Caribbean schooling ignores the biology of learning

Elizabeth Christian and Dajaun Robinson work in a refurbished classroom. Guidance counsellor Camile Swapp says Caribbean governments do not take into sufficient consideration the biological factors behind the teaching and learning of boys and girls. - Anthony Minott/Freelance Photographer
Elizabeth Christian and Dajaun Robinson work in a refurbished classroom. Guidance counsellor Camile Swapp says Caribbean governments do not take into sufficient consideration the biological factors behind the teaching and learning of boys and girls. – Anthony Minott/Freelance Photographer

Camile Swapp, Guest Columnist

As a guidance counsellor recently returning to my economically challenged homeland, Jamaica, from relatively affluent Trinidad & Tobago, I am moved to reflect on some of the similarities in our old British/Caribbean ideological stance vis-à-vis schooling practices.

I am especially concerned with the determination of what is brilliance, or ‘brightness’, and how it has impacted and continues to impact the learning potential of our young people who will later be adjusting to taking on adult societal roles.

Both of these Caribbean territories, clearly passionate about education, celebrate the virtues of their school systems, yet are discontented with many of their thinkers, leaders, and the high levels of criminality, violence and deviance among our young, especially our boys. These countries have one significant commonality in their ‘cookie-cut’ filtering out of the so-called ‘bright’ from the so-called ‘lazy’ learners, by way of one-time Caribbean exams, from as early as the primary years.

I have been engaged in much reading in the area of brain development in children and their developmental needs, along with classroom observations. I have also had interactions with school staff, parents, children, and have hosted conferences on child and adolescent development for all stakeholders in the Trinidad & Tobago school system with renowned keynote speakers: Dr David Elkind and Dr Jane Healy, giants in the field of children’s development and neuropsychology.

I now feel compelled to encourage adults to think deeply about their bias regarding the structure of schooling and assessment of our Caribbean children, as inherited from our colonial past.


Dr Elkind, scientist now in his 70s who raised three sons, was deeply saddened and amazed that, in spite of all the research on brain and children’s development, Trinidad & Tobago was still using a single assessment tool, ‘the British old Eleven-Plus Exam influenced by controversial Sir Cyril Burt’ (known as Common Entrance/ SEA/GSAT) to determine whether a child at the end of primary level, attaining a certain average, is to be given a seat in a good or not-so-good high school.

Could it be that governments unknowingly create poor environments in some schools by ranking government high schools as the second and third choice? Has the outcome of this system really lifted the majority of the society, enabled economic growth, and improved relationship among citizens?

As a Jamaican national, a product of the system, I ponder on the way the system determines, according to Dr Elkind, “winners or losers”. I endorse his assertion that education is not a competitive race but a lifelong quest. Many Jamaicans accept this exam to determine placement because of the severe limitedness of places in schools.

Yet, interestingly, Trinidad & Tobago, where no such shortage exists, still uses placement exams. For many children, their parents and teachers, these end-of-primary exams are tremendously stressful, since the prospect of being assigned to a low-scoring high or secondary school is akin to a death sentence.

Again, in “high-stakes assessments” at age 16, teachers are exchanged throughout the Caribbean territory to mark, and determine the future of our young. If learners score high grades, they are guaranteed passage to the last two years of a high/secondary-school education; if not, unlucky learners disappear from the radar of the school system, with many viewing themselves as not academic or smart, while some resort to harming themselves or others.


Neuropsychology expert Dr Jane Healy refers to the brain as the “learning machine” in her book Different Learners. Healy says that the human brain houses neurons which are responsible for receiving information (dendrite spines) and pruning (synapses) for the development of brain activity. The axons on these neurons are coated with a chemical called myelin. Myelin grows in stages and works along with environmental influences (which are continuous) for brain growth and learning to occur.

The importance of myelin to child development is critical since myelin is responsible for attention span, processing speed of information, fine and big motor movements: muscular movements of the eyes, fine muscles in hands, movements of arms, legs and the muscles involved in potty training. With reference to attention span, there are noted differences in levels of attention span (including thought processes) between younger and older children, and those of adults.

Concepts in curricula also assume certain age guidelines. Both Dr Healy, in her work Your Child’s Growing Mind from Birth to Adolescence, and Dr Elkind’s The Hurried Child, note research information about children born in the fall, between August to January, as many begin elementary (primary school) before the suggested entrance age and required maturation of brain cells. In childhood and adolescence, every day counts towards development.

The practice of admitting a child who is short of the entrance age on the basis that he or she will soon reach that age in a couple of weeks or months, is possibly fraught with danger. Myelin, the chemical for learning, takes time to develop, and although a measure of challenge is required for growth to take place, inappropriate expectations can harm normal development, resulting in poor health concerns and seeming laziness or school failure.

At age 14 or younger (third form), Caribbean children are required to choose subjects based on career choice and achievement of high scores in the selected subject areas. However, literature shows that most university youngsters change their major in the second year of enrolment.

Dr Healy posits that a “neural firestorm” can occur in children’s developing brains when we bombard them with too many requests offering very little time for them to process and find meaning. She questions, “Who is really broken, the child or the system?”

Brain research shows myelin peaking at approximately ‘age 20’. Therefore, the processing speed of information, thinking, and attention are more on par with adulthood; serious implication for our school system, which only guarantees schooling until age 16.


The question of the development of myelin in children assumes greater importance with the young boy. For many boys, the coating of myelin in the fine muscular movements (eye and hand coordination) usually develops later than it does for girls, while girls’ big muscular movements generally lag behind. This, therefore, explains why boys are usually more physically active, though they take a longer time to acquire the skills of reading and writing, while many girls use less muscular activity at this stage, but adeptly perform fine motor skills for reading and writing at an early stage.

Neuro-scientific information notes that the differences between boys and girls in certain areas of learning are lessened by approximately age 16. It is of concern that most of our children, especially boys, will have developed after the rigorous Caribbean one-time exams are over. Our system of examination, therefore, might not be aligned with the normal course of child development. Research is urgently needed in this area!

Be reminded that educational psychologist Piaget’s cognitive development stages (youngsters go through approximately four age-related stages in understanding the world) point to the differing thought processes in children up to 18 years old. Here, the biological finding of myelin in the brain’s process of learning (which has growth stages) validates Piaget’s theories.

Piaget says children’s cognitive (thinking) processes occur at different stages in their development. For example, five-year-olds will tell you that the same ball of clay, when rolled out, is a different amount of clay, while older children will say it is the same amount of clay.

Jawanza Kunjufu (African American educational consultant), in his book Raising Black Boys, comments that the most important area of discussion about learning, attention span, and motor skill, is maturation. He states this is fully understood by European school systems which have made required adjustments. He makes the important statement that “many boys are failing kindergarten because they are not emotionally ready”. Dr Elkind, and Dr Leanord Sax in Boys Adrift, also agree that biological considerations of maturational and gender concerns should be given serious attention by not only parents, but school systems as well.

All of this points to the need for the school system to have information on child and brain development – using more biological information to guide the processes of our schooling and educational practices, thereby supporting the natural development of our young learners.

Our challenges in the Caribbean are our opportunities to really transform our education system by respecting human development. Young learners should experience the joy of learning by way of age-appropriate information and enabling environments, guaranteed formal schooling from approximately seven till 19 years, with assessments to help, rather than to alienate.

Choice secondary schools should answer the call of the societies, widening their influence by being custodians of all schools, offering all students a good seat, regardless of scores, as is done at the primary level.

Camile Swapp is a guidance counsellor. Email feedback to and

You are doing well. Tell your friend, it is so good!

Leave a Reply