African Education for 21st Century Africans

The last five years have seen unprecedented economic progress for much of Africa. A surprising surge of popular defiance in the face of autocratic regimes in North Africa also promises to bring waves of social and political reforms across the continent. However, if we do not transform and adapt our failing public educational systems with urgency, these promising trends, which hold real potential for moving millions out of poverty and enabling Africa to take its proper place in the world arena, could stall out.

The stark reality is that our education systems are not nurturing young people with the relevant skills to keep pace with such rapid economic and political transformations. The new economic trends challenge the perception that Africa can only make progress with traditional aid models that, like colonialism before them, had the effect of stripping our societies of much of our sense of self-reliance, cultures, history -- our very identities as Africans. As Africa changes, we again have to pay serious attention to the long-standing debate about education in Africa. The curricula that currently exist across much of the continent do not support the changes that Africa needs. As I scour the region for a relevant curriculum that will best serve a model school that I am involved in building in Kenya, I have found that progressive educators, in schools, universities and education ministries across Africa, recognize that we require a progressive ‘Africanisation’ of the curricula if we are to make teachers, schools and universities in Africa truly successful I am searching for a curriculum that integrates appropriate skills development relevant to the labour market. One that is learner-centred and inclusive, with a comprehensive curriculum to cater for the needs, interests, abilities and challenges of all learners. A curriculum that focuses on leadership skills, critical thinking and technical skills that help nurture well-rounded individuals. It disappoints me that I cannot find an appropriate curriculum. But rather than wait and hope that someone else does, I will take the responsibility to develop one myself. It is not enough that we can build new schools or inspire our teachers to work harder for their learners if they do not have the curricula that they associate with and believe in and that serves as the basis for a good education. I am talking about progressive Africanisation, not the Bantustan education that was imposed on people here in South Africa where the education systems were scientifically engineered to keep most of the people living and working in the shadows. No, I refer to a good education that will draw from within the learner that will tap into the unique mindset and skills of the African today. A good education that embodies the current values, customs and systems of Africans. An education that will ensure that learners will be of service to themselves, their community and ultimately their continent. In most of Africa, the foreign educational curricula imposed 150 years ago are still being used today. Formal education in Africa came with the missionaries; the texts to be read and mastered were holy books; the lessons in school were moral in character. The primary reason for literacy was so that one could read and chant religious texts. An understanding or interpretation of the text was unnecessary and undesirable. Professional career development education as we know it today did not exist in our traditional societies. Any trade was learned from older members of the family – the farmers sent out with their children to till the fields; the fishermen passed on their unique skills to their sons. Educational curricula in Africa have expanded, but the fundamentals remain the same. Unfortunately the notion of family trade is fading as a tradition, leaving a void where many young Africans lose their bearings, where education is some kind alien presence, intimidating and often irrelevant to their deprived realities. Even the learners who do go through schools, for the large part, do not develop the confidence in themselves to take carefully, moderated and calculated risks. They have not been equipped with critical thinking skills and therefore do not trust that they can learn on their own. We must fill this void to ensure that the future belongs to organizations that are dynamic and innovative and to individuals who continue to learn throughout their lives. They will want to learn because learning is relevant to their lives from their earliest years and makes them richer in every way. Language is central to this dilemma. Implementing the existing curricula in languages that are foreign to the indigenous African often results in miscommunication, doubt and inaccuracies. Language is more than just a means of communication. It personifies our culture and our thought processes. Language plays an important part in shaping our perception of reality. Learners from different cultural backgrounds communicate in a way that is acceptable within their culture but may be perceived as inappropriate or ineffective by others. A common problem faced by learners who are learning English as an additional language, for example, is their lack of the vocabulary and language required to express their logic or reasoning. How many learners have we lost who, though they possess the inherent ability to reason well, they may lack language skills and are perceived as not having the right reasoning and logic abilities? Today we assess students on insignificant and vague objectives. We no longer understand what it is we are assessing, how relevant the assessments are to progress and whose box we are ticking off. The underlying thinking of educational curricula is simply creating failed teachers, failed learners and failed schools. Failed states are not far off. This intolerable and crippling situation cannot continue. As I search for answers I see ways that effective, curriculum adaptations can have a
significant impact in generating learners' and teachers’ empowerment around the continent. Many schools are finding ways to help fuel learner’s empowerment by bridging the disconnect between learning the facts and learning how to interpret facts - a fundamental shift. The Mail & Guardian (19 March), for example, reported on the OneVoice project in South Africa that realized that kids were learning about HIV/AIDs in class, but their knowledge was not having an impact on their behaviour. It took learner-led workshops and peer discussions to make the facts relevant to their lives and bring about real changes in behaviour. We must create instructional strategies and materials, and implement and evaluate them carefully. The focus should be learner-centered. Good education requires rigorous curricular content and assessment practices. These can be implemented successfully only after we have established that we are using a language that makes sense to our learners. We must ensure that this language communicates the values and dynamics of different cultures and how people communicate and learn. Today with regard to ‘Africanising’ the curricula, I would recommend that we critically review the performance of our learners and educators to find better ways of fulfilling our needs on the continent and make decisions as to what works; what values and skills in these curricula will advance us as a continent. We need to establish and develop core values of the curricula. Creating a synergy with the teachers who execute the curricula is a fundamental requirement for the process to be successful; how can teachers be allowed to contribute is a question that we must ask regularly. In order for there to be a meaningful change learning institutions, industries and business, must participate in this crusade and made to feel that they are a genuine part of it and can make a difference. All the new perspectives must be integrated. We should share the wisdom productively. Social studies in particular presents an interesting opportunity for change. This is because it covers history, geography, culture, government, economics, technology and current affairs. Certainly for the primary years of a child’s education, the curriculum should base its content on Africa. I am convinced that a solid understanding of who we are must form the basis of our interaction within our societies and with the global community. We will no longer simply take on board what we are told to teach; instead we must be willing to debate, exchange ideas, opinions, values, trade as partners of the global community. Africa has to leverage the strengths of the educational values that exist, understand the reasons why they are strengths and be done with those that no longer serve Africa and its children. Only then will we be able to recognize and create with confidence Africa's contribution to national and global development. Without this capacity, we will find ourselves further marginalized from the opportunities that we do not see or understand.