THERE is a story about a family with generations of people baking turkeys in the same way. They always cut the legs off before putting it in the pan to bake. When being taught to a cook turkeys, the youngest generation asked why it is done that way. The parents said they did it that way because their parents did it that way. Unwilling to leave it at that, the youngest generation asked the grandparents why the legs are always cut off. The grandparents said they only did it that way because the pan wasn’t big enough for the whole turkey to fit.
This story illustrates two important points — gaining knowledge without understanding is not true learning and does not make for a solid education. Nor does it make sense to do things in a particular way because it is the way it has always been done. These points are directly related to two issues in The Bahamas that need to be addressed in order for us to progress as a nation.
The Bahamas General Certificate for Secondary Education (BGSCE) examination results are never satisfactory. We are unimpressed by the performance of high school students every year. They spend grades seven through nine preparing for the Bahamas Junior Certificate (BJC) examinations, and grades 10 through 12 preparing for another set of exams that supposedly determine the course of the rest of their lives.
When we talk about the BGCSE results, our focus and disdain is disproportionately on the students when we need to be critical of the practice of testing in this manner and the system within which students are being educated and teachers forced to function.
Rote learning, which is memorisation, is not helpful beyond an assignment or test that requires regurgitation, but it is what we depend on in order to get through large amounts of material in classes with students at varying levels and with very different learning needs. There is no time – and little motivation – to ensure students are able to apply what they are learning. The goal is to get them to the BGCSEs and passing them with grades of C or better. Still, the exam results are far from satisfactory.
According to the Ministry of Education, only six percent of students who took the BGCSEs in 2020 received grades of C or better—the basic requirement for jobs and scholarships. Only 8.22 percent of grades were As, 11.27 percent were Bs, and 26.76 percent were Cs. More than half of the grades awarded were D through G. We are not doing students any favours by testing them in this way, insisting BGCSEs are a reasonable way to not only assess their high school performance, but make decisions about their futures in the long term.
The BGCSEs are flawed in many ways. We can talk about inconsistencies in the curriculum and the way it is taught in different schools, lack of responsiveness to different learning styles, failure to identify conditions that affect learning and unequal access to the exams among other issues. For 2020 in particular, we cannot ignore the chaos of the academic year. It was unreasonable to push students to take the BGCSEs and absurd to expect high grades. Yes, some students do well anyway, but they are obviously in the minority.
The BGCSEs are a source of stress and bring very little reward. The results are consistently disheartening. They make it easy for Bahamians to consider ourselves not only uneducated, but undeserving of anything better than we get. It is commonplace to insult each other and ourselves by referencing the D-average. We have readily accepted underperformance as our identity and the reason we are not progressing at the rate we believe possible. We fail to challenge that D-average—its accuracy and its source. There is no reporting on the number of students who were not allowed to take extended papers, automatically setting an upper grade limit of C. We do not think about the fact that an A-average would not mean much if students are being taught with the goal of passing a set of exams. The proof is in the application.
So what if they can write the instructions for baking a turkey, but what use is that if they don’t know they don’t need to cut off the legs if the pan is big enough? Context matters. Reason matters. Being able to ask questions and think critically matter.
Why can’t we just get real?
Every now and then, complaints about dress codes at government offices arise – and with good reason. The “rules” are both nonsensical and unevenly applied. Some government offices are more stringent (and ridiculous) than others. Ministry of Education on University Drive and the Department of Immigration on Hawkins Hill are well-known for refusing to allow people to enter because of their attire.
For some reason, arms are very offensive to whomever is making and enforcing these “rules”. In The Bahamas, we often say, “It ain’ playin’ hot.” The heat here is no joke. It is not shocking that people opt to wear sleeveless shirts and dresses. It is completely reasonable to wear shorts on a warm day. For some, shorts are a part of their uniforms. It is also normal to wear sandals. Not only that, but some people wear sandals because they meet specific needs related to injuries or medical care. It is foolish and an unacceptable exercise of power to turn people away from government offices because of their attire when they would not get a second look anywhere else.
In 2016, when voter registration was remarkably low, women were turned away from registration stations because their arms, shoulders, or cleavage were visible. This discriminatory practices was not consistent across locations, but was enough to frustrate people who had the right to (register to) vote. The #TooSexyToVote campaign challenged this and those working at registration stations were directed to allow women to register, whether or not their arms, shoulders, or cleavage could be seen.
Still, the discrimination continues at government offices. I remember someone being turned away from the Department of Immigration for wearing a sleeveless shirt, but was allowed to enter when she put a towel around her shoulders. What is the goal here? Is the government trying to force modesty on women? (Yes, the dress codes also impact men; women are disproportionately affected). Is this an ill-conceived form of occupancy control? Is this just another duty to give security guards? How are arms and toes so dangerous that they need to be covered in order for citizens and residents to access the services to which we are entitled and for which we pay?
While the government, through some of its offices, insists arms and shoulders be covered, there is little consequence for people who violate the privacy of others. Last week, a man was given one-year probation for posting nude photos of his estranged wife. Compare and contrast the severity of the situations and the responses to them. People are not allowed to access government services because their arms and toes are visible, and a vindictive person gets probation for sharing explicit photos of another person without their permission.
We need to be able to respond to our reality. We celebrate independence every July, but continue the practices imposed upon us through colonization. From national examinations to modes of address, we continue to force the use of systems and practices that were not designed for us and do not respond to our realities. We have a different pan and the whole turkey will fit. Why are we still cutting off the legs?
In 2021, commit to moving beyond the checking of boxes and mindlessly following procedures. Let’s reconsider the rules and reassess what we have accepted as normal, right, and good. Let’s consider the current context, think about what we want, and let that guide our work to dismantle the archaic and build the future.