Although Bermuda and the world are consumed, rightly, with the Covid-19 crisis now, it will come to an end, and at that time other problems and policy issues facing Bermuda will return.
One such issue is education, and more particularly, public education, for which the Government was just beginning to embark on serious reform consideration before the crisis intervened.
Nonetheless, especially with children’s education being dramatically disrupted now, questions of what the reforms should look like and, even more fundamentally, what education should be for are more urgent now than ever.
There are many, and not only in the business world, who see education primarily as preparation for the workforce; quite simply, whenever people finish their formal education, they should be ready to enter a job or career, and the education systems should, as much as possible, direct people to where the jobs are or are likely to be in the future.
That this should be part of education is of course inarguable. Teaching students the right skills to be successful in the workplace and to be placed to help the economy to grow is critical for any community, but especially for a small island like Bermuda, which is already dependent on overseas labour and faces a demographic crunch in which retirees will take up more and more of the workforce.
So it is indeed essential that the school system and the Bermuda College should work closely with employers to ensure the skills that are of most importance in the workplace are being taught, and that, for example, children are encouraged to train for, say, IT, even if their main ambition is to be a professional footballer. Clearly there will be more demand for computer technicians and programmers than there will be for Premier League stars.
But while distinctions such as that are fairly obvious, the truth is that no one really knows what the future workplace will look like in Bermuda or elsewhere. In 1980, school guidance counsellors might have advised a bright young teenager thinking about what to study in university to pursue hotel management; Bermuda’s tourism industry was at its peak, after all. But if that student decided to study insurance or finance, they might well be grateful today. In the past 40 years, tourism has shrunk dramatically while the re/insurance world exploded in Bermuda.
Better, perhaps, to ensure that Bermudian students are equipped for a variety of jobs given that people are more and more likely to change careers several times over their lifetimes, and need the basic skills that can be transferred from one to another.
To that extent, just some of the skills that will be useful, regardless of profession, include:
• Critical thinking
• Fact-based decision-making
• A basic understanding of computers
• Effective communication
Certainly at some point, almost everyone has to specialise to some extent, whether it is to become a first-class plumber or an airplane pilot. But that plumber or pilot may well also have to manage and lead a business — either for themselves or for others — and they need to have the skills to do that well, too.
But education should also be about more than job preparation. The skills above can also be applied to good citizenship, which is as or more critical in a democracy. When people choose their governments and the policies by which they will be governed, they need to be as well informed as possible.
They need to know enough, and to be confident enough in their own knowledge and judgment, not to be swayed by charlatans and sweet-talkers or by those who seek to use differences between people for their own advantage.
In these days of social media and “fake news” they also need to know what they don’t know in order to take advice and leadership from those who do. If nothing else, the Covid-19 crisis should teach us that — are you going to listen to Donald Trump or Anthony Fauci, MD, who has studied epidemics for his whole life?
Recently, the Government appeared to hint that, as it embarks on education reform, it is moving away from the idea of pure signature and specialised schools, although it still plans to return to some form of a two-tier system.
If that’s true, it is to be welcomed; expecting 11 or 12-year-olds to start narrowing their choices is a bad idea, not only because they are too young but for the reasons given above — most students today will have more than one career and a great many will have several.
Some of these realities and considerations are included in Plan 2022, which contains a great deal of research and thought. But like many plans and reports, the vision described in the document and the final result can often be quite different as ideals collide with political and economic realities.
What is more important are two ideas.
The first is that today education is arguably less about what you learn, but about how you learn, so facilities, curriculums and all the rest matter less than the quality of teaching, which is also the one factor in education that the Government can really influence. It cannot necessarily make better parents or dramatically change the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students the public school system is obliged by law to teach.
But it can recruit, train and incentivise better teachers, and this is where it should put its focus. Too often, discussions on this area focus on the difficulties of taking poor teachers out of the system. That’s important, but much more can be done to recognise, reward and promote good teachers, including encouraging them to stay in the classroom rather than seek promotion because that’s where the better pay and conditions are.
The second idea follows on from the first. This is an area of some controversy, but there is considerable weight to the idea that students have different learning styles. Some thrive in a structured, academic, lecture-style, traditional structure while others do better if they are “learning by doing”.
Some, especially those with short attention spans, would do better with shorter classes and more activities. Others thrive in quiet contemplation.
The Covid-19 crisis has also kick-started another element of this — perhaps there is a bigger role for home-based distance learning, although it also runs the risk of further disadvantaging poorer children for whom access to computers and the internet is already limited.
In part, the explosion in the number of homeschools and alternative forms of education, is a result of the public education system — and with a few exceptions, the private-school system does this even more — teaching in the traditional way and having great difficulty in varying this approach.
There is nothing wrong with the traditional approach, or even with a system that is primarily directed towards examinations and final assessments — even though this approach has almost nothing to do with the way the adult world really works — but the Ministry of Education, faced with plummeting numbers, should ask itself the business-world question as it rethinks the education: Is the education system it delivers now the one the community needs?
Since the answer to that is probably no, then our educators and their advisers should spend as much time as necessary deciding just what it is that Bermuda needs, rather than feel the need to meet an artificial deadline on the way. And, of course, they have a sound reason for delay — the Covid-19 crisis.