on a 2003 international mathematics test, an equivalent of three to four grade levels of schooling!
Is there any wonder these Asian countries are now the engines of global growth and innovation? The lesson is clear, if you fix your math and science problems, you are well on your way to fixing your economic growth problems! With statistical data from the World Bank revealing that Jamaica is limping along, with an average of just 1% GDP growth over the last 30 years, the direct correlation to the economically crippling effects of our low numeracy rates (which average less than 50% over the same period) is clearly understood!
While we struggle to get the ABC’s of 1+1 right, the leading countries are doing Advanced Calculus! We must get our act together, and quickly! This knowledge economy of the 21st century has no room for mathematical and scientific dwarfs! It only tolerates economies that are mathematically and scientifically fit, while simultaneously making mince-meat of those which are not!! History reveals that the ancient Assyrian and Babylonians empires became global military powers only AFTER developing significant prowess in mathematics, astronomy and the physical sciences. The leading nations of this globalized world economy also reflect that history in their own unique ways.
As we focus on our mathematics education realities this week, let us take on board five lessons from our friends in Singapore.
1). Our mathematics programmes (and educational programmes in general) MUST be “mastery focused”. They should NOT be focused on merely “preparing students to pass a test”. It is critically important that our assessment mechanisms are re-engineered to directly support this change in paradigm. Students should only “pass” after they have demonstrated basic mastery of core concepts as corroborated through application, not by achieving a C or a C+grade. (Within my own academic circles, I have been making this point for a number of years. If our assessment mechanisms are shifted to focus on “rewarding for mastery” this will force a similar shift in our students’ behaviour patterns and learning attitudes! What we get in the work environment is essentially what we nurture and encourage inside the classroom environment! Let us therefore nurture concept mastery as the gold standard across all educational levels and disciplines. In short order we will definitely see a corresponding translation to increased economic productivity and innovation. It took Singapore only a decade to begin to realize remarkable results!)
2). Visual and audible learning strategies should be profusely embedded into content delivery and into students’ learning experience as a basic standard at ALL levels. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true with abstract subjects such as mathematics.
3). A distinct “layered structure” to curriculum delivery and development, must be embedded into our educational programme. This will result in continual growth and expansion of the content mastered at the foundational knowledge levels. For example, at the university level, the four or five mostly disjointed courses taught each semester should rather be taught conceptually as a single integrated cluster course. This can be achieved through effective collaboration, lesson planning, integrated project assignment and team-teaching among individual course instructors.
4). Educational training in mathematics and science must be clearly aligned with core national/global standards and the strategic developmental objectives of our nation. The Ministry of Education’s role is to ensure that the two remain congruent with each other.
5). Our educational curriculum should be more “concept focused” than “subject focused”. There must be a very strong emphasis on the absolute mastery of a fewer number of critical STEM based concepts, which are all well aligned with our national developmental needs and strategic vision. In short, there should be a focused concentration on a smaller number of highly essential learning concepts rather than the wide focus on a multiplicity of subject areas for the mere sake of “knowledge”. For example, absolute “mastery” of five or six core CXC/CAPE concept areas (which are clearly aligned with our national plans and strategic vision) in a timeline more readily suited to the learning needs of individual students will be of far greater long-term economic value than working hard to “PASS” 10 -16 subjects with distinction in a single year.
In closing, I will confidently say that there is still hope for us as a nation. Though we have missed the boat of past opportunities, we can still catch the ship of future growth and national development. Effective industrial application of STEM-based education can make this elusive dream come true. It can transform us from a nation of consuming IMF dependents to a nation of high-end producers and innovators. Let us focus our collective energies not on quarrelling over differing ideologies, but rather on working together unitedly and steadfastly to realize our VISION 2030 developmental objectives.
May God help us all to this end!