Education in Belize: Breaking bad habits
by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /

"We need a lot more serious thinking about the present and the future, and a lot less time and energy spent on the past." Thomas Sowell, Stanford University

I commend the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) for defiantly standing up to Guatemala during its escalating armed border incursions into Belize. An age old, yet formerly non-violent, border dispute has now turned violent. Guatemala has defiantly stationed its military at Belize's Southern Sarstoon border, and may want to push armed contingents even further into our Southern and Western borders. Our government ignored the first armed encroachment, and then urged Belizeans to stay away from the Sarstoon border. Yet, we now have incurred loss of life on both sides. Many Belizeans have reached a boiling point (against their own government as well as Guatemala), and are taking defiant actions to protest Guatemala's armed bullying and the Belize government's sudden Sarstoon Prohibition law. BNTU members/teachers have set a positive example for thousands of students in Belize, and showed them the importance of "taking action".

Are we smelling the boiling coffee yet? We are now well into 2016, five years since my original outburst in Wake up and smell the coffee. Our peaceful jewel has now been jolted into reality! We always expected global authorities (our previous owners?) to defend us and take our side against Guatemala; but that is not happening. Are we losing Belize, or parts of it? Is the rest of the world sleeping, or is Belize sleeping? Either we were too busy since 1981 to actively pursue non-stop a definitive/final solution to Guatemala's claim over Belize; or, by habit, we were content with a mere "wait and see" attitude. Now, in today's frightful situation, we might see a need to break old (Colonial) habits of inaction. Belize can no longer ignore this claim, just because that's how we've mostly dealt with it. Similarly, especially during this graduation season, we might realize that thousands of students are entering into a very competitive world, ill-equipped to survive and thrive as independent adults. Why? We have not embraced radical change in our education systems. We are living in a new and global world, not in Colonial times. Failing to break old habits and replace with better ones is dangerous, and ultimately leads to unwanted results.

Nonetheless, what does today's escalating Belize vs. Guatemala conflict have to do with how Belize operates its education systems or schools? Both are very different topics, but the parallels and effects of not breaking old habits are striking. I am no politician, nor represent any political party. However, I am fully aware that Guatemala's armed military at Belize's Southern (Sarstoon) border is no "lee sea breeze" that will soon blow over. We no longer can ignore Guatemala's claim to Belize, an independent nation since 1981, just because we previously did so. What if they push our borders further back, or... Now, we have to act! In comparison, we cannot continue to educate students the same way that we, our parents and grandparents were schooled, merely because that's how schools have always been run. We must act to bring change to our classrooms.

Merely ignoring Guatemala's long-held claim to Belize will not help us to stay free, independent, globally recognized, and protected today. Keeping schools the way they always were, i.e. "like when I was there", will not make time stand still in Belize in today's rapidly evolving global world. (See Breaking Free Parts I & II) Either we keep schools the same, which requires no additional effort from government/church policy makers, parents, or educators, or we embrace change. That is not easy. Clinging to pre Independence (1981) colonial systems of education, and refusing to update our education systems, strategies, and practices will sooner than later jolt Belize into reality, just like Guatemala suddenly did at our Southern border. Of course, we do provide thousands of students with an education, and they do graduate each year. But, does that education include learning how to tackle and solve sudden difficult problems that life may throw one's way? It should, if we want to ensure that our jewel Belize will survive, compete, and thrive in this global 21st Century and beyond.

A legacy of inaction and political indifference to Guatemala's claim to Belize is now costing us dearly: human lives, armed border infringements, and perhaps more. Our indifference to embracing change in 21st Century education systems in Belize is also costing us dearly today. We are not providing students with the requirements for a global education in this new age; we are simply running schools the way they always have been run. Are we teaching students how to actually think for themselves, or merely asking them to memorize answers in order to be able to pass standardized colonial type examinations, year in and year out? Our elected leaders today are educated; some have degrees. Will/can they think critically to finally resolve Belize's age-old dispute with Guatemala? What's the acceptable solution for both sides? Perhaps, the answer to this problem was not provided to them to study/memorize for today's very difficult test.

Students: when we enter an election booth to vote for politicians, there are no right or wrong answers as in most classroom tests. Rather, before we cast a vote, we must carefully consider current issues, politicians' qualification, character, past history, success or failure(s), perhaps the feasibility of the many promises they may make. Or, we can merely vote the way our families and friends have always voted -- perhaps by habit like we've always done. Today, perhaps we see the consequences of choosing to always vote by habit, and along the usual family or party lines. Citizens should always choose leaders who are able to think critically and tackle problems -- like having to defend us against a bully.

I am proud to have worked in the education systems in Belize, starting in 1978 as a teacher at St. Hilda's college, and most recently (2010-2012) as guidance counselor at San Pedro High School. While working with hundreds of students I protested vigorously that our education policy makers and administrators showed little, if any, effort to embrace change in the education systems. Adding many new schools (buildings), opening universities, increasing education funding, and including new subject matter in a curriculum is all very helpful to the country; but it's just not enough. The "how" and "why" we teach students must also change, just as often as "what" we teach them -- if we want their education to grow and be productive. Every year there are thousands of students who leave (graduate) our schools, as new ones enter; yet, few changes are offered in "how" and "why" they learn.

Now is such an appropriate time to remind students that in life they will be confronted with many situations that have no right or wrong answers, or simple and easy multiple choice guesses. Consequently, in schools we educators might want to use less "right or wrong" tests to grade and advance or fail students. Rather, from the earliest age possible, show and encourage them to think critically in order to learn, instead of memorizing "correct" answers. The high dropout rate in schools, especially among boys who are unable to sit still all day in a classroom, or memorize lessons, will decrease the more we give them creative reasons to be in school, rather than merely having to be there. In this fast-developing technical world, let's break age-old Colonial classroom habits; provide students with more process-based (problem solving) instead of knowledge-based (memorizing facts) learning. Students may want to learn more by having to analyze (Math and Science) problems for themselves, by having to research the internet repeatedly for solutions to problems with no known answers, by being allowed to work directly and under the guidance of successful entrepreneurs -- instead of merely sitting in a class all day or memorizing book answers. Learning could be more creative if it's not bound by what the book or teacher says. So, let's break the old habit of advancing (or not) students through school only when they pass tests based on memorized facts. Or, we can keep schools just like when I was there.

Author’s Note:
These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete. They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the Belizean community. If we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, then we can learn from our mistakes as well as success.