‘We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.’ — Albert Einstein
I currently work in an education technology firm in Nigeria with a sole aim of revamping access to education and it’s modus. Expressly, let’s train the young minds to be deep independent thinkers and problem solvers and still not leave the confines of the curriculum rather than our present-day traditional pedagogy — facts and figures. To be leaders of their tomorrow, they must possess the ability to think and make sense of whatever information they receive.
Speaking retrospectively, I have once not mulled over our education system or perceived a fault with the teaching approach until I got the job. If you are out of school, you can recall how you were instructed on a subject like biology. You have a teacher promenade to a class based on a regimented schedule to teach a subject like pollution. The instructor explains directly from textbooks the types of pollution it causes and probably few examples of its effects across the globe, right? And after the perpetual memorizing and cramming, we were expected like a compact disc to play every word that was fastened into the brain in an examination perhaps. This was the approach for about 20 or so years of my life with few exceptions. And that is still the modus operandi at least speaking from a Nigerian perspective.
On the flip side, the media is scattered with employers’ outcry and relentless hunt for well-rounded and innovative graduates. Graduates who can think constructively and systematically solve problems on their toes. As key players in the education system, the tertiary institutions for instance are set up for this task. Prepare students for the ‘job market and sustainable employment by enhancing technical and supportive skills for the field of work’. But the education system is plagued with a myriad of problems such as poor funding, paucity of qualified teachers, poor learning environment, outdated teaching aids (I found out that some states still use a high school curriculum as far back as 2008!) etc, leaving them almost incapacitated to fulfilling their objectives.
What is the inevitable effect?
Nairametrics reported that in 2020, there were about 21.7 million unemployed Nigerians and to say nothing of the underemployed folks. Many end up as secondary or primary school teachers, drivers, farmers, salesmen, marketers etc. I have personally had a meaningful conversation with a tricycle rider (popularly known as keke) in Lagos who happens to be a graduate from the eastern part of the country. Would we say this smart person (in my opinion) is not fit to get a job or there are no jobs at all? There was even another devastating news in 2018 from the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) about an advertisement position for 500 vacancies, but 700,000 with 2,000 of the graduates holding first-class degrees applied for the job! This is nothing but a thorn in our flesh, but how do we then get rid of it?
What about creating more schools?
Towards the end of 2019, there are 134 recognized Polytechnics and 174 universities and about 600,000 graduates are produced from these ‘manufacturing factories’ annually which is incomparable to about 3.9 million graduates from over 5000 institutions in the US, but about 16 million US citizens are unemployed as of August 2020 (about 14.7% of US’ population). We then ask, is creation of more schools the rational action to take? Interestingly, towards the start of 2019, there were plans in motion by the National University Commission to license about 303 more private universities! But has the already established schools solved the problem yet? Or will the new schools have a new set of faculty members and curriculum? Is there a guarantee that they will meet up with other quality education parameters? These gloomy reports translate to the fact that there are loopholes in the system and as a matter of concern require urgent attention!
What practical solutions are inherent?
Considering this anomaly, how can we resolve this mismatch between the products from the institutions and the labor market? Wait! You might cast the blame on the government since they determine the teaching modules, have to create a conducive environment or the parents that are in charge of the nutritional and developmental needs of their wards. Well, that is totally understandable and true, but what about the teachers? Should they be kicked off the blame table? They have first hand contact with the student and sometimes tête-à-tête with each of them, so isn’t that a strong signal that they’ve got striking roles to play?
Why we can blame the teachers too.
In as much as I believe that the problem is multifaceted, the teachers still have a fundamental task. You are given a grass cutter machine to mow the lawn in 30 minutes, irrespective of where you start from, your sender is only interested in the completion of the task, right? It applies here as well. The government provides the curricula, the teachers determine their choice of delivery.
If a student is just given notes on abstract topics clueless about its application to real life, how does such a child make a head or tail of it? How is he supposed to develop the pertinent critical thinking skills that are requisites to attract employers? The key critical thinking skills include analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, open-mindedness, and problem-solving. How can a history teacher instill these skills with the topics taught?
No wonder the phrase school is not everything, you must develop skills for traction in the labor market after school has gained momentum. But why not in schools? What then did I go to school for? An average graduate must have spent about 20 years of his/her life in the four walls of a school, and I believe the decisions young minds make within these years eventually shape their future. Research even propose that the most important years of an individual’s life could be between 17 and 24 .
Therefore, it is pertinent that these skills be taught and developed right in the school, specifically senior secondary level and in the university. The apparent divorce or disparity between employers’ requirements and graduates’ skills, if they (graduates) have, is very disturbing.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave a succinct goal of education, which I totally agree with- ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically’ which can and should be developed in our various institutions of learning. Former President of South Africa cum World acclaimed Human Rights Activist elegantly said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world’, but what about if the weapon is blunt or a better description, obsolete?
As an employer, I don’t think you can withstand an employee who will be nothing but a liability. A graduate with the inability to think critically or even a little task as compose an email to a client or work productively with a difficult team member when deadlines are looming, even after stating that they can work under pressure on paper (CV). Why will I pay a person who cannot apply the rudiments of physics to validate a theory or even question a position? This unfortunately is our reality!
Education is derived from the Latin word ēducātiō, which means ‘to erect’, ‘to raise’, ‘to lead’. So when you educate a child, you direct them on the right path and when you lead, it should be a better place than the present situation. So, how can we lead and lead well?
Students should be taught critical thinking and reasoning skills nevertheless bearing on their curriculum or course work. They must be given the liberty to put their knowledge to practice. The classrooms should be figuratively and literally like ‘internship placements’. Jonathan Haber, author of Critical Thinking Essentials and other scholars dubbed this essential skill the 21st century skill and fortunately, it can be taught and practiced.
Haber for example recommended that coaching the students with these skills requires creating activities, courses and assignments with the aim of providing opportunities to apply the principles of critical thinking to decode real life problems inside and outside the classroom. Also and importantly, the attitude and persona of the tutor must also be inspiring enough to woo the students to continue practicing those skills in their homes.
A pool of researchers from Iran conducted a qualitative research in 2016 on the requirements and barriers of effective teaching methods in higher education in Iran. They noted that a ‘good teaching method helps the students to question their preconceptions, and motivates them to learn, by putting them in a situation in which they come to see themselves as the authors of answers, as the agents of responsibility for change.’ Teachers do the motivating and teaching, students are poised with the skill to be original thinkers and solution providers.
The bible applied this method too.
Even the holy book provided succinct details of how Jesus Christ explained complex concepts in the most simple and terse way not disassociating the fact that he had authority. He applied real life scenarios to concepts or precepts which many might never have understood and will probably be a hot theological debate topic with no tangible resolution. Imagine, if Christ just said ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ without showing us examples of how that was possible through the lives of patriarchs and prophets or the story of the sower. If he had taught us genuine repentance without the story of the prodigal son, we certainly will be clueless about what it meant. I will personally propound a theory about fruitfulness, it might be applauded for being very intellectual and philosophical, but still a waste!
Having pointed this, it is imperative we ponder on what if our institutions apply the doctrine of real life application, problem solving approach to many of our abstract subjects taught? You can imagine the type of products from our ‘manufacturing factories’- well rounded and branded’ individuals who can think for themselves and breed irrefutable results and not timid and mediocre thinkers who are only interested in running errands and reflectors of others thoughts.
The teaching profession is a noble one, teachers must be viewed as role models, ‘pathfinders’, leaders etc because they actually are. Albeit, they must prove the notion by their actions and results in the classrooms.
If indeed by 2040, Africa will be that largest workforce in the world and possess the capacity to accommodate it, I conclude by reinforcing the fact that education as a weapon must be painstakingly sharpened and meticulously prepared to conquer the challenges that accompany this opportunity.