Africa fails to understand the lessons

Schooling, as practised in most African countries, has little relationship to education, because it does not prepare children for their futures as economically active and critical citizens, I argued last week in the first article of a three-part series suggesting we need to “reimagine” schooling.

Here I want to consider some of the causes of the failure of schooling systems across sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps the most important cause is language. Children have succeeded in schools with few books, no desks and no proper classrooms – but no child succeeds if he or she does not understand the language used for teaching. A recent study in South Africa indicated that a significant proportion of grade six pupils could only understand the language of teaching with difficulty.

But language is only part of the challenge for many rural and peri-urban pupils. Schooling systems in Africa fail to respond to the culture, interests and realities of most children from the majority culture – there is a serious language and culture gap between most pupils and schools. Here is a simple example: when a middle-class pupil gets a maths question on how far a train travels in a set time given varied speeds, that pupil can envisage the train. But a rural pupil who has never seen a train will need to start by trying to understand what a train is and the significance of using a train in the question – before accessing the algorithm and problem to be solved.

This takes longer, adds layers of meaning and at each level mistakes can be made. For example, an exam maths question in which pupils were asked to calculate the “pitch” of a roof was understood by a number of pupils as “peach”, leading to completely incomprehensible answers about fruit.

At the same time, oral tradition is being lost because schooling devalues it. Many rural households do not buy books and so disadvantage their children, but we do not put pressure on schools to make use of the oral tradition that is often still strong in those households.

Language skills
Although we can identify the language of teaching as a critical issue, solving it is among the hardest of the tasks facing education systems. That is because almost all the literature on language in education argues that learning to read and write should be in one’s home language for at least the first six years of schooling and that the language of teaching should taught from grade one as a subject. This is very difficult to achieve if teachers’ own language skills are weak and learners have many home languages.

In most schools this means being taught in an African language through the primary school phase while learning the exogenous language – English, French, Arabic – as a subject. To do this well requires texts across all subjects in African languages along with well-trained teachers in both languages.

But most African countries have tended to teach in the home ­language for the first three years and then revert to the exogenous language. Studies have shown that this is too early for most children: they fail in three years to grasp concepts and become fluent in their own ­language and, when faced with lessons in the exogenous language, increasingly fail because they lack the linguistic foundations to grasp the concepts required for learning.

Obviously, building the vocabulary, texts and concepts in all African languages is a huge task, but experiments with Afrikaans, Yoruba and Ethiopian languages show it can be done. It requires political commitment, some funds and co-operative publishing houses. Unfortunately, all too often Western and Arabic donors and publishing houses have a vested interest in getting children learning in the exogenous language because it is easier to fund and justify back home. And government members who succeeded in the present system see no reason to change a system in which their own children will be the winners.

Pupil commitment
A second cause of failure in African schools relates to the quality of the teaching. Recent years have seen an escalation in teachers’ qualifications, but with little or no positive effect on results. All too often the university training teachers are exposed to is too academic and removed from the reality of rural and peri-urban schools. Insisting on a university degree for teachers means that many young people, who would love to teach but cannot afford it, do not become teachers. We need to acknowledge that teachers do not need to be highly trained: often, at primary level, community members who are committed, understand their children and turn up to school every day after limited training and ongoing classroom-based support and mentoring are better teachers than those who have gone through university and would prefer to be doing an office job.

Poor school leadership is linked to the problem of weak teachers. No country in sub-Saharan Africa trains its principals for the position prior to appointment, although South Africa is moving in that direction. Often, good teachers are moved out of the classroom to a position involving complex human resource, financial and political issues for which they are unprepared. The result is poorly managed schools that almost always let down their pupils.

Finally, high unemployment in most African economies means that there is likely to be a backwash effect on pupil commitment, which is reinforced by strong countercultures related to gangs and drug dealing that present alternative access to financial success. This works on pupils often struggling with trauma related to their family situation and the political and communal violence that has affected so many children across the continent, including South Africa.

To counter failure, schools are teaching longer, giving more homework and generally stressing the pupils more. By contrast, Finland, which is among the highest-performing countries in education, gives little homework and has shorter school days than most other countries, but when in school learners are constantly on the task.

What are the lessons and alternatives? I will try to answer this in next week’s final article.

Education development specialist Dr Martin Prew is visiting fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education.

This is the second in his three-part series on “reimagining schooling”

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