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Saturday 20 July 2019
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Education system barriers to learning


Part 1

MOST EDUCATION systems express a desire to ensure that learning takes place in school settings. Our own Ministry of Education here in Trinidad and Tobago has a tagline that espouses “Excellence in Education.” Yet, with this lofty ideal and the second largest portion of the annual budgetary pie, there are still large numbers of students exiting the school system who lack basic skills. How can this be?

It is often very easy to blame the school and teachers; however, if we are to make any headway into addressing the learning crisis mentioned in last week’s article towards realising the promise of education, then we need to be more critically analytical of the education system. We will need to identify the system barriers and address them in meaningful ways.

With a continued eye on the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report (WDR), over the next few weeks we will present system barriers identified in the report. An important caveat is necessary at this point before we continue.

This article is in no way an endorsement of the WDR; nonetheless, if we are to make any progress in addressing problems that plague our education system, we must also be willing to consider the various vantage points in arriving at a win-win solution.

After all, promoting the cause of education, that is ensuring that the education system is able to realise learning for all, is a call that we can all rally around in spite of the side of the divide on which we sit respectively. All system actors must be willing to engage meaningfully to create the education system we desire.

In identifying the barriers to learning, the WDR utilised a systems approach as its unit of analysis. What does this mean? A systems approach recognises that the education system is made up of a “collection of institutions, actions and processes that affect the educational status of citizens in the short and long run.”

Moreover, there are also a large number of actors involved (teachers, parents, politicians, bureaucrats and civil society organisations). These actors interact with each other for different reasons, with these interactions being “governed by rules, beliefs and behavioural norms that affect how actors react and adapt to changes in the system.”

Using a systems approach that takes into account the interactions between various parts of the system allows us to understand how these parts work together to “drive system outcomes, instead of focusing on specific elements in isolation.”

To illustrate: earlier it was mentioned that student failure is often ascribed to what schools or teachers fail to do. However, how often do we ask questions such as, “Were schools supplied with all the resources needed to meet the expected outcomes prescribed by the Ministry of Education? What learning support systems were put in place to assist teachers who work with children with needs requiring additional support? What systems do we have in place to identify the challenges faced by children so that appropriate interventions can be implemented to address these needs?”

The point is, focusing on one element without considering its interaction with other parts of the system will not give us the whole picture.

Moreover, we all recognise the complexity of education systems. This is particularly pertinent in our own system here at home which has been merged into one large amalgam of services from early childhood to tertiary. The result of this is the simultaneous pursuit of many objectives coupled with many different actors which can muddy the waters, making it difficult to identify the broad changes that are required to ensure the adoption of practices to improve learning sustainably. The adoption of a systems approach will help in this regard.

So, according to the WDR, what are the factors that are impeding learning in education systems? For now, we will identify the broad categories, details of which will be explored in subsequent articles.

* Misalignment and incoherence across four elements: learning objectives and responsibilities, information on metrics, finance, and incentives.

* Technical complexities which make it hard to align education systems with learning. In addressing these complexities, the report points to what it describes as three characteristics of complex education systems – opaqueness, stickiness, and a lack of internal capacity.

These will be further explored at a later date.

A cautionary note: our examination of the findings of this report is not an endorsement.

To be continued next week

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