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Ready to learn

For some time now I have noticed that several of the exceptional (first class) students at the UWI had not previously attended the supposedly “top” performing schools. By this I mean, the schools that everyone makes a big fuss about when their child or ward completes the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE) or the “Eleven Plus”.

Now don’t get me wrong, if you have a child who displays first-rate skills and abilities from an early age, they have every right to be allowed to attend a school that would facilitate his/her prowess. However, I cannot help but wonder if the 11-Plus was being administered at an age when several children are not quite ready. By ready, I mean that some children may not be physically or psychologically ready to take the test at such an early age.

So, I decided to do some primary research among a sample of several young people who attend the UWI. Some of the questions were as follows: (1) Should the BSSEE continue to be administered at age 11? (2) What would you suggest would be an appropriate replacement age or time for administering the test? (3) Do you believe that rigorous preparation for this test deprives the child of its childhood?

I was most surprised that approximately 75 per cent of the young people between the age of 18 and 35 responded that they strongly believe that most children are not ready to take BSSEE at age 11. They also added that because most parents want their son/daughter to perform well in this exam, they send them to lots of lessons from as early as six or seven years old.

In addition, about 60 per cent believed that the rigid attention to lessons essentially robs the child of their childhood and a chance to develop the early creative skills since there is hardly any time for play. More importantly, 50 per cent or more believed that since they had to attend so many lessons they did not have a chance develop interpersonal skills or learn to share toys and play as many games.

Equally important about 70 per cent believe that children should be allowed to have more than one chance to enter high school. Given these responses I decided to do some secondary research on readiness. So the article this week is about learning as it relates to Thorndike’s law of readiness.

An article in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggested that the school curriculum should consider the varying degrees of maturity and experience each student has before they expose them to certain learning activities.

At the same time, these learning activities should be geared towards the student’s needs and not the other way around and should be based on the child’s level of understanding. This seems to mean that the age of the child is not the measure of his/her abilities but their ability to perform certain functions determines the level of readiness (Thorndike, 1948, vol. 39(3).

Moreover, according to Thorndike, if the student is forced to perform a task at too early an age they will not be receptive to learning and hence will not perform at their fullest potential. In fact, he suggested that the student would get disinterested or find the tasks frustrating and hence would be unwilling to learn. On the other hand, if the student is ready they will complete assigned tasks successfully (Thorndike, 1948).

Certainly, I am not the only person who knows about Thorndike’s law of readiness — any Erdiston-trained teacher knows about this. Yet it boggles my mind why something has not been done about this before. I suppose we are waiting for someone from “over and away” to come and tell us what is a feasible alternative and be paid large sums of our valuable money before we make the necessary changes within our education system. By the way, the 11-Plus was abolished in England almost 30 years ago, can I dare suggest that we take some strategies from their model?

You may ask, why am I so concerned about this. Well it has come to my attention that although we have had free education in Barbados from 1961, which is over 50 years ago, there are still many people born within this time period who appear to be unable to read or write or even comprehend simple written information. Several examples abound which I do not want to ventilate in this forum.

However, here are two examples I will share with you. A friend who recently visited a polyclinic reported that some young people could not spell the names of their children when asked by the administrative staff. But they were very swift to resort to disorderly conduct at the slightest opportunity.

Another example was observed on a trip to one commercial bank where each customer whose bank card was due to expire within a short time was required to complete a change form. Almost all of the customers had to queue to obtain assistance in completing the simple straightforward form.

This is not all, only recently I was notified that more than half of the inmates in our penal institution were under the age of 30 and appeared to be unable to read and in some cases write legibly but had previously attended secondary schools.

It seems to me that there is some disconnect between what is being taught at school and the student’s ability to learn. Could it be that the material is of no interest or were they not physically or psychologically ready at the time they were required to take the test?

We often hear educators make comments like “children will learn at different levels due to different backgrounds and skill sets”. Yet we expect them to be ready at the same age. There is ample evidence that suggests that our current system is not effective.

If students are not ready it means that we need to revisit the requirements of the BSSEE. The point is we have two choices: (1) We can either look to expand on our new penal compound which we know has just cost tax payers “a tonne” of money; or (2) We can restructure the requirements of the BSSEE by providing varying age requirements.

For instance, instead of determining that each child will be ready for secondary level learning at age 11, we can give them more than one opportunity.

Here are some of the suggestions that UWI students made in relation to this. Since everyone knows that all children are not ready at the same age the Ministry of Education could try a tier system where some children take the test at age ten, or eleven, or twelve or even 13.

Another suggestion was the reimplementation of a senior school at most of the primary schools to accommodate those students who need more time or have the potential for non-academic capabilities. This would perhaps prevent parents from forcing their children to participate in lessons at too early an age and perhaps create some pride in non-academic skills which seems to be a dying art form in our country.

Finally, not being ready could perhaps account for the lack of social and interpersonal skills that are emerging among the youth. Take for instance group projects, it appears as if many students lack the ability to share or get along with each other long enough to complete a project with a completion date of less than three months. This should be some cause for concern for future generations and their quality of life.

The inability to get along with each other could mean that there is a growing sense of resentment which we all know underpins increased criminal activity. Should I dare to suggest that this behaviour could be linked to a growing selfish society with poor value systems? No wonder grandparents/parents are being abandoned at institutions around the island. Let us revisit our methods of teaching. Could this be the root cause? Are our children ready at age 11? Or do they need more time to understand the world around them?

Let’s give them another chance at an early age instead of pleading for it before there are about to enter and after they have left prison.

Until next time…

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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