A Place to Kill Time

It’s Monday morning.

A new week begins for one typical middle school in Beijing, China.

Seven o’clock in the morning, parents are rushing to drop off their children at the gate of their school. As is customary once a week, the children congregate in the schoolyard to take part in the flag raising ceremony and to sing their country’s national anthem.

The school bell goes off at eight o’clock, and children proceed to join their respective classrooms in an orderly fashion. They greet their teachers respectfully and take their designated seats. Teachers generally start off the school day with short announcements of events and other useful information to their pupils. Throughout the class sessions, pupils give their undivided attention to their teachers and their lessons.

During the day, the children enjoy a short mid-morning break and a one-hour lunch break, during which time they can mingle and have fun on the school’s playground. At three o’clock in the afternoon, parents wait patiently for the school bell that signals the end of the school day to fetch their children and return home.

After school hours, the children usually do their homework under their parents’ supervision and prepare for the next school day. Those from wealthier background have a busier schedule, attending tutoring classes and engaging in various extra-curricular activities organized outside the school.

Meanwhile, half-way across the world, one school, located in a posh suburb in one of Africa’s major cities, is getting ready for the new week.

Sitting right in the middle of a residential block, the school is actually a community kindergarten that was recently upgraded to accommodate a full-fledged primary and middle school. As is often the case, schoolchildren, with the exception of preschoolers, walk to get to their school and return home on their own or with a group of friends.

The morning brings with it voices of screaming children that have reached the school grounds as early as seven o’clock – a not so pleasant wake-up call for the neighboring residents. To add insult to injury, a group of children, entrusted with the key to the school’s “multimedia center”, are busy fumbling with the radio equipment in their haste to put on air the morning’s entertainment program.

With the volume cranked up to full blast, a selection of local and international pop songs – most of which are not age appropriate – soon streams out from the school’s loudspeakers. The music, which can be heard from miles away, is enough to wake up even the dead!

A little after eight o’clock, the school bell – the sound of which is reminiscent of the deafening siren of a passing ambulance – calls the children for the daily morning routine in the small schoolyard. Announcements and school plays are transmitted through the loudspeakers, followed by the flag raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem, before the children scatter to join their classrooms in a wild display.

However, long after classes have begun around a quarter to nine o’clock, a number of children stroll past the school gate and into their classrooms. In addition, children go up and down hallways and stairs during class hours, shouting and yelling throughout without any sign of respite. Others, whose teachers are absent, enjoy their free time in a manner that causes disturbances to ongoing classes.

At the mid-morning and lunch hour breaks, the radio program is back again in full swing. Owing to the small size of the schoolyard, the children often stay upstairs in the buildings’ staircases and balconies to play. Incidentally, one of their favorite hobbies from their vantage point is to throw objects, anything they could lay their hands on, onto nearby residential houses’ roofs and compounds. Another disturbing aspect is their tendency to misbehave and act disrespectfully towards the residents of the neighboring houses.

In the afternoon, class sessions appear shorter than the regular 45-minute class period, with the school day coming to an end well before the ringing of the school bell at three o’clock. At the sound of the bell, the children dash down the stairs in such an out-of-control mob, visibly relieved that their school day is over. Some of them head home while others stay behind to play up to five o’clock.

A typical school day for children in two different parts of the world, but what a world apart!

In the first story, it’s clear that everyone in China – parents, teachers, the school administration, the authorities, and even the society at large – is focused on and actively involved in the education of schoolchildren.

Hard work, discipline, and dedication seem to embody the principles governing school life in China. Anything that distracts or diverts schoolchildren’s attention away from their studies is systematically discouraged. For instance, children accused of misconduct are subject to disciplinary measures and in effect marginalized by their peers, who prefer to abide by the unwritten rule of associating themselves with the “good” children.

Given the intense competition among schoolchildren for the highest scores and rankings, they have little motivation or time to engage in mischief and misdemeanor. The motto for every Chinese schoolchild is to work hard and be the best, a “winner takes all” attitude that is strongly encouraged by the parents, the teachers and the school administration alike. The school’s highest achievers are publicly lauded and set as examples for others to follow.

Therefore, Chinese children are taught from a young age that school is a place to learn and to grow, a place to expand their horizon of possibilities and opportunities, and a place where their future takes shape.

 But, as with everything else in this life, nothing comes easy.

There is an overwhelming pressure on these children to perform and meet their parents’ high expectations. This is regarded as a necessary cost to pay upfront to ensure access to the best higher education and a career of their choice, as well as to fast-track their way up the social ladder later in life.

At first glance, the second story might look like a fictitious movie scene. Yet, it depicts the everyday reality of many schoolchildren living in this particular African city.

For an outsider looking in, one can easily feel overcome by the sense of great chaos, lawlessness, and noise that reigns over this particular school, a recent trend that has taken the city’s public school system by storm.

Most of these children come from less fortunate backgrounds, and as is often the case, education is the only way out of the twin traps of poverty and ignorance. However, instead of investing their time and efforts in their studies, these children are distracted by a range of factors, notably the noise and the disorder of the school environment, the absenteeism of teachers, the school administration’s lack of authority to provide guidance and enforce discipline and compliance, as well as other futile things such as the latest fashion and music trends.

In this context, one can’t help but wonder what these children learn, save perhaps for the lyrics of popular songs. When does the teaching process actually take place? When do these children actually sit down to learn?

All that these children see around them is a school system in shambles, with no one to take responsibility for and corrective actions to redress the situation. This begs the question of whether the school has strayed away from its original purpose of offering an actual learning experience to these children and instilling the valuable qualities of discipline, perseverance and hard work in them, to become instead a place for students to kill time.

Obviously, the blame should not be put on these children but rather on the concerned (adult) parties – the teachers, the school administration, the government authorities, and even the parents – responsible for these children’s education, yet who have completely failed them by robbing them of precious opportunities for learning and building a better future.

It’s plain for anyone to see that this “laissez-faire” attitude in leadership, control, and commitment is seeping through the entire education system, from the haphazard erection of school buildings across the city, to the poor schooling systems and processes, down to the general apathy prevailing among teachers, school administrators and authorities working in the education sector.

Nobody seems to be riled up about the abysmal state of affairs of this particular school, with the exception of the residents of this once tranquil neighborhood, and especially those living in the immediate vicinity of the school who, deprived of their peace and privacy, are forced to endure the constant torture, and whose complaints to concerned authorities keep falling on deaf ears.

The above story may represent one of the worst case scenarios of failed school systems in Africa, but it brings to the fore the extent of the crisis that has engulfed the continent’s education sector.

To an Afrizen such as myself, this is, by far, one of the most tragic, albeit sidelined, issues of our time as the whole future of Africa is at stake.

For what kind of a future are we preparing our young people? How can African countries, aspiring to emulate China’s successful ascent and compete in the international arena, effectively do so if they continue to jeopardize the education of their youth and squander their potential?

What is the way forward to resolve Africa’s education crisis?

(30 January 2014)

To be continued…

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  1. Killing time a killing futures at the same time! But that is how capitalism has destroyed education systems of the developing world!!


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