Post 415.

SCHOOL started back this week. I watched Ziya on her first day, following the teacher on her computer, thinking her energy seemed like she had already had enough. I couldn’t blame her. It’s a pandemic and she’s been isolated at home, doing school by herself in our living room for 13 months. Her energy felt like it could start strong, but would surely run down. Looking on, I thought I need a strategy to get her through the next two and a half months of homework, assessments and scaling up of preparation for SEA next year. 

Her marks dropped last term, but so did her class average, and I wondered how to respond. Does quarrelling work? Does that actually motivate? Is there even a magic formula? Is it about more lessons? We went for the long talk about working hard to be proud of yourself, and developing good habits to do well. She’d been through a lot of changes in her family, and had gone through various stages of managing, and it would only be normal for everything to which she had to adapt to have had some impact. 

She was doing everything she should for school, but seemed disconnected from it, like she was attentive, but on automatic while there. Perhaps, not learning among other children left her less motivated. Perhaps it has been harder to separate her school-self from herself at home. I have adult students saying how much harder it is to study without UWI’s library to go to. I’m tired teaching students over a computer and I imagine her just as tired of learning from a screen all day. Perhaps, she is just ten and these are unusual circumstances and this is her best. 

As parents, we are all negotiating the balance between our children’s emotional and mental health, their individual strengths and challenges, and the demand to step up to what school exams still require. I’m thinking about the students writing SEA in two weeks, and the stress even their parents must be feeling. How much to push in a pandemic, and with what costs to our children? I’m thinking about how I’m functioning less well, without quite knowing why. I also think my university students are barely keeping up. 

Studies conducted over 2020 around the world suggest that the home confinement of children is associated with uncertainty, depression and anxiety resulting from disruption in their education, physical activities and opportunities for socialisation. Children are more bored and less engaged. We may miss the signs of covid19’s impact on them. In a Save the Children study of 1,127 students in Latin America and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and El Salvador), four out of ten children indicated that they needed counselling.

Alternatively, I’ve also seen children Ziya’s age spend vastly more time on their devices, playing games for hours and unable to socialise without them. Now that children are on their computers, phones or tablets, with internet access, they are also on various apps much more, all of which are designed to keep them watching, checking, scrolling or playing. 

These devices have likely helped them to cope, but I think they are also rewiring their brains. This generation is the youngest to have such access ever in the world and, as the Social Dilemma on Netflix shows, there are costs. We cut Roblox after Zi wanted to spend time just to keep up with the children who were playing more hours than her, and socialising there as well. The less she played, the less she seemed to have in common, and all that required adjustment too. We purposely got her outside as much as possible, and off her screen, so that the cumulative impact of being in front a device all day could be reduced. 

A year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I proposed in this column that maybe we should opt out of trying to achieve as normal, recognising that children may be holding it together just as we are, but may just be going through the motions, connecting in and out, as it feels that my own students at university are similarly doing. I want to be sensitive to what is happening even as I want both my students and Zi to learn. I’m looking at her on the first day of school, and wondering about the best approach to both her marks and her mental health as well as her school motivation and social relationships over the rest of the term.

Post 395.

SEA results last week were an unwanted wake-up call. Until now, before Ziya started Junior 4, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to school. She always did well enough, though there was room to improve. She was well behaved even if dreamy in class. She was always creative, curious, conversational and observant, and I was never worried. Mostly, I wanted her to be happy.

For me, childhood is a time for emotional, ethical and social development, for less homework and more play or extracurricular activities. I would have home-schooled if I could and dreamed of a school where learning was a joy, not experienced as pressure or terror. Having had mostly average marks until I began university, I also believed Zi would excel when she found her passion and was ready. You have to trust each child to grow in her or his own way. Children are not cogs in a machine.

I was clearly being naïve, and only just woke up to the reality of the SEA machine. One that sorts those kept in the system from those flung to the floor, however unfair its process or conclusion.

There’s so much to say about this exam, from children’s tears when they don’t get into their first choice school (as so many won’t), to the narrow testing of learning styles that will always limit our assessment of their intelligence, to the 20 per cent list built on a clique of religious or familial contacts, to the confusion of parents when similar exam marks result in very different school placements because these are shaped by convoluted and obscure metrics.

There were so many parents who had to convince disappointed children they were still smart and well-rounded, that they knew their work better than one exam on one day showed, and that there was still reason to be proud. It was a little heartbreaking to see children’s shame after trying so hard. I realised that to try to protect Zi from that, momentum begins now.

So enters the juggernaut of after-school lessons. Lessons teachers are booked already, two years before the exam. Many students will drop everything for lessons seven days a week in the months before. You can barely find any lessons teachers available if you wait until Junior 5. It’s like the system slowly pulls you in if you want to survive. That’s the reality I’m now preparing for, wondering how to do my job and make the much-needed revision time on afternoons, whether after-school activities will still be possible, and whether the decisions I’ll make will be the right ones.

We consider SEA to be an opportunity to learn resilience in anticipation of the difficulties of the real world, and a hard lesson in why and how to beat books. Months of practice tests won’t make students smarter, but they do set the foundation for future skills in writing exams. In some schools, teachers will provide extra lessons for their classes for free. Others, crossing inequalities of income, will search around for ones they can afford. Others will try on the basis of what our public education system provides, both its good and bad, its teachers who empower and those who insult, its schools with connectivity and those without. We will see the impact of this year of covid19 in SEA results as much as two years from now.

I’m writing this because I’m noting how my own teaching and learning philosophy is compelled to shift. There’s a technique to excelling in these life-shaping moments, and drilling and repetition is key. I don’t think this is what connects children to their own self-esteem or humanity, or see their place as stewards of our nation’s ecology. Some become unable to cope with the stress or get bawl up week after week for not hitting the marks they need.

The threat of failure casts a long shadow, though many do come through and thrive. Often, they arrive at university with fears of making mistakes or speaking out, and a need for detailed instructions rather than a capacity to work things out for themselves, and must develop a whole new skill set for self-directed learning, collaboration, and solution-focused thinking.

I’m also tracing the SEA story backward, like bread crumbs, two years before the highest marks make front page and students’ placement becomes public record. Amidst budget debates, if you talk to parents struggling with results as well as those beginning to gear up, concerns are really about their children’s lives.

Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.