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Dennis Minott | Skanking in the muds of Jamaica’s classrooms – Part 1

Published: Sunday | February 4, 2024 | 12:14 AM

In this file photo a group of students are seen walking in the Montego Bay Transportation Centre.

Picture a spinning top, wobbling precariously, struggling to find its rhythm. That is a snapshot of Jamaica’s education system as reflected in the recent PISA scores.

Having lived abroad from my late teens to early 30s, immersing myself in diverse linguistic landscapes, I bring a unique perspective shaped by Trinidadian kaiso slang, rural Mexican oil field chatter, and the beauty of Latin American metaphors. This lens allows me to critically analyse issues, often in Portland Maroon Jamaican Patois.

Trinidadians express common sense with dry wit: “What you expect, boss lady, wen you try to spin top in mud?” Meanwhile, rural Latin Americans use vivid metaphors like “ En chiquero no baila trompo,” subtly conveying that a deceptive top doesn’t dance in a pigsty, going beyond mere mud.     

The Gleaner’s editorial, dated January 29, growls about the education crisis, stating that the performance of Jamaican high school students in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) assessment is unsurprising, aligning with years of similar findings. The grim diagnosis reveals Jamaican students scoring below average in reading, mathematics, and science, trailing behind global counterparts. This overall below-average performance across subjects falls short of the OECD average for 81 nations.


Frustrated teacher trying to skank in Jamaica's academic pigsty.


 What are the pigsty objects that continue to impede the delicate dance of our top whose movements we need to choreograph well at this point in the 21st century?

Pigsty Object #1: That little mobile screen and some proven ways to reduce spinning our Jamaican reading top in it.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, high-performing PISA countries in reading do employ interesting strategies to manage teens’ cell phone usage, protect reading habits, and promote reading culture:

• Early literacy programmes: Investing in strong early literacy programmes fosters a love for reading from a young age, making it a competing activity to screen time.

• National reading campaigns: Initiatives like Finland’s “Reading for Pleasure” campaign encourage reading as a leisure activity, making it less about competition with gadgets.

• Accessible libraries and bookstores: Ensuring easy access to diverse reading materials through well-stocked libraries and bookstores keeps reading readily available and appealing.


• Parental guidance and time limits: Open communication and setting reasonable screen time limits, including “device-free zones” like dinner tables or bedrooms, can create dedicated reading time.

• Technology integration: Some schools in Singapore and Japan use educational apps for reading comprehension or audiobooks alongside traditional reading, finding a balance between digital and physical books.

• School policies: Some schools implement “phone pockets” during class, time-bound phone access: Specific periods during the day when students can access their phones (e.g., breaks, lunch).

• Media literacy education: Integrating media literacy into the curriculum equips teens with critical thinking skills to evaluate online content and make informed choices about their digital consumption.

• Promoting responsible technology use: Initiatives like South Korea’s “Digital Detox Camps” encourage mindful technology use and awareness of its potential downsides, including on reading habits.

• Family discussions and agreements: Open communication and family agreements about appropriate phone usage, including during reading time, can foster responsible digital citizenship.

It is important to note:

• Effectiveness varies: These strategies don’t guarantee high PISA scores as cultural, socioeconomic, and educational factors also play a crucial role.

• Individualised approach: What works in one country might not translate directly to another, and tailoring strategies to the specific context is crucial.

• Technology as a tool: Technology can be a valuable tool for reading through audiobooks, e-readers, and educational apps, but responsible use is key.

Ultimately, safeguarding reading competence requires us to empower our teens to make informed choices about their screen time.

Pigsty Object #2, Shock A: Many school authorities crudely ban all non-textbook reading material from even “the best” Jamaican high school premises. Teachers, prefects and classroom monitors regularly implement school-gate searches for contraband and confiscate library books, weapons, drugs, newspapers, periodicals, and books such as novels, non-fiction books, magazines, and comics. Further, Shock B: The Government of Jamaica does not explicitly budget for school libraries or school librarians. (Search ministry budgets till Kingdom come if you doubt me.)

Tackling Pigsty Object #2: The complete ban on non-textbook reading materials in many prominent Jamaican high schools, pointedly (aptly?) named Pigsty Object #2, raises concerns about limiting intellectual exploration and fostering a culture of fear instead of curiosity. Let’s explore how schools in Singapore, Finland, Sweden, Canada, South Korea, Macao, and Costa Rica approach reading materials differently and uncover potential solutions for Jamaica.


1.Singapore focuses on building a love for reading through diverse materials. Libraries are well-stocked, at government expense, with fiction, non-fiction, and periodicals promoting critical thinking and independent learning.

2.Finland emphasises student agency and choice. Students actively select reading materials aligned with their interests and learning styles. The curriculum encourages exploration beyond textbooks.

3.Sweden promotes reading for pleasure as vital for academic success and personal development. Schools actively curate libraries with engaging materials and prioritise reading time within the school day.

4.Canada embraces multicultural perspectives in their libraries. Students have access to diverse materials reflecting their identities and fostering global understanding.

5.South Korea balances academic rigour with recreational reading. Libraries offer a variety of materials, including comics and graphic novels, alongside traditional texts.

6.Macao encourages lifelong learning through accessible libraries. Students actively use libraries for research, personal reading, and leisure activities.

7.Costa Rica promotes critical thinking and social awareness through diverse reading materials. Libraries feature texts that address local and global issues, encouraging informed citizenship.


• Shift the focus: Move from restriction to cultivating a culture of reading for pleasure and knowledge acquisition in all schools and long-haul buses.

• Embrace diversity: Offer a wide range of reading materials catering to different interests, learning styles, and cultural backgrounds.

• Empower students: Allow student choice and agency in selecting reading materials, fostering ownership and engagement.

• Promote critical thinking: Encourage discussions and analysis of diverse perspectives presented in various reading materials.

• Integrate technology: Utilise e-books, audiobooks, and online resources to expand access and cater to different learning preferences.

• Build partnerships: Collaborate with local publishers, authors, and community organisations to enrich library collections and promote local voices.

• Train teachers: Equip educators with strategies to integrate non-textbook materials into their lessons and guide students towards critical reading skills.

In Part 2, we’ll explore the struggle to instil compulsive curiosity in science and math, all while navigating the pigsty objects of conflicting practices and policies .

Dennis Minott, PhD.

Victorious Victor 9 hours ago

Many school authorities crudely ban all non-textbook reading material from even “the best” Jamaican high school premises.

Please tell me this is a lie. But when you have a financier with no experience in education or even the humanities being advised by a flagrant political propagandist, what other outcome should we expect other than absolute failure? We are so close. I am weeping for the children and the future of our country.

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  • DA Dennis A. Minott, PhD  Victorious Victor 3 hours agoHold on, this is waiting to be approved by Jamaica-Gleaner. Victorious Victor, I sadly read your perspective on Jamaican high schools, but allow me to share my insights, gleaned from 39 years of fully active involvement with high school seniors, particularly the gifted school leaders across our nation. My commitment has led me to closely interact with the youth, and my big receptive ears, by staying attuned to their concerns, have not failed me....yet. In fact, my dedication to education reform is underscored by my inclusion in the 2004 Ray Davies task force, a willing collaboration between Edward Seaga and PJ Patterson at PJ's Initiative. One aim was to address issues faced in educating our many young minds such as those from my A-QuEST crowd who now include over 1300 PhDs and 11 Rhodes Scholars. Let's not romanticize the situation. The task force, much like many of the frustrated youngsters it heard from through a few of us couldn't fathom the irrational and counterproductive practices prevalent in numerous Jamaican high schools. It's a harsh reality that, contrary to our aspirations, many schools have resorted to crude bans on non-textbook reading materials, even extending to those from Government Parish Library resources. It's disheartening to note that, due to circumstances beyond their control, some schools have no school libraries anymore. The truth remains, and I repeat myself: "Many school authorities crudely ban all non-textbook reading material from (even some of) 'the best' Jamaican high school premises," and Government Parish Library materials are not exempt from such restrictive measures. Let's not shy away from acknowledging these challenges and work towards fostering a more conducive reading environment for our people to grow.Part 2 of ' Skanking in muds' is underway.

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