Thursday, May 18, 2017

THINKING ALOUD: Challenge is not enrolment, but how to get children to learn

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

By Prof Zulfiqarali Premji

Sometime in 2012 when I was the Director of Post Graduate Studies at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas) I received a hand written letter from a postgraduate student pursuing an MMed degree.

The intent of the letter was to seek travel permission and it started this way: “My mother in law has died and since I am responsible for her death I am requesting permission to travel for her funeral”.

At first it sounded funny, but this could have had serious legal repercussions.

I at once called the student for clarification and he admitted that he was responsible for the funeral arrangements and not her death. A deeper analysis shows the challenges of communication and the quality of education at lower levels of education.

The low quality of education in Tanzania and much of the developing world is an open secret. There are many reports pointing to this state of affairs in the country. Children finishing primary school can hardly read or write a few sentences in English and Kiswahili and their overall conceptual knowledge is also vastly deficient. Getting children into school is only part of the education battle and counting kids in school is much easier than measuring learning curves. We must also ensure they learn once they are in school.

Tanzania has seen tremendous growth and progress in the education sector over the last decade. However, despite rapid expansion of primary and secondary school enrolment, the country’s education system continues to struggle to deliver quality education and to keep children in school.

There are no easy solutions in education. Solving the learning crisis will require flexible policies that allow stakeholders to experiment with their own approaches and solutions. No single intervention or innovation will transform failing schools or provide children with the opportunities they need for the 21st century. While there is no universal prescription for education, stakeholders can help foster environments where change is possible. The Ministry of Education (MoE)should worry more about learning and change from focusing exclusively on enrolment to focusing on learning.

Challenges and possible solutions

Not accepting change: The need to change with the new education theories about quality education. The traditional definition of school quality in the developing world is based on content mastery. Governmental agencies and organisations that support and promote quality education for all children must move beyond traditional models to help children develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are relevant to their lives and that can lift them out of poverty. For too long, governments and organisations investing in developing-world education have operated under the unquestioned assumption that improved test scores were clear evidence that their investments have paid off. It is time to seek out the interventions that lead to the greatest social and economic impact for the poor.

Listen to the local experts: I have met many local experts in education with several years of experience in teaching at different levels including university teaching. It is high time Ministry of Education recognises this available talent and not rely on their desk bureaucrats who lack insights of the main challenges in quality education

Early Childhood Education (ECE): By the time some children reach kindergarten, they are already far behind their peers in skills and measures of school readiness. These educational gaps tend to be much more difficult and costly to close as children advance through elementary, middle and high school. This realisation has led many to try to get it right from the start by expanding their financial investments in pre-kindergarten services, with a goal to better prepare young children for school success. ECE consist of activities intended to effect developmental changes at the period of the greatest growth and development of the brain. Tanzania adopted ECE in 1995 as shown in Education and Training Policy (ETP). Most of the ECE activities are confined to the urban areas and I do not see MoE doing much. ECE requires specifically trained teachers and also a high level of parental involvement-I do not see any activity in this section of quality improvement perhaps the Minister of Education should tell the public what are they doing in ECE.

Need to focus on inputs: A common reaction to the learning crisis is a cry for more inputs. Though I tend to agree that we should have evidence-based investment but for too long education has been ignored, is decrepit, if not dysfunctional and there is a need to reach a basic line to ensure learning takes place in schools. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly qualified teachers and lack of teaching materials create a poor learning environment, exacerbated by rampant absenteeism among both pupils and their teachers. When teachers in primary schools opt to become bodaboda riders then there is a serious problem that must be resolved expeditiously. There is a need to invest in infrastructure, human resource and create an enabling environment for good quality education.

Don’t imitate the West: Success is more likely to come from disruptive innovation than mimicry of best practice. We need to find our own innovative solutions to these serious crisis, just adopting what works in the west will not be applicable in our environment because of many fundamental differences.

For education systems to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century, Madam Minister should consider this article as an eye-opener, wisely discuss the merits and demerits even if the powerful may have to cede their control over education to make way for systems that give greater control to local officials, parents, and teachers. The reward would be the rebirth of education that is suited for today’s world and equips youth for a better tomorrow.