Lift the Yoke, Uplift the Child

Image: Flickr, United Nations Photo
Image: Flickr, United Nations Photo

Although most of Africa threw off colonial rule four decades ago, the continent's education systems still bear the heavy imprint of curricula designed by erstwhile foreign regimes.

In the face of poverty, unemployment, disease, global competition and rapidly changing technology, Africa must ask whether those colonial models are still relevant.Most African countries have removed the derogatory references from colonial education but retained its essential structure. The language of instruction, the teacher training traditions and the learning materials remain largely intact.

Course materials for history, art and literature have retained a Euro-centric view of history; there was limited reference to the contributions of other continents, especially Africa. European approaches, in the main, rejected local cultures, regarding them as inferior. This has left long and deep scars on African culture and dignity, but it also has practical consequences. Instruction in foreign languages and emphasis on remote subjects impedes early learning.

Understanding the European classics, for example, which are the staple of colonial education, is difficult for African learners lacking the cultural knowledge and often the teachers needed to nurture success. Those teachers who are qualified in such subjects often live in a divided world, unaccepted in the colonial culture and alienated from their own cultures.

In educational systems rooted in colonial traditions, teachers lectured and children learned by rote because course content was foreign and insufficiently linked to the learners’ (and often teacher’s) life-experiences. This can still be seen today where large classes of children chant information after the teacher and there is little understanding of the lesson.

In their efforts to reform education, many African educators have introduced more local history, geography, and literature relevant to the lives and experiences of learners. ‘Ruralisation’ of education programmes has also been tried. In Tanzania, for example, the Ujaama programme in the 1960s required university students to do development and literacy work on farms. But reforms like Tanzania’s made little headway. In many cases, changes came too quickly. And all too often, the drive to inject relevance clashed with the desires of students and parents, who saw traditional colonial education as more prestigious.

Recently, some countries have made new attempts to change the colonial legacy and make education more relevant to the demands of life and development. Here are three promising reforms:

Orientation to Life and Work

Changing how we evaluate school performance is crucial to making education relevant. The most widely used indicator of educational success is the academic pass rate. But measuring school performance this way does not answer a critical question: Are schools delivering skills that are economically useful? Even if a school obtains a high pass rate, most students completing primary and secondary school do not pursue further study. Education must deliver the necessary academic foundation for those students who do seek higher education, but also deliver useful skills to those who do not.

Making school relevant means modifying the choice of courses and teaching methodology so that students know what productive use they can make of their academic lessons in later life.

To make education more economically relevant, countries such as Ethiopia, Niger and Burkina Faso have introduced courses in agriculture, animal husbandry and market gardening. Other countries have introduced content like environmental studies, demographics, health, peace, human rights, gender equality, and ICT into their curricula to equip students to deal confidently with national challenges and conditions.

Home Language Instruction

Many national education systems taught exclusively in the colonial language even though students often had little idea what teachers were saying. Now, however, schools are increasingly using mother-tongue instruction in the first years of education to help students learn to read in the language they know best. The colonial tongue is introduced later, and thereafter both languages are used as subject matter and media of learning. Retention of the colonial language brings the promise of participation to the wider world. Use of the home language nurtures learning of phonetics, alphabets and abstract concepts. This approach has begun to show advantages, such as smoother transition between home and school and improved performance in the colonial language (when it is ultimately introduced) and in subjects like maths and science. Case studies from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Zambia confirm this.

Teaching and Learning Technique

Education systems in decolonised countries emphasise rote learning based on memorisation. This often leads to poor understanding of the relevance of information and an inability to apply the lessons from school to real life.

Increasing policy attention is now being paid to learning how to learn, problem solving, higher level thinking skills (meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking) and work methods that enable lifelong learning and adaptability to new situations. But although such a skills-based approach has now gained widespread acceptance in Africa, only Djibouti and South Africa have begun to implement it.

11 Aug 2004