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Making education more homely

When my primary school English teacher once asked me what education I had received during the summer vacation, I was perplexed. All along, I had thought that education was something you received only at school. I replied by narrating the unpleasant experience of waking up early every day, except Sundays, to inspan oxen for the long walk to the mealie fields. 

Until my English teacher's question, I had never applied my mind to the English equivalents of the equipment used for ploughing, planting, raking and weeding, let alone the procedures employed. Nor had I thought about the English words for the great and entertaining activity of milking cows. 

I'm sure my compatriots suffer from this "disability" to this day. I recently asked a group of them what the literal translations of beautiful isiXhosa idioms construed from these activities are. Without wanting to embarrass them, I have to report that they all scored zero.

In the milking activity, for instance, you always kept the utensils together. As a related example, when you say two people are so in love that they are always seen together, you say ngumtya nethunga (they are a thong and a beaker). Similarly, a stranger suffering from extreme thirst would cry out to a homestead on his way: "Nakwelomntwana!" — literally, "even from a child's" (calabash will I appreciate sour milk to quench my thirst!).

In my opening paragraph, for instance, I should have said we were woken up "xa kumpondo zankomo" (when only cattle horns shine) instead of "early in the morning". When you say you are enticed to buy something by first seeing it, you say "ikhuba lithengwa ngokubonwa" (you buy a plough after having seen it). If two people look alike, you would say "ngumcephúcandiwe" (they are the two halves of the same gourd).

Lost connections
The point I'm making is that the foundation of our children's education has strayed away from their home experiences — and I would argue that is why some subjects are commonly assumed as necessarily having failure rates. This is surely because our education — as I surmised from my teacher's question — is introduced firstly as something foreign to us and secondly very late in our school career, so that whatever connections pupils might have with their own backgrounds have been already lost. 

The so-called difficult subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, agricultural science and accounting are cases in point. They are generally taught formally in the later grades and, worse, with no relationship whatsoever to what the pupil and her red-blanketed folks already know.

For instance, if our teacher had asked why our parents had built a ford or bridge for us to cross the river from Ntywenka Location to Mphemba School in the Eastern Cape, we would all have said it was to shorten the distance we had to walk and so arrive at school early — rather than going far upstream to a point where we could have crossed it. Translated into a mathematical truism, we'd have been saying that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points — a truism central to the geometry we went on to learn only much later.

Similarly, everybody, including tribespeople, knows that if Tata uMbeki has three horses and buys two more, he now has five horses: 

3 + 2 = 5, in simple arithmetic. But if we introduced gender, and say he has two geldings and one mare and then buys two more geldings, he now has four geldings and one mare. In simple maths: 2 (geldings) + 1 (mare) + 2 (geldings) + 0 (mare) = 4 geldings + 1 mare. 

Here we would have been employing an algebraic law we didn't abstractly know — that variables, in this case genders, must be kept constant. Here too is a straightforward illustration of personal experience, not formal schooling, on which an incremental algebra syllabus could be developed.

Pupils know from home experience that, when making a fire without matches, all you need do is rub two sticks sharply and fiercely until a flame appears. This is energy conversion in an example that helps to illustrate certain principles of physics.

A start in the study of organic chemistry
As one of the isiXhosa idioms I've used above shows, it is a common home experience that, when a calabash of milk is strategically placed in the sun and partly submerged in kraal manure, it quickly coagulates into sour milk ready for the great sorghum yoghurt (called umvubo). Also as boys, we would milk a cow in the veld and add a sour wild fruit to turn milk into sour milk. All that a pupil has to be told is that invisible bacteria emit an acid that solidifies the milk — perhaps a start in the study of organic chemistry. 

More than children from urban environments, rural children know well that frost (a solid state) melts into water (a liquid state) with the rising sun and ultimately turns into vapour. If it should be a very hot day, they know that the same vapour at very high levels condenses and may later turn into water (rain). These states (solid, liquid, vapour and so on) can also be used to provide concrete building blocks for future studies in physical chemistry. 

In agriculture, much can be said that is traditional or indigenous knowledge. Africans have always been accomplished farmers of livestock, plant, and fruit — precisely because they earnestly studied animal health, soil science and climate change. Indeed, they are said to have been nomadic precisely because they migrated from place to place in search of greener pastures. Why then teach agriculture so late in a pupil's schooling?

In short, therefore, I am making the case for ways in which "informal education" not only could but should be used as the foundation for "formal schooling". 

Properly implemented, this would not only help to demystify the so-called "high-risk, high-failure rate" subjects, but also go a long way towards making formal education, as it is currently conceived, a great deal less foreign to so many of our pupils.

Mncedisi Jordan is a former professor of accounting at the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University. He is a researcher in indigenous cultures 

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