Rediscovering the Art of Learning

June marks the end of the year for the primary school featured in the African story (A Place to Kill Time). The students, who sat their final examinations of the year, had returned to the school premises to get their results.

As they came down the stairs of the building, a number of them tore and threw away their graded test papers, perhaps out of relief and excitement that the school year is over. Still, what was most peculiar was the detached manner with which they disposed of their papers.

Incidentally, I came across some of the discarded papers that littered the surrounding area and was rather disturbed by my findings. By and large, the students’ scores were well below the average and the examination itself, which was brief and simple, attested to the extremely low level of learning attained by these children.

Unlike during my time in school when anyone who obtained such poor or failing grades would be devastated by the idea of flunking, these students seemed quite unmoved by their scores and the impact on their future.

Who would have thought that flunking classes would become a thing of the past?

I found out much to my dismay that under the prevailing system, these schoolchildren are allowed to advance to the next level despite lacking the most basic knowledge and skills. Their moment of truth is when they are put to the test of meeting the requirements that would grant them access to secondary and higher education.

A case in point is Liberia where, according to the article What is the purpose of education? What can we learn from Liberia, all 25,000 students flunked the university admission test last year, prompting the government to lower the admission requirements.

As shocking as it may be, this case is nonetheless indicative of how dysfunctional school systems have become the rule rather than the exception in many parts of Africa. It also lays bare the deeply troubling issue of how we, African citizens and societies, have lost the art of learning altogether.

Something certainly has got to change; this masquerade cannot go on forever. The question is: How long are we going to stand aside and look as our schools keep churning out a youth doomed to fail while we let our inaction seal the fate of our children? How do we beat the odds to turn our schools from a place where time is wasted to a place where opportunities are created?

Clearly, the overhaul of Africa’s decaying school systems is long overdue. So is our whole concept of education.

Unless we shed our preconceived ideas and views about education and start to think differently, unless we stop replicating imported education models that are far removed from our realities and our aspirations and start devising our own solutions, and, most importantly, unless we rediscover the art of learning, our efforts to revive the continent’s ailing education systems will be vain.

What if our children’s education is more than just grades and rankings, diplomas and degrees, an entry ticket to the formal job market? What if education is a means to nurture and promote learning and not an end in itself? What if learning is so intricately woven into the fabric of African societies that it becomes a way of thinking, a way of being – almost a second nature? What if every opportunity is turned into a learning opportunity for our children?

This is how I envision our children’s education to be.

To me, the essence of education should be about fostering a culture of learning in our societies, about giving our children the tools they need to navigate through and evolve in the constantly changing world, about offering them the power of choice and alternatives in their future lives, and about instilling in them the permanent quest for knowledge and excellence.

As a starting point for redefining our concept of education, we must first cast an inward look to seek for clues and elements of solutions, and to find the inspiration we need to put ourselves on the path of rediscovery of the art of learning.  It is therefore essential that we reconnect with our own selves as African citizens and societies, that we reconcile our past with our present and future, that we weave in our values, our traditions, our cultures, and our know-how into our modern lives, in order to devise Africa’s new education models.

What we teach our children and how we teach them are two prime aspects to consider if we are to cultivate our children’s interest and enthusiasm for learning, and if we are to offer them the best learning opportunities and experiences.

Our children’s education should go beyond conventional curricula and systems, beyond schools and educational institutions, and beyond theoretical or paper-based skills to systematically include the teaching of a wider range of knowledge, skills and values. Our children should also learn about things and subject-matters that are not taught in schools and that we tend to dismiss as unimportant or common sense or even take for granted, and yet are so central to our existence as individuals and societies.

What we put into the young minds of our children is fundamental.

One of the first items on our education agenda should be to teach our children how to build their sense of self and confidence, and how to connect and build relations with one another, with their societies, and with the outside world.

Their education should provide them the assurance and hope in knowing who they are, in joining hands and forces with others, in finding their own ways and solutions to their problems, and in embracing changes and withstanding adversity. Their education should reflect our identities, our histories, our cultures, our realities, our human and social values, our needs and aspirations as African citizens and societies.

What we teach them should thus have strong local relevance, focus on what is essential to them by weeding out unrelated and redundant subject-matters, and be continuously revised and improved to ensure that their education stays relevant, nimble and forward-looking.

The teaching of life skills and values constitutes another key learning facet in our children’s education.

We must equip our girls and boys with the basics of vital skills they require to lead independent and fulfilled lives. We must teach them early on how to, say for instance, work to earn money; save and manage money; procure food; cook, clean, and take care of themselves and others; build a shelter from scratch; survive in the wilderness; and protect themselves in dangerous or emergency situations.

We must also instill in our children important values in life, such as the value of work, perseverance, discipline, respect and integrity. These are some of the skills and values that are instrumental to our children’s future lives and their well-being.

A third core feature is the teaching of various technical skills to our children.

Despite their critical importance, technical skills are in very short supply in Africa, especially because they are devalued in our societies. Our countries need not only doctors and lawyers but also carpenters, plumbers, and farmers. Not all our children will end up working in office settings!

Instead of trying to conform to social biases, we must reconsider how we value technical skills and professions in our societies by placing them higher up on the social ladder. We should also show and teach our children the importance of acquiring diverse skills set and knowledge to adapt to the fast changes of this world.

Equally as important is how we present learning to our children.

There are those who contend that African children are increasingly becoming less inclined to learning. Is it really the case or is it simply because we have failed to inspire them?

Home is where our children’s early attitude towards learning takes shape and, as parents, it is our duty to ensure that our children develop a healthy approach and a natural liking to learning. Schools and the society at large also share the enormous responsibility of making every opportunity count as a learning opportunity for our children. A social gathering should be as instructive as a day in school or as time spent observing nature or the social environment.

Yet, at a time when the Internet has revolutionized our learning systems, when our children can copy and paste their homework assignments from the Internet, how do we make learning experiences challenging and appealing enough to our children?

In a world where knowledge is power, the need to instill the thirst for learning in our children from a young age becomes imperative.

One way to ignite and engage the attention of our children is to put ourselves in their shoes and to listen to what they have to say. What is it that entices them? Games, for instance, exert a formidable attraction on children. Why not design teaching materials in the form of games? Although this is not a novelty in itself, our systems of education should systematically incorporate elements of fun, discovery, and surprise, to make learning all the more interesting for our children.

Another way to spark and nurture our children’s curiosity, imagination, and creativity is to link their learning experiences to real life situations.  Our children can be given assignments to work on real issues, for instance water management in their community, or projects, such as growing a vegetable garden and using the produce. We can also offer them practical training in real work settings through internship and apprenticeship opportunities in various economic sectors, and involve them in community work to care for the elderly or protect the environment.

Such instances will allow them to acquire first-hand experiences in the real world, to appreciate the relevance and applicability of their education, and to develop new skills – including team work, sharing of ideas, strategizing and solving problems – as well as their sense of service, responsibility and solidarity.

Therefore, we must strive to explore innovative ways of educating our children in order to uncover crucial learning opportunities and to promote new methods of learning.

Instead of engaging in futile debates over the merits of different education systems – traditional versus modern, conventional versus unconventional, repetitive versus creative – we must be open to experiment, to mix and match various combinations until we find the perfect blend that can stir and sustain our children’s drive for learning, one that can provide the fullest learning value and experiences to our children whilst serving the specific needs of our societies.

The success of our new education models hinges on how we use the learning tools and resources at our disposal and who we choose to involve in the education of our children.

Today’s technological advancements have opened up a new world of learning to our children. However, the way we use technological tools makes all the difference to their education. We need to be mindful that these tools are not the silver bullet; without the right content and management, they are impotent.

Initiatives such as the ‘one laptop per child’ – also an election promise that the Kenyan government is gearing up to fulfill – are not enough and do not begin to address Africa’s learning crisis. How are our children going to use the laptops? Many across Africa fear that such initiatives, instead of making a dent in the learning crisis, might end up depleting the continent’s meager resources that could have been otherwise spent on curricula development or the capacity building of teachers and mentors. Besides, why invest in laptops when Africa has already transitioned to mobile technology?

A judicious use of our tools and resources for learning will arguably go a long way in making up for the constraints – human, geographical, material, financial and political – that most of our countries are facing.

Tools, if used correctly, have the potential to unlock endless learning opportunities for our children, to expand the reach of learning to larger sections of our populations, to put education on the fast-track and accelerate the pace of knowledge and skills transfer, and to take our children’s learning experiences to a whole new level.

Therefore, we should seek to strike a careful balance in the use of old and new learning tools and platforms, from the most recent mobile and e-learning solutions to the streaming of educational content – instead of music and entertainment all day long – on radios and TVs, all the way through to the good old blackboards and books, in order to provide the platforms and tools most suited to our specific needs and contexts.

Ultimately, our children will be able to learn anywhere, at their own pace, explore new things within and outside their schools, and discover the new world of learning. This is, to me, what the future of learning in Africa should look like.

Last but not least, our children’s education should not be the sole responsibility of a few.

As advocated in The Wake-Up Call, we have to involve and enlist the engagement of every member of our societies and economies, old and new actors, including our children themselves, the parents, the teachers, the communities and the larger society, formal and informal institutions and associations, as well as private and public players. Everyone should become a mentor, a teacher to our children, as in the yesteryears. This requires that we restore and develop the art of teaching, an art that has unfortunately lost much of its worth in our societies.

There are promising signs that things are moving in the right direction across Africa. However, we need to encourage trailblazers that are thinking outside the box and working against the tide to deliver a new type of learning to our children, as is the case with Ashesi University in Ghana and, Nigeria’s online learning platform. We must promote and scale up African-led private initiatives to ensure that they become mainstream and sustainable in the long run.

The latest African innovations, riding the crest of the mobile technology wave, are testimony of the creativity of our youth. The first mobile banking initiative in the world, pioneered by Kenya, is one such example of technological feat that our continent has achieved against all odds.

Imagine what children across the African continent could do if given the right opportunity to learn and grow.

The huge task of reforming and transforming our learning systems lies ahead of us. The challenge now is to figure out how to change locked mindsets and ways and to steer African citizens and societies towards adopting the new education paradigm.

Time is of essence here.

Africa’s salvation lies in a new breed of African youth, a youth that is learned, confident, visionary and well-rounded, a youth that is in touch with itself yet open to the world, a youth that is able, willing and capable to live its dreams and aspirations, in sum, a youth that will build the new Africa and lead the continent into the future.

What might seem a fantasy or a wishful thinking could become a reality if only we dare to dream and believe in our dream, if only we dare to take a path that has never been travelled before, if only we dare to rewrite our fate.

Let us set the new learning trend in our societies, let us re-instill hope and dreams in our youth, and they will surprise us beyond our wildest expectations!

(26 July 2014)

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  1. This is an extremely important topic, and I like the way you have weaved the issues of citizenship and identity into an agenda for the reconstruction of failing education systems in Africa. But it seems to me that you have put in a lot of effort into developing solutions to a problem that you have not completely diagnosed. Yes many of the solutions to the education crisis are internal to the systems, but reforming the education system alone (both structurally and substantively), is not sufficient because the problem in fact lies out of the education system. To locate and diagnose the problem accurately, and therefore to have comprehensive solutions, we need to delve into the historical political economy of education in Africa – its evolution as part of the colonial project, its development as a class project in post colonial Africa, the derailment of that class project through ESAPSs etc, and now its renewed development as a frontier for investment capital (privatization, on line course, instrumentalism etc).


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