FIRST OF ALL, AN INTRODUCTION
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” While Neil Armstrong may not have had it in mind, those words of his, uttered upon landing on the moon, succinctly describe the potential of education in the life of every individual. Any girl, boy, woman and man can rise from the throes of benightedness to the fore of a productive, successful life when initiated, so to speak, into the knowledge enterprise – that is a coinage which, in a nutshell, connotes data mining, organizational learning, and intelligent applications. It is part of an ecosystem that embodies and captures the full essence of education: literacy and skill-acquisition.
In post-colonial Nigeria, the bureaucratic structure for this educational ecosystem has always been in place. We have a school system tailored to sync with the three-tiered British model of primary, secondary and higher education. In the past (circa mid-nineteenth century) the management of education rested exclusively with the foreign missionaries. Now, government plays a bigger role, rendering education as a social service; and there is a burgeoning pool of private stakeholders at all tiers.
Furthermore, there have been frequent reviews of the educational apparatus in this country. The minders of the education industry have often enacted well-intentioned programmes ranging from the Universal Primary Education of 1976 to the Universal Basic Education of 1999. More recently, the government of Osun State launched a well-received information and communication technology scheme fittingly dubbed “Opon Imo”, which in literal translation means Tablet of Knowledge; and the administration of Kano state, in partnership with the federal government, has in a daring move proposed to review the Almajiri system of education. The goal of these schemes and many others has been to ensure every Nigerian child has access to quality education.
While the programmes highlighted in the paragraph above and many others that have been exploited have had success to certain measures, there are still unbecoming deficiencies prevalent in the Nigerian educational system. Some of these shortcomings are conspicuous (inadequate funding and its ramifications; overlap of roles of federal, state and local governments; indiscipline of students and tutors etc) but, perhaps, it is the less obvious ones which, however counter-intuitively, have dragged us back these many years: the misconception of what education actually is; the emphasis of standardised tests over inane talents; the polarizing concept of science vis-à-vis the non-science disciplines; the glorification of a harmonised national curriculum over personalised, niche-centric course content and so on.
In this essay I shall highlight specific solutions to both the conspicuous (extrinsic) problems of our education system and the less apparent (intrinsic) ones; but pay special emphasis on the latter particularly because even after we may have solved the problem of funding, discipline and every other well-publicised predicament, education may still lack something integral: An individualised, niche-sensitive platform for fertile minds. This, I reckon, is the fundamental tenet necessary for Nigeria to bridge the gap in literacy and skills.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS EDUCATION?
I must concede that I have already committed a blunder in my introduction and I daresay that it is peculiar to most of us: There is a widespread misconception that education is limited to the formalised, classroom-situated, and syllabus-organised Western approach. This notion is the most besetting stigma that must be taken care of before we explore the means of improving the broad spectrum of education.
Experts in the field generally agree that there are three forms of education in Nigeria: Indigenous (apprenticeship), Qur’anic, and European-style educational systems. They differ uniquely in design, method, curriculum, and regulation but that does not necessarily make any one better than the others. Furthermore, there are overlapping elements of each one in the others. So, rather than denounce any of them, there should be recognition, accentuation and appreciation of the specific needs each genre serves wider society. With this understanding in mind our goal must be to accelerate their potential to help respective scholars meet the niche for which they are being educated. For instance, in Nigeria the “professionals” who fix our cars when they are broken are usually not university-trained mechanical engineers. Instead, they are roadside auto-mechanics who have undergone an apprenticeship program that may have lasted for anything between 6 months to 7 years. To suggest that this form of education is any less significant than the equivalent – yes, equivalent – obtained at orthodox tertiary institutions is as narrow-minded as it is non-pragmatic.
So, alloying these three forms of education under a singular umbrella how does one properly define education in the Nigerian context?
There are standard dictionary definitions but I am particularly drawn to that of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, who famously described education as “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This curtly captures the exploits that educated persons can achieve. The Apollo 11 mission which I alluded to in my introduction was a culmination of an educational process or, as I have already described, the knowledge enterprise. When that space shuttle landed on the moon it portended a remarkable change in how we view the world. This is an element of what Mr Mandela had in mind. However, as well-meaning and utilitarian as this definition is it does not quite cut the full array of the entire enterprise of education especially in the Nigerian context.
There is a general consensus that education shapes the mind. So it is not inappropriate to consider the merit of education from that mindset, no pun intended. Cognitive scientists often refer to education as mental mind-making, or more technically, “cognitive cartography”. In this regard, education is essentially crafting a pathway for a mind to follow and to roam. This definition fittingly co-opts the dual elements of standardised learning and unmitigated creativity. It also enmeshes the core features of the various forms of education which we have in this part of the world.
UNESCO published a fact sheet report on education in Nigeria as at 2010. In a nation bereft of such data this report was, and still is, a timely score sheet of national performance. The first fascinating figure in that report was 61%. This number represented the literacy rate (the percentage of the population above 15 years of age who can both read and write) in Nigeria as a whole. That was three years ago but in that interim there has really been no deliberate attempt to improve that figure which, relative to the 88.8% attributed to Namibia or 86.4% held by South Africa, is quite low.
However, this number does not tell the complete story for two diametrically opposite reasons. Firstly, a nation like Zimbabwe had a phenomenally high literacy rate of 90.4% yet this is not commensurate with the economic fortunes of the country. Not that economic prosperity is the ultimate scale to measure the relevance of a literate population but as the figures for Scandinavian countries suggest it should be a reasonable parameter. Secondly, while 61% implies that more than half of Nigeria’s population are literate there is a lopsided dichotomy between the literacy rates in the north and south of the country. The report suggested that 72% of primary age children never attended school in Borno State (located in the Northeast) compared to the 3% in states in the southern zone. This stark lopsidedness is a big challenge which portends – and is already posing – serious problems for the northern region.
Another grim deduction from the report is a steady decline in primary school enrolment between 2006 and 2009. The figure gradually rises around 2010 but not to the 2006 level. Considering that elementary education is the most primal of all the respective tiers it must not be taken for granted and strategic steps must be taken to ensure this happens. I shall come to that shortly.
Finally, many policy-makers often make the mistake of comparing the Nigerian situation with those of other countries with significantly higher literacy rates. While the 100% literacy rate of a country like Liechtenstein is worthy of emulation I have always advocated a homegrown approach to improving our scholastic lot. This is chiefly because of the individuality of each nation. Nigeria is unique with respect to its own culture, population, challenges, myth and so on. To blindly adopt a model that worked for another country without paying attention to the peculiarities of our society will be a major misstep. For instance, Liechtenstein, unlike Nigeria, is not faced with the issue of Almajiris. The sentiments attached to the concept of religious education require tact dissimilar from what a Liechtensteiner will be used to. Still, there are ample lessons to learn from the educational models of other countries.
FROM HERE TO THERE: CONSTRUCTING THE BRIDGE
Broadly speaking, the answer to our educational needs is not reform. Sir Ken Robinson in a speech delivered at a TED conference famously said, “Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment [but] reform is simply improving a broken model.” This resonates as true in the Nigerian situation. In a bid to effect reform several changes have been made to the Nigerian educational system. Most interestingly, there was a transformation from the 6-3-3-4 system to the 9-3-4 platform and subsequent changes have followed. Therein lays the major challenge: thinking that reform will better the system. Rather than paper over the cracks on the wall we should be drawing a unique master plan and laying new bricks.
So, to bridge the literacy and skill gap the approach should not just be a routine and massive enrolment of pupils into schools. Yes, that would help somewhat, larger percentage of us will own certificates; but that will not serve the broader goal of adopting the knowledge enterprise to build a society up-to-date with modern realities. So, how do we get from here (a nation with 61% literacy rate, large number of out-of-school youths, unemployable graduates, and conservative academic goals) to there (a nation where all minds are groomed by an educational model that emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual to add value to society)?
CUSTOMISING AND ACCENTUATING EACH FORM
In the Nigerian context, the first step in bridging the literacy and skill gap is highlighting and purposefully pursuing the merits of the different genres of education particularly that of the less conventional forms.
Indigenous education will continue to be relevant because it serves the purpose of providing hands-on training for the apprentices. In this regard it is most suitable for vocations like fashion design, electrical studies, auto-mechanic training and, more contemporarily, information and communication technology. The list is not exhaustive. While we often label it under informal education in certain respects we can inculcate elements of the formal one into it. To begin with, there should be emphasis on laboratory work fine-tuned for this genre. Typical vocational training involves an apprentice dutifully watching his or her master and then practising over time. What laboratory work will do is allow the apprentices explore beyond the scope of what his or her trainer can cover. It takes away limitation and imbibes creativity. The consequent result of this is innovation in technique and approach to solving problems in that particular field.
Also, there is the need to have some regulation, again, fine-tuned for the context of indigenous education. Thus, unlike stiff conditions needed to run a university, for instance, prerequisites to run a confectioneries training school might just be limited to registration with a licensed body that sets necessary standards for work condition, safety, and relevant terms.
For Qua’ranic education there is need for greater scope in its content – and this is one area where we have to be mindful of the peculiarities surrounding Nigeria. Calls for outright ban of Almajiri education are well-intentioned but, in my book, the programme requires a revolution which can retain the core element of religious instruction but nick out the unsavoury vagrancy associated with it. In addition, the scope should be wider than just teachings from the Holy Koran. Elements of apprenticeship and formal education should be inculcated into this scheme such that pupils add practical values beyond religion to their respective lives and wider society. Thus, new schooling facilities should be developed, vocational aspects of a wide array of endeavours will be taught by well-trained practitioners. Furthermore, there should be standard regulation by a government agency. Islamic aspects of training may be handled by seasoned clerics but for other skill-acquisition courses relevant experts should approve and recommend the study. I have already said education is conditioning of the mind and as such training exclusively based on religious doctrines helps in moral upbringing but might not be able to condition the trainee’s mind to function in secular purview of life.
Steps by the present Nigerian government to review the Almajiri education are being carried out in good faith. It is my hope that those students are taken off the streets and given a thorough training that will enable them ‘graduate’, and then eke out a decent living by applying the skills acquired.
Formal, European-style education has been standardised over the years. There is usually a curriculum that tries to cover the entirety of a discipline. There are subtle areas where the modus operandi should be altered but generally formal education at primary, secondary and higher levels already have an enviable standard.
TEACHERS IN THE REAL SENSE ARE THE BRIDGE.
Educationists emphasize the big role of curriculum and course content. It is standard practice to have a list of areas where students are expected to have reasonable knowledge of. For formal education this knowledge is judged by standardised examinations, for non-conventional forms of education there is lesser emphasis on examination. In trying to bridge the gap between literacy and skill for Nigerians through education there should be increased emphasis on the teacher rather than the course content and examinations. I will explain.
While we are using the expression “bridge the gap” in the metaphoric sense, in the real world it is a teacher who actually builds that bridge. Education, in an arguable sense, is a means to an end. Teachers are the purveyors of that means. If our teachers are already lacking in competence there is no way we can expect to have products of their teaching brimming in competence.
Many times when minders of education in this country have spoken of the need to restructure the sector there is usually minimal emphasis on the quality of teachers in the schools or workshops. I should be quick to point out that it’s not just the quality of the teachers that matter; their motivation is also crucial.
People wrongly look to the scientists and other pioneers of technology to seek out a picture of what our future will look like. That is a blunder. If you want to know what society will look like, or, for that matter, what society will be like ask the teachers. This is because the future of a nation is not determined by the quality of its technology or the size of its external reserves but by the sheer quality of its human resources. It is our teachers who determine this quality. The most important members of society that will safeguard our future are not the politicians but our teachers.
In Finland, a master’s degree is a requirement to be a teacher. They have recognised the fundamental role tutors play in education and have enacted that comparatively high standard. For the Nigerian context, a master’s degree will be no less a significant boost to education but is not necessary a panacea to lack of quality teachers. It is one thing to know and have specialised knowledge in an academic field; it is another thing to know how to pass on that knowledge. A person may be a good scientist but not necessary a good teacher.
Rather than advanced degrees, the emphasis should be on colleges of education. I think the most mind-blowing transformation our education sector can have is make training at a college of education mandatory to become a teacher; and – here’s the best part – this training will be after NOT before a previous graduate training in a specific discipline at a university, polytechnic, technical school or school of theology. In this sense, colleges of education will function as institutions to earn higher diplomas.
Let’s pause and think. I have already posited that not all graduates are good teachers. Therefore, if we really value the quality of knowledge our young minds will be receiving from teachers we must emphasise thorough training for the purveyors of that knowledge. Already, many universities have faculties of education where people are trained to be educationists but to be honest this does not quite meet the niche of being a platform of training people who can transmit knowledge.
In this regard, the current operation where members of the National Youth Service Scheme are deployed as teachers is a major disservice to education. The argument is not even the credential of the NYSC teacher but their lack of training in the unique art of knowledge transmission.
Teachers understand their pupils better. They know the subjects where individual students are not quite good at but there’s even more: teachers can groom individual talents, and personalize course content. This way we do not just have students who learn by rote, enrol in disciplines because of improper guidance, cram to pass examinations but those who have been educated to function in the particular niche that suits them best. That is how they will be best prepared to render value to society upon graduation.
THINK OF EDUCATION AS AN INVESTMENT
At an address delivered in Abuja in 2010, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova quoted a Chinese proverb: If you are planning for a year, sow rice. If you are planning for a decade, plant trees. If you are planning for a lifetime, educate people. This statement cannot be any truer in Nigeria.
The United Nations has recommended that 26% of national budgets should be devoted to education. As laudable as that is we must look at the Nigerian context. At undergraduate level I attended a university where emphasis was placed on infrastructure. Roads, street lights, recreational hotspots and several other capital projects were the major projects the school administration ring-fenced the bulk of its budget for. I will not go far as to suggest those projects were unimportant but in the larger scheme of things when we advocate for a national budget for education to be 26% we must wonder how this money will eventually be put to use. While roads were being constructed our laboratories were lacking in fundamental apparatus. So, it is very important that Nigerian government follows the guideline of the UN – as a matter of fact, considering the size of our population that 26% may even be too small – but the main challenge is the budget of the budgeted 26%.
The key consideration in the allocation of funds for education is getting our priorities right. In this regard there must be understanding of how capital-intensive certain projects are and non-capital-intensive others are. Also, there must be a renewed emphasis on research and development. Education is a dynamic endeavour. It must adapt with the times and as such, up-to-the-minute research must be done to ensure we are not teaching students how to manufacture VCRs when the world has moved on to blue-rays.
Another chunk of education budget should be for rewards of teachers. Very frequently in Nigeria we have union of teachers at all the educational tiers protesting poor pay. The truth is that there is solid justification for their protests. In my point on teachers, I spoke about the need for motivation. Salary is a huge motivation. The minders of education must pay particular attention to the remuneration meted out to teachers understanding that these teachers will ultimately determine the future of our country.
Still on this point, we must note what I have already emphasised time and again: the non-conventional forms of education are no less important than the westernised types. In discussions of funding we must not neglect the indigenous and theological training. In this regard, it will not be untoward to provide financial relief for establishments that run apprenticeship schemes. This will enable the trainers to accept more applicants and also fund the laboratory-like work which will enable creativity and, consequently, innovation. Indigenous and other non-conventional forms of education help draft the teeming population of people who might not be able to get a formal education or do not even fancy it.
DYNAMISM: DESKTOP COMPUTERS TO LAPTOPS TO TABLETS TO MINITABLETS TO WHO KNOWS?
In trying to bridge the literacy gap we must ask ourselves what parameters should be used to describe literacy itself. In this age of e-communication and internet the stereotypical definition for literacy changes every day. However, we can simply define a literate as someone who possesses the ability to read, write and handle the operating system of a computer. This definition might change tomorrow with the invention of newer technologies, who knows?
The purpose of learning and garnering skills is to add value onto society. In this age of sweeping cultural changes, there is very limited use of any knowledge or skill if it is not integrated with appropriate technology. In this regard information and communication technology stands out. From retail services to high-speed rail transportation the role of ICT cannot be waived.
Minders of education must fully integrate ICT training into every academic programme for all forms and tiers of education. If we are educating people to actually function in society then they must grasp the knowledge, however basic, of use of computers. As an example, it is not enough to understand the textbook explanation of stereochemistry; three-dimensional graphics depicting atomic orbitals and so on eases assimilation of this knowledge. Also, a roadside mechanic will benefit immensely from the numerous applications on digital devices that measure the velocity of a car relative to carburettor efficiency. To balance things up, the job of a Muslim cleric explaining the subtle changes in Arabic spellings over the years will be rendered easier with computer models. I could go on and on.
In this regard, a number of state governments in Nigeria are already enacting strategic policies to meet up with the times. Worthy of note is the Opon Imo programme by Osun State which I have already alluded to. Senior secondary students are freely given hand-held tablets on which a number of electronic textbooks and relevant software have been installed. The prime benefit of this scheme is early exposure to state-of-the-art technology.
As enviable as these schemes are I remain an Oliver Twist with petty grudges. Certainly, handing school kids computers is good but then what? Do their teachers even know how to handle these gadgets? Will there be constant high-speed internet to enable access to up-to-the-minute information? The governments introducing computer training to curriculum must not stop at this hand-out there should be proper integration of use of computers to classwork. Projectors must be installed in classrooms, electricity must be constant, internet access must be available lest those gadgets become gaming platforms for bored pupils.
Once upon a time, we could have an education system of mere books and other page-flipping textbooks. That time has passed. In the dynamic world we live in at the moment knowledge of ICT and ICT-related programmes is mandatory for all and sundry but most particularly to those who we are grooming to be future leaders, teachers, pharmacists, auto-mechanics, Olympiads, bead-makers, fashion designers, Imams, missionaries etc.
LITERACY AND SKILL: CUDDLING BEDFELLOWS
Phillip Emeagwali, the famous Nigerian in diaspora, once told the story of Al-Khwarizmi, the great Islamic mathematician. Al-Khwarizmi was on his way to Mecca when he saw three young men crying. He enquired why they were in that state and the eldest answered, “Our father, upon his death, instructed us to divide his 17 camels thus: To my oldest son I leave half of my camels, my second son shall have one-third of my camels, and my youngest son is to have one-ninth of my camels”
“What then is your problem then?” Al-Khwarizmi asked.
“We have been to school and learned that 17 is a prime number that is divisible only by one and itself and cannot be divided by two, three or nine. Since we love our camels we cannot divide them exactly,” they answered.
Al-Khwarizmi thought for a while and asked “Will it help if I offer my camel and make the total 18?”
“No, no, no,” they cried. “You are on your way to Mecca and need your camel.”
“Go ahead, have my camel and divide the 18 camels amongst yourselves,” he said, smiling.
So the eldest took one-half of 18, or nine camels. The second took one-third of 18, or six camels. The youngest took one-ninth of 18, or two camels. After the division, one camel was left: Al-Khwarizmi’s camel, as the total number of camels divided among the sons (nine plus six plus two) equalled 17.
Al-Khwarizmi asked, “Now can I have my camel back?”
The moral of this story speaks for itself. The three young men were learned; they had academic knowledge of the limited divisibility of prime numbers but they lacked the skill of application. This problem is not limited to mathematics or science-related disciplines. In Nigeria we suffer a huge deficit of skill of application largely because our minders of education have, over time, come to underpin the utmost importance of examination results based on theoretical knowledge over on-the-field application. This merely encourages bookkeeping because pupils are rewarded for verbatim regurgitation of course content.
In bridging the literacy and skill gap we must not assume that a singular course of action will simultaneously help both causes. Increased enrolment of students in institutes of learning does not necessarily mean we will suddenly have plenty innovators, creators, thinkers and fellows willing to look beyond the course note. There must be stimulus to help students think beyond the curriculum. I have defined education as crafting a pathway for a mind to follow and to roam. The “follow” part potentiates literacy while the “roam” part provides room to explore beyond the classroom, curriculum or scope of study. We must teach our students to follow instruction but we must reward rather than punish – as is currently the case in many institutes – the scholar willing to question the status quo. That is only how we can push back the frontiers of knowledge and also add value to the immediate society.
While we already have the Child Rights Act on paper there is still a major challenge of its implementation. Our law-makers have done their bit with that piece of legislation. What is left is the will to carry it out. We need leaders who will purposefully ensure that the Child Right Act is implemented to the last full stop in Nigeria. Every child deserves an education. Their minds are fertile grounds. We will solve a lot of future problems if we sow in those ‘grounds’ the right seeds that will blossom into lush flowers of fresh minds.
For most of the problems we have in Nigeria – economic, political, technological etc – we are quick to blame it on bad leadership. As convenient as that is we must realize that our future will even be worse if we do not mould future leaders with the right set of learning, tools and skills. It starts with bridging the literacy gap from 61% that it currently is to 100%. It can be done. Simultaneously, we must bridge the skills gap from what it might be (there is no datum but it is most likely lower than 50%) to 100%. Again, it can be done, and must be done!