Nigerian Education: What Works?

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Over the last couple of months, I have found myself having to make repeated analyses of the state of education in Nigeria – focusing mainly on primary and secondary education. Hardly any Nigerian is unaware of the decrepit state of school facilities across the country or the woeful results that are reported every year when senior school students take external examinations, but the perplexing reality is that there are government officials saddled with the responsibility of fixing the mess called Nigerian education, without visible results to date.

The turning point for me was a couple of weeks ago when I was engaged in a discussion with a public sector consultant at the World Bank who asked me to enumerate the factors that were responsible for the failure of Nigerian education, which I did with amazing distinction. Having impressed the consultant with my brilliant analysis, I was asked the subsequent simple question: “Assuming you’re placed in charge of the Nigerian Ministry of Education tomorrow, what would you do differently?” Quietness, then solemnity, then distress, and then panic; I hadn’t really thought about it. But that day might as well come sometime, and I would hate to be unprepared twice.

In the course of my thinking, I recalled the reality of a typical day in the life of a public secondary school student in Nigeria; one which I was all too familiar with: the story of Tunde. On a normal weekday, Tunde wakes up as early as 5:00am to clean the house, and perform other household chores, and then he leaves home by 5:30am to sell loaves of bread or trays of banana, which he does for about two hours. By 7:30am, he begin the 4-5 mile walk to school, arriving late by 8:30am really sweaty and exhausted, but then he has to face the punishment for late coming which is kneeling in the scorching sun for an hour. By 9:30am, Tunde walks up to his classroom, having missed two class periods already, and then he sits on the bare floor or on a window sill, or shares a bench with four other people and attempts to learn something. By noon, Tunde is summoned to the principal’s office to explain why he has not paid his school fees for the term, the punishment of which is 12 dangerous strokes of the cane on his tender backside. By 1:00pm, Tunde joins his classmates on the farm where they weed around extensive plots of land owned by a teacher (that is called Practical Agriculture) and then he leaves school by 2:00pm. At the close of the school day, Tunde returns to his merchandise – selling whatever he had left from the morning till about 9:00pm; still dressed in his school uniforms. He returns home at about 10:30pm to perform more household chores and then he crashes into bed by midnight, completely exhausted. What a day!

As I think about this story, which is very typical by the way, some questions pop up in my mind: where was the time for Tunde to internalize whatever he was supposed to learn in class? Where was the time for him to use the school library, to do some research and engage in study groups with his classmates? Where was the time to ask questions from the teachers on difficult subjects? Where was the time to do compulsory homework? Where was the time to think about what career path he would choose after school? Where was the time to engage with his mentor to discuss his progress and challenges? Where was the time to take part in debate and quiz competitions, perform some community service and win some awards? Where was the time to even wash the only pair of school uniforms he has, before the next day’s classes? Where was the time? This is the reality for millions of school kids in Nigeria.

So how are we surprised that 98% of the 111, 000 students who sat for the NECO Senior School Certificate Examinations in November 2011 failed to score five credit passes including English and Mathematics nationwide? How are we surprised that hundreds of thousands of kids who know that they could go on to universities and make successful careers drop out of school every single year to pursue farming and carpentry and bricklaying? How are we surprised that the very few who struggle to get into universities find it so difficult to string together two correct English sentences? How are we surprised? We have failed them!

We have failed to provide them with conducive learning environments, experienced and dedicated teachers, comprehensive learning materials, valuable teaching facilities, adequate attention and non-negotiable extra-curricular activities. We have pushed them away; we have convinced them that they live in a country that cares nothing about their welfare and progress, and of course they have repaid us by taking away our peace. They have become bandits; they attack us when we drive in traffic, they rob our houses when we’re away on vacation, they rape our sisters on street corners, they plant bombs and kill our parents at their work places, they sneak into church services and slaughter innocent worshippers on Sunday mornings and they even have the audacity to face the media to take responsibility for their actions, because no one else in the country is taking responsibility for theirs. These are the products of our education system.

With the reality being as saddening as it is, I bet anyone would agree that we have long ago reached the point in Nigeria where we really need to rethink the concept of education and the quality of what we deliver. But the question is where do we start? I believe that there is a need to address a fundamental misconception that we hold about education: the purpose of education itself. For too long, we have been made to believe that the sole purpose of getting educated is to get a good job and make a decent living; pay up all bills and maybe travel to see the world; but that appears too simple. I’ve come to the conclusion that education is enlightenment. Getting educated is like stepping into a large theatre with maybe 100 light switches, all turned off. It’s utter darkness. Every successive educational attainment turns one light switch on; and the more education one earns, the more enlightened they are. The process of switching these lights on helps the person to understand themselves better and to understand their environment better. This means that education is a process of understanding one’s self and one’s society. Through psychometric self-awareness tests, group assignments, questions asked and answered, feedback received from faculty and peers, books read and extra-curricular activities, a person begins to understand their own style and preferences, and through similar activities, a person comes to understand the society in which they operate.

But that’s not the end goal- understanding ones’ self and understanding one’s society will help a person to identify the deficiencies in their own abilities and the challenges inherent in their society. Education enables a person to identify their capacity to solve the problems in their society, not to get a job! We are solution providers in banking, insurance, oil & gas, law, psychology, engineering, in government and the nonprofit industry; we are solution providers! When we focus so hard on trying to get educated so that we can get jobs, we miss the whole point. It’s not about getting a job; it’s about solving a problem, which you can either do by aligning with a group of people who are already attempting to solve the same problem that we’re interested in (getting a job) or going off on our own to try to devise new ways of solving the problem and bringing people along with us (entrepreneurship). So we need to focus on our strategies for solving the problems in our societies, not getting jobs.

We have to make education as qualitative as it needs to be and that involves a comprehensive review of our education system to focus on the effectiveness of service delivery. The first component of an effective system is having predefined expectations for a class; every teacher should be able to determine the expected outputs and outcomes of their classes. Next to that is a functional curriculum (what exactly is being taught and how useful is it?), and then a fantastic facilitator as a teacher (someone who knows how to get a class together, how to get kids excited about what they are learning and to bring individual experiences to bear on the final product). Next, to that is practical application of learned concepts through case studies and role plays. Also, questions and answers in every class are extremely important (students need to be encouraged to ask questions, because real learning takes place in the process of formulating questions in the mind and voicing them out). And lastly, every teacher must be subjected to post-teaching evaluations to find out whether the designed objectives for the class were met, and to identify room for improvement.

There is lot that we can do to improve education in Nigeria. There has to be more that can be done than just analyze and discuss; we need to ask ourselves, “What would I do differently?” As we devise our strategies and seek to challenge the status quo, we can be guided by the thoughts of Marshall Gregory, a literary genius who once said “a liberal education is not a luxury; it is an obligation that a society owes to itself”.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

Let’s Educate Africa

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Many writers and scholars have identified the failure of leadership (political and otherwise) as the greatest challenge facing Africa, but I’ll differ in identifying the lack of qualitative education as Africa’s greatest challenge – and conversely, her greatest opportunity.

Politically, leadership has failed time and again, for several reasons – the prevalence of greed among our rulers, the lack of a governance framework that promotes accountability, the very nature of contemporary politics (characterized by subjugation and oppression of the non-political class) and several other factors which have been documented in wide-ranging literature. However, the failure of political leadership can also be attributed to the docility of the citizenry. In a society in which the governed lay forth no agenda for the government, demand next to no accountability from the government and refuse to bring the failed government to justice at the expiration of its tenure, leadership will continue to fail as often as it exists, and along with it, social development plummets.

Many African societies are populated by illiterate and poorly-educated citizens. Votes are routinely sacrificed on the altar of flimsy promises, political debates are inexistent, town-hall meetings are alien concepts, government activities are shrouded in secrecy, political leaders deliver no feedback to the people while continuously serving never-ending terms in government. Where else in the world do presidents serve thirty-year terms with almost nothing to show for their activities, yet amassing a cloud of followers? Where else in the world do underprivileged women dance around ‘wealthy’ politicians whenever they attend baseless functions? Where else in the world do Presidents abstain from the media, only releasing statements through uninformed aides? And where else does the Western world ship billions of dollars in foreign aid?

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Africa’s greatest challenge is not leadership (as convincing as it sounds), it is a failure of education. Developed nations thrive on the mental strength of their enlightened citizens and bank on the expertise and ground-breaking outcomes of their educational and research activities. The Nigerian Universities Commission recognizes 36 Federal universities, 37 State universities and 45 private universities (a total of 118 universities) to cater for 157 million cirtizens while UNESCO lists 5,758 colleges and universities in the United States with 302 million citizens. New York State alone has at least 126 institutions of higher education while the Association of African Universities (AAU) had 270 members from 46 countries as of November 2011. As much as Africa claims to be doing in the area of higher education, it falls far below the mark required to significantly influence change in the continent.

However, before considering higher education, basic primary education should be analyzed. There is extremely minimal access to primary education for millions of African kids, and even those who are ‘privileged’ to have access to education are subjected to the worst conditions of learning that can be conceived by man. Students are perpetually ‘educated’ in classrooms built with palm fronds and taught to write in the sand. Students are confined to seat on mats and are exposed to unthinkable communicable diseases in the course of their learning. Sanitary conditions are better not imagined as students take to surrounding bushes whenever ‘nature calls’. With the high level of hardship that accompanies education, how could one expect so much from the millions who ‘benefit’ from this system and millions more who are not so fortunate? The United States of America can afford to declare mandatory basic primary education for her children but African nations cannot because there aren’t enough schools to cater for their kids, and the schools that exist are ill-positioned to be of any help.

The emancipation of Africa lies in building institutions to deliver qualitative education. The next generation of African youth deserve a system that encourages free thought, inspires ideas and fertilizes innovation. They deserve to be empowered to imagine creative solutions to problems and supported to actualize them. Imagine the vast numbers of privileged African youth who are fleeing the continent and contributing to the development of foreign countries because their countries detest them? Imagine the long list of African scholars spread across institutions globally, training brilliant minds and conducting wide-ranging research while their continent rots?

Imagine the awesomeness of 50% of African scholars in the Diaspora converging to work on the continent and for the continent? Imagine the possibilities!

An educated Africa is the last great hope of the world!