Sitting in on a discussion last week around the state of education in the country was a disturbing experience.
The easiest part was reaching agreement on the fact that the entire process by which we come into usefulness from infancy is in flux. Admittedly this is not a uniquely Nigerian thing. The safety in numbers that this process ought to have assured, though, thins into insignificance against the backdrop provided by poor levels of productivity and decrepit domestic capacity across all the sectors of the economy — bar the information and communications technology space. Beyond these more immediate worries, however, was the admission by participants in the conversation that the learning environment has always been given to change. Still, a novel problem. Such is the nature and pace of change in what is referred to as the “learning space”, today, that our (generally) fossilised response function looks like the biggest threat to the economy’s medium- to long-term outlook.
Globally, recent rapid advances in the information and communications technology space are the main drivers of this new round of change. At home, in school and in the playground, internet access, and connected mobile devices are broadening access to (dis)information, boosting data retrieval speeds, and creating a querulous young generation. Given the new contradictions that these give birth to (try separating a “tween” from its devices in order that it may, first, finish lunch), some parents and guardians perceive this process as a slippage in their authority — as children and wards are no longer susceptible to the blandishments and punishments with which their forebears were held in check.
Teachers, though, are a different kettle of fish. In most of our urban communities the sense of guardian/parental loss of control over wards/children seems to be compensated for by a belief in teachers being better placed to fix the kids. Does it matter, then, that our teachers may not be up to speed on this critical assignment? Not too long ago, I returned home to a worried 13-year old wanting to know if he had been improperly brought up. Apparently, his teacher had gone off on a tangent in class on a subject he’d taken the pains to google. He had the nerve to describe his teacher as “wrong” in a full class. What better sign of poor upbringing could there be? May our teachers continue to place a premium on obedience, if change is the new motif of the new zeitgeist?
Obviously, the “failure of upbringing” narrative is the result of a trade-off between old-fashioned notions of discipline and the ceding by parents of more leeway for curiosity to their kids and wards. In a “knowledge economy”, it ought not to come as a shock to anyone (teachers, least of all) that “knowledge” is the new source of authority? Within this much altered dynamics, to demand that a teacher’s sole claim to stand at the head of the class is because s/he’s the smartest person in the class, might be to do the process by which knowledge is acquired huge injury. Whereas it was possible a decade ago to teach by rote. Today, “curiosity” might be all that the new student needs to be taught.
The teacher, in this new environment is not the brightest in class. S/he is the one most able to direct her/his wards towards new ways of thinking as well as new sources of knowledge. Discussants at this session I was at agreed that if this transition is the result of a more fluid learning space, then the new question that our new pedagogy must respond to is simply: “How does one future-proof the education of today’s youths?” But first, a preceding concern. How much of a problem to the design of a new pedagogy is posed by the fact that a quirk in our economy often means that kids have readier access to the internet than do their teachers?
Our economy, alas, has many such quirks. On the one hand, this digital divide between teachers and their pupils is a rare occurrence. Largely a private school phenomenon. And even then, in but the ones at the top of the log. Across much of our school system the digital divide shows up in more ways than one. Despite the Nigerian’s ballyhooed access to the internet via mobile devices, anecdotal evidence puts the number of under-18 Nigerians with access to a personal computer at levels much lower. Such, indeed, is the nature of this lack that while the transition to computer-based testing for exams like the one conducted by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) might be touted as an advance on the manual sort (with its propensity for gaming the system), the truth may be that we may simply have introduced another hurdle in the path of the poor and vulnerable.
Are these arguments for a root-and-branch re-appraisal of our educational system? If the current curriculum is anything to go by, the answer to this is a resounding “Yes”. It may be hard to future-proof education. But it is easy to understand that a curriculum that includes “shorthand” in the junior secondary school syllabus is not going anywhere in a hurry. But far more important for the kind of change this economy requires is the one that upscales the curriculum with which would-be teachers are trained.