An interview…education & learning

First Published: 2003-01-27

The Nassau Institute continues to have concerns about the results of the educational system and recently interviewed Mr. Maurice Marwood to solicit his observations on this vexing problem. Mr. Marwood is President and Chief Operating Officer of Atlantic Equipment and Power Limited, a well-established Bahamian business establishment. Mr. Marwood has over 25 years of international experience with a variety of business organizations throughout the world, including Canada, the USA, Asia, Africa and Europe. During the last five years in The Bahamas, he has gained first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing this country as it prepares to deal with the global economy. Here is what he had to say:

NI: Speaking of challenges, what would you identify as the most significant one facing The Bahamas as it prepares for trade liberalization and the global economy?

MM: During my five years living and working in The Bahamas we have been continually encouraged and admonished to provide training for our employees to advance their knowledge and understanding of the latest technology, and to prepare them for a better future. This we have done to a considerable extent, and continue to do so. However, in the process I have discovered it is not training we need — it is learning.

NI: What do you mean by that?

MM: Unfortunately, we have discovered — much to our chagrin — that too many bright, intelligent high school graduates (males, especially) can't learn because they can't read and write effectively. After conducting much training without much evidence of learning, we confirmed our suspicions with professional testing. Needless to say, we found this to be very disappointing and frustrating. Other experiences have served to verify the extent of this tragic situation. We have been approached by public school administrators to help provide grades two and three reading texts so they can teach grades eleven and twelve students how to read. We have also been asked to help provide copies of the well-known program "Hooked on Phonics" to accomplish the same objective. It seems the Ministry of Education will not approve the purchase of these teaching materials for a high school. Therefore, some public school administrators and PTA Associations seek private funding — and try to do it in a way that does not raise awareness of the problem. I guess some think that if they don't acknowledge the problem, it doesn't exist!

NI: What do you believe are the most significant consequences of this situation on Bahamian society?

MM: We are all familiar with the work of the SAFE BAHAMAS organization and its efforts to reduce the crime problem. Their work is commendable, but I am convinced that illiteracy is the main factor contributing to crime in The Bahamas. It should be no surprise that Fox Hill Prison is full of strong, bright, intelligent young men when we realize that crime may be the only profession that does not require reading and writing as a prerequisite!

NI: But how can basic reading and writing be a problem when the official literacy rate in The Bahamas is very high? Where’s the contradiction?

MM: I am familiar with the high official literacy rate–as judged by the number of High School certificates awarded. But that means nothing if a high percentage of those certificate holders are effectively illiterate because they have never been taught properly to read and write. And one is not taught to read and write in high school – students are supposed to learn this in primary school by grade six. It is a well-established fact that most newspapers throughout the world are written at a grade six reading level. That means that all primary school graduates should be able to pick up a newspaper, read it, understand it and tell you what they read in their own words. I wonder how many of our primary school students can do that? I strongly suspect that many, if not most attending the primary public schools cannot do it. This is a very easy test to administer, and I would love to be proven wrong with honest professionally administered testing of all grade six students. If they can’t read and write effectively by grade six, they will have great difficulty advancing through higher grades. This inevitably results in either dropping out of school or being pushed through grade after grade with a serious handicap that will inevitably catch up with them when they get out in the real world and try to find a good job. Organizations like Project Read does excellent work with little funding to help a few adults overcome this handicap, but by then, it is far too late for most of them. Does anybody care?

NI: What, in your opinion, can be done about this situation?

MM: The first step is to get beyond denial and acknowledge the problem exists. Then, perhaps we could seriously investigate the extent of the problem. Let’s determine an honest effective literacy rate of all Bahamian primary students. We should also conduct a study to determine the extent to which it contributes to the crime problem. It would be easy to determine the literacy rate of the inmates at Fox Hill, for example, and from that we could draw some significant conclusions. It should be high up on SAFE BAHAMAS agenda, as well as the agenda of most other benevolent organizations. By what I see, it seems most of these organizations are mainly concerned about making people feel good instead of giving them the tools for living. At the very least, the problem should get the same attention, support and funding as does Junkanoo. I know Junkanoo is a wonderful national celebration, but what does it do to prepare young people to earn a decent living and support their families? Giving them the ability to learn should be at least as important.

NI: Let’s go back to the issue of Trade Liberalization. How do you think the literacy of the Bahamian young people will impact the country’s ability to cope with FTAA and globalization in general?

MM: It is ridiculous to think The Bahamas will ever be able to cope with the WTO, the FTAA or to develop a so-called high-tech industry until most of the children can read effectively in primary school. I believe this is an urgent matter. If it is not dealt with soon, many Bahamians will be marginalized and dislocated by the global economy as it begins to touch this country in a significant way. And I don't have to tell you what will happen to the crime statistics when that begins to happen. In fact, I believe it has already begun. My international experiences have familiarized me with the country of Singapore, and it is interesting to compare that country to The Bahamas — as many have done in the past. Singapore and The Bahamas are quite similar in some ways, and quite different in others. For example, they are both small and have no natural resources. However, unlike The Bahamas, Singapore is a very wealthy country primarily because their society and culture and population place a very high priority on a good advanced education for all. It is time The Bahamas adopted a similar priority. Reducing the crime problem would be an immediate benefit. There would be many others, such as a dramatic improvement in productivity, which will be mandatory for this country to deal effectively with trade liberalization. There has been much talk recently about the importance of productivity, but it is hopeless to think there will any significant improvement until all our children can read and write well when they graduate from primary school.

NI: On behalf of the Nassau Institute, I would like to thank you for sharing your ideas and concerns with us. In closing, how would you like to summarize our discussion?

MM: First, let’s stop talking about training and start talking about learning. Learning does not automatically follow training. We hear lots of rhetoric about what the problems are and why they exist. But we see very little action dealing with their root causes and implementing solutions. The literacy problem is simple, and teaching primary school students to read and write is easy. All we have to do is to decide it is important and focus on it, even if it means less time and attention to other, more esoteric subjects. It used to be that way. When I was in primary school, very little time was spent on other subjects until we could read and write well. I thank my teacher for that every day, and she was only a high school graduate with a two-month summer school teaching certificate. But she understood that knowing how to read and write well was necessary to learn all other subjects. Educated young people have a future; uneducated young people do not. And, in my opinion, an early education means only one thing — the ability to learn. And the ability to learn requires only one thing — the ability to read and write well at a young age. It gives a child a sense of control over their life, and offers many healthy alternatives, which I believe the vast majority of young people will chose if they have that option. If they can’t read and write well by grade six, many of those healthy options begin to go away. The challenge is at the primary school level, not at COB. Let's get started.

NI: Thank you.

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