17 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Schools Turned Into Factories of Failure

Photo: Unicef/IRIN
School kids sharing text books in Zimbabwe.

editorial

Once upon a time, Zimbabweans believed education was a sure-fire ticket out of poverty; no more. Perhaps old-school parents still do, but their children don't! Until the belief in the redeeming effect of a good education is re-established in the minds of the children, our schools will continue to be nothing but "factories of failure", a phrase coined by David L Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Our schools are only up and about because parents still believe that, perhaps if their children passed they would be lifted out of the sorry state they find themselves in. Parents continue to invest all they have in their children's education while the children's thinking has radically shifted. The children look around themselves and see poverty all over, even among the educated. They spend days on end with their poverty-stricken teachers, most of whom have higher education qualifications but continue to wallow in penury. To make things worse, the teachers extort money from the children's poor parents in the guise that they would give the children "extra lessons", further reinforcing their poverty in the children's minds. So, the most educated people in their communities hardly inspire them.

In most regions of the country, the people who have made it in life have no formal education to talk about. In some regions the people with the dazzling lifestyles are those who have skipped the borders to work in South Africa. This used to be common in Matabelelend provinces but has become prevalent in Masvingo as well. Only those families with children working in South Africa seem to be doing well. It doesn't matter what kind of work they are doing down there but the fact that they send back money and groceries means they have made it in life.

Around the country lots of children have absconded school and joined bands of alluvial gold panners rampaging across the landscape in search of the precious metal. The rewards seem to be good because when they invade the villages they have lots of money to spend, they are flamboyant and vigorous in spirit. It doesn't matter what they have to do to extract the gold; many boys are attracted to the freedom of their spirit and the interesting stories they have to tell. Gold panners -- makorokoza -- have become a separate breed altogether prepared to do anything to survive including murder and robbery.

The situation is the same in the cities and other urban settlements; the guys with the pizazz didn't go far in school but drive the latest and fastest cars and take all the girls. They flaunt their flamboyance for all to see and the highly impressionable youths want to imitate them and know that education has nothing to do with it. The girls too have realised that the "big guys" are not after their education but after their looks; the way out of poverty is to have superstar looks. For evidence of this just look at how our girls are prepared to die to participate in beauty pageants in which they are sexually abused and exploited. For them, all this is par for the course as long as it takes them closer to the gleam. A few years later after they have been ravished by the predatory sharks, they are thrown onto the streets because their youthful beauty is gone.

The education revolution which saw Zimbabwe at some stage achieving a 98% literacy rate is now hurtling in reverse gear taking the country back to the illiteracy of the colonial era where education was only for the few who could make it into mission schools and the few government schools. But the government schools were used for selection and placement admitting only those whom they deemed fit to enter the colonial civil service. Those who made it into government schools were mainly children of trusted civil servants such as policemen, soldiers and teachers. This selection has taken a new guise in the form of private schools which can only be accessed by children whose parents fit a certain class.

The root cause of the collapse of our education system is the bad politics that saw the collapse of the country's formal economy which resulted in what we can describe as the "de-civilisation" of the populace. People could only survive in a parallel economy, through a parallel civilisation run and perpetuated by the rogues. Institutions became unimportant; in their place came selfishness and corruption. This resulted in the destruction of the "instructional core" in our education system.

Harvard education professor Richard Elmore defines the instructional core as comprising "the skills of the teacher, the engagement of the students and the rigour of the curriculum".

Zimbabwe lost 30 000 teachers during the political and economic crisis; these were highly trained and experienced personnel. They took their skills with them, which are now difficult to replace. The skills are being put to good use in other countries in the region and abroad. Our best brains are teaching Mathematics and Science in better run countries while the few highly skilled ones who remained are not enough to go round and have been reduced to abject poverty and humiliation through slave wages. Teacher training no longer attracts the best brains but is now the refuge of the mediocre who failed to further their education or failed to enter other more attractive sectors.

The college lecturers themselves are not much better because they are not continually exposed to the ever-changing teaching trends and have still not entered the information age which has come courtesy of the internet. Teaching methods are antiquated; children are taught mainly through rote rather than discovery, reducing them to test-takers instead of thinkers. Teachers use past exam papers as the major tool of instruction. When teachers claim they are giving children extra lessons, they are merely cramming information down their throats, which does nothing to improve thinking abilities.

When children are constantly taught to memorise and regurgitate information they lose interest in learning; they are not engaged and see education as torture.

Many parents have blamed the failure rate on the emergence of social media. They accuse their children of spending too much time on the internet and claim this is detrimental to their education. Of course this is absolute nonsense. Instead, schools should see how this incredible source of information and ideas can be used in schools to improve methods of instruction. If our children are spending most of their time on the internet, then education must go to the internet, instead of remaining stuck on the blackboard. This calls for the overhaul of the whole process of education.

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