Monday, May 23, 2016

Diagnostic Testing of Basic School Children in Jamaica

Rose Davies
          In the past, the curriculum in Jamaican primary schools tended to be knowledge based with an emphasis on factual information to be learnt by rote rather than a learning-how-to-learn approach. The one-size-fits-all method of imparting information does not allow for differences in learning styles and rates by different children. The result of this approach has been that some children get left behind and turned off education, so at the end of 11 years of schooling too many end up with no qualifications. Some drop out of the system without having basic literacy and numeracy skills.
To address this problem, the Ministry of Education introduced the Grade 4 literacy test to identify children not performing at that level. They were required to have mastery in that test before being allowed to take the Grade Six Achievement Test. Because some children did not do so before being of age to enter secondary school, the Alternative Secondary Transitional Education Programme (ASTEP) was introduced. (See my blog post of March 22) It became obvious to those administering ASTEP that an earlier intervention was desirable. Then came GOILP – Grade One Individual Learning Profile, with children who were deemed not ready for Grade 1 being placed in a separate class.
        With the work of the Early Childhood Commission  over the last 10 or more years, there has been a great improvement in the standards of Jamaica’s Basic Schools. The great importance of early childhood education and early detection of learning difficulties has come to be recognized. After several years of preparation, the ECC on May 10 and 11, 2016, administered its first diagnostic testing of 4-year-olds in over 2000 Early Childhood Institutions, with the purpose of finding out whether a child has a specific learning disability or learning disorder with another cause, or even a behavior disorder, so that appropriate interventions can take place at the earliest possible time.  Interventions will be made by Regional Special Needs Coordinators and Regional Assessment Teams consisting of 2 psychologists and 2 diagnosticians. There is ongoing training of teachers in the area of special education. (See my blog post of April 14)

In the Sunday Gleaner of May 22, 2016, Rose Davies expressed her concerns about the methods of testing 4-year-olds, in an article entitled Cautions on Early Childhood Assessment. I share those concerns. I can understand the aim of the Early Childhood Commission that the assessment be as objective as possible, but as Mrs. Davies points out, that is hard to achieve with young children. Surely it would be reasonable to have in addition some subjective assessment also by the teachers who work with these children every day? Mrs. Davies also expressed concern about the absence of public information leading to the rollout of this assessment.
          In an article entitled  Pressure For Primary School Students - Pupils Face Four Prime Tests In Six Years” by Deika Morrison in The Gleaner of April 25, 2012, she wrote: (highlighting is mine).
Deika Morrison
      “The Early Childhood Commission (ECC), mandated to supervise and regulate the early childhood sector, is about to begin working on a national-evaluation tool for four year olds. They need to be evaluated for real readiness in the main developmental areas - gross and fine motor skills (gross means big movements like running, fine means small movements like picking up things with finger), speech, social skills, emotional skills, brain development and their approach to learning.

          According to the ECC, this evaluation tool will be specifically designed for Jamaican children and meant to identify what kind of support children need to go forward in the primary-school system. The idea is to be able to identify, before they enter primary school, which of the three categories children fall into: 1) need no additional support in the regular school environment 2) need additional support in the regular school environment or 3) need a specialised school environment.
           Chance for intervention
           The evaluation will be timed to allow for a full year of intervention for those lagging developmentally, as well as specialised attention if needs be. The bottom line is that four year olds don't need a four-year-old version of GSAT. If we are to get the maximum return for the necessary investment in early childhood education, then we must have appropriate tools - which we agree on as a nation - to identify the problems and deal with them appropriately.
          It is time for child-centric interventions, like evaluations that can best help children. We don't know when the ECC evaluation tool will be implemented, but we know we don't have 18 years to 2030 for all of our children to fully master the basics.”

In addition to carrying out diagnostic tests with the best of intentions, the ECC and MOE need to educate parents on the purpose of the testing – it is not to label a child as dumb or bright, nor is it to punish a child who performs poorly in a test. It is to find out the best way of helping children to learn and to grow up to become productive, healthy, well-adjusted members of society.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cruising to Montego Bay and Skagway - the fortunes of 2 railway lines

Remains of Railway Station at Catadupa
Jamaica boasts the first railway line to be built outside Europe and North America. It began with a 15 mile stretch in 1845. In the 1890's extensions were carried through difficult country to Montego Bay and Port Antonio. However, it was closed to the public in 1992, because of recurring losses, a backlog of deferred maintenance and deterioration of stock and buildings. An attempt to reopen it to the public was made in 2011, but the trial period indicated that it would again be a loss-making venture, so it was closed in 2012.  Only the lines used by bauxite trains are still in service. Could the railway ever succeed in breaking even? Mike Henry, Transport Minister in the recently elected JLP administration, thinks so.

     Prior to its closure, a tourist attraction called the Governor's Coach, travelled by rail from Montego Bay up into the hills through Anchovy, Montpelier and  Cambridge to Catadupa, where you could choose fabric for a dress, be measured and pick up the dress on your return journey.
 The next stop at Ipswich was long enough for you to go and explore the caves. Then there was a gradual descent to Maggotty, and the final stop was Appleton, where lunch was served. I believe it was also possible to include the Appleton Estate Rum Factory Tour which is now accessed by road.
After lunch, you returned to Montego Bay seeing the spectacular scenery from a different perspective. The distance one way is 36 miles.

Another railway frequented by cruise ship passengers is that from Skagway, in Alaska, to White Pass and Yukon, completed in 1900 in response to a Gold Rush, which was soon over. However, the White Pass and Yukon Route  survived by diversifying to encompass wharves, hotels, aircraft, buses, pipelines, trucks and ships. In 1955 it pioneered the 'Container Route' moving containers by ship, train and truck. In spite of these innovations, it shut down as a fully integrated transport company in 1982, only to reopen as a tourist attraction in 1988.
In winter, Skagway has a population of 800, which swells to 2000 in the summer. The number of cruisers for 2016 is projected to be 791, 260 on a total of 29 ships, making 389 ports of call. The largest number of ports of call by any ship was 22, representing 22 weeks from mid-April to mid-September, the weather being unfavorable for the rest of the year. The primary attraction for cruisers in Skagway is the railway.  
Train negotiating a curve and a steep incline
The railway climbs to a height of 2,865 feet over a distance of 20.4 miles.
Bridal Veil Falls
There are many waterfalls fed by snow melt.
Steel Bridge
Constructed in 1901, the steel bridge was the  tallest cantilever bridge in the world. Since 1969, a replacement bridge has been used.
Skagway and Lynn  Canal in the distance
Lynn Canal is part of the inside passage of the Pacific Ocean.

The views from the railway in Jamaica are no less spectacular. The branch from Montego Bay to Anchovy climbs to a height of about 2000 ft in 7 miles.
Many cruise ship and other visitors would probably be interested in taking a scenic train ride as an alternative to travelling the whole way by road to several tourist attractions.
These include Croydon in the Mountains, near Catadupa:

YS Falls, 5 miles from Maggotty, is a nature-based attraction consisting of seven waterfalls, cascading into natural pools surrounded by lush gardens and magnificent trees. You can take a canopy ride above the falls as well as swimming in the pools.
YS Falls

One of the natural pools where you can swim at YS
In Maggotty itself is the Apple Valley Water Park, which is a popular venue for school visits and could be accessed by train from Kingston. 
Apple Valley Water Park
In Appleton, there is Appleton Rum Factory Tour.

Could the railway become financially viable by including 'Tourist Attraction' to its other functions, i.e. carrying bauxite, public transport, and transport of goods (the newly opened highway has not proved to be ideal for trucks carrying heavy loads as sections of it are too steep). 
Jamaica had an average of about 1.4 million cruise ship visitors to the ports of Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios in 2013 and 2014, and more are projected for 2016, in addition to 2 million stop-over visitors, making a total of 3.4 million, more than 4 times the number visiting Skagway. Of course, there are many more attractions available to tourists, all of whom would not be interested in taking a trip by rail. However, with proper maintenance of the railway and marketing it as an attraction, I think this is an opportunity which could be explored.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Learning Disorders - The Struggle is Real Part 3

This is the 3rd of 3 posts I am writing about a Symposium “Learning Disorders – the Struggle is Real” put on by the Association of Future Psychologists (AFP), a service club at the Western Campus of the University of the West Indies. In my first post I wrote about Dr. Ann Shaw-Salmon’s presentation on “Our Journey with ASTEP”; and in my second about Mr. Karl Watson’s talk about what the MOE is doing to address the needs of students with learning disorders. In my final post I examine the nature of some of these disorders as explained by Ms. Georgia Rose and Dr. Susaye Rattigan.
Before these two speakers, AFP showed a second video in which they asked students on campus:
“Should children with learning difficulties be in special schools?” Several students opined that they should be. 
“How would you feel if your child were in a class with a child with a learning disorder?” Students expressed the opinion that the child with a learning disorder would take a disproportionate amount of the teacher’s time.
“What steps would you take if your child had a learning disorder?” Students said that they would try to get the best possible help for their child.
          Ms. Georgia Rose is the coordinator of Undergraduate Psychology Programmes at UWIWC. She specializes in learning disorders and works at Cornwall Regional Hospital. She has an MA from UWI and is interested in developmental disorders. She addressed the questions raised in the students’ video and gave examples from her own experience. She referred to DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which offers a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. The focus of this symposium was on learning disorders, namely dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers). However, these learning disorders don’t exist in isolation. A child who has difficulty learning to read is often labelled as ‘dunce’ by other children. He knows he’s not dunce in other respects, doesn’t know why he’s having this difficulty, but would prefer to be called ‘bad’ than ‘dunce’.
Andre, 15 year-old, grade 9, semi-literate (about grade 3), told Ms. Rose, “No matter how hard I try, I never seem to get it. Everything is a mess. Sometimes it look clear and another time me cannot mek it out … me rather be bad bwoy than dunce bwoy.” Hence, the learning disability gives rise to behavior problems. Parents are distressed when children are not learning and may punish them, even using corporal punishment.
The cause of learning disorders are thought to be abnormalities in the way the neurons connect to each other in the brain, or in the functioning of the chemicals in the brain. The result is that individuals have problems receiving, processing or communicating information in the same way as other children. The reasons for these abnormalities include biological, psychological and social conditions. Among the biological conditions are genetic causes, problems during pregnancy or birth, general medical conditions, seizures and nutrition. Psychological causes include exposure to early trauma; neglect; emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Social conditions include socioeconomic status and reduced access to interventions.

Statistics show that more boys than girls; and more children from the lower socioeconomic strata suffer from learning disabilities. Reading difficulty is the more prevalent disorder in the English speaking world. To me, this is not surprising, as so many rules of phonics cannot be applied. You pronounce ‘ough’ differently in each of the following words: dough, plough, through, rough and cough! Whereas in Spanish phonics can be relied on to decode words. The following idea was not mentioned in the Symposium, but it would probably help many Jamaican children to learn to read in Jamaican Creole, whose written form is entirely phonetic and whose grammar and syntax is familiar to the children.

Ms. Rose posed the questions, “Whose responsibility it is to provide education for children with learning disabilities? The public or private sector? Would we be prepared to pay more taxes for these children to be taught in special schools?” In regular schools, children with learning disabilities tend to be preyed upon, but it is more cost-effective to teach them in regular schools in pull-out classrooms for some of the time.
Labelling these children as disabled is unfortunate, as they are not unable, they are differently abled. Many dyslectics are gifted artists, singers (e.g. Harry Belafonte) and actors (e.g. Tom Cruise). Children’s author and book illustrator, Patricia Polacco, describes her own struggles with dyslexia in her book “Thank you, Mr. Falker” – the teacher who recognized her problem and helped her.  (It is known that 1 in 7 persons in the USA has some kind of learning disorder. ) Ms. Rose’s final appeal was that none of us should discriminate.

          Dr. Susaye Rattigan, a clinical psychologist, had an interactive session with us up and singing before she started her address. Her main theme was that we are all learn differently and that the “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work. She reminded us that the term ‘Learning Disability’ doesn’t include those who have learning problems resulting from visual, hearing or motor handicaps, mental retardation, emotional disturbance or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage. However, a detailed interview with a psychologist is necessary for a diagnosis. Whatever the reasons for children’s failure to learn at school, we should be moving towards an empathetic understanding of children’s problems.
     Dr. Rattigan recounted the story of Thomas Edison, who, on his last day of formal schooling, was given a note which read, “Your son is an idiot. Keep him at home.” His mother told him that the letter said that he was too brilliant to be taught at that school and that she should home-school him, which she did.
     Dr. Rattigan reminded us of the quote attributed to Einstein:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This was to illustrate the idea that a learning disability is not a disability but a different ability.
          A change in environment may be needed. She gave the example of a little girl brought to her because she couldn’t talk, which was hardly surprising since she was brought up by a deaf-mute grandmother and a mother who barely spoke. In spite of reservations, the girl’s mother followed Dr. Rattigan’s advice to send her to school. A year later, they couldn’t stop her talking! There is a natural inclination of us all to learn, but we aren’t meant to be alike. We should teach in the way that a child wants to learn, whether that is through books, art, movement or any other medium. We were challenged to try to see the world as a dyslexic child would. A question and answer session followed Dr. Rattigan’s address.
I would like to thank the Association of Future Psychologists for putting on this symposium and inviting me to attend. I apologize for  taking so long to complete the blogs, but better late than never!