9 October 2017

Africa: A Quality Education Must Involve More than Teaching to the Test

The World Bank just released the World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Educations Promise. In this report, it warns of a “learning crisis” in global education. According to this report, millions of young students from developing countries face the prospect of lost opportunity and lower wages in life because of the quality of education they are getting in primary and secondary schools is poor. The report further warns that schooling without learning is both a wasted development opportunity and a great injustice to young people around the world.

As I pondered on the points made on this report, I found myself reflecting on what a good education has done for me despite the obstacles I faced to become the first person in my Kenyan village to obtain a PhD.  A good education has empowered me. It has allowed me to pursue a science career. It has opened new horizons and has raised my pride and confidence. It has liberated me and has allowed me to reach for many stars.

This recently released report made me think more deeply about quality education. What is it? What barometer can we use to gauge the quality of education of our younger generations?

Education is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4. By their standards, quality education is one that enables all students to reach their full potential, and it prepares students for meaningful participation in our global world and not just for exams.

Currently there is a clear geographic divide when it comes to quality education. According to Pearson’s report, nations from East Asia outperform other countries, including USA, in offering quality education. South Korea is ranked as number 1. Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong are ranked second, third and fourth respectively. A common theme among these countries is that they reward students’ hard work and efforts, have clear goals and learning outcomes, and engage a broader community of stakeholders.

In contrast, in many developing countries, the quality of education is poor and is based on content mastery. I know. In the public school I attended in a rural Kenyan community, the teachers focused on teaching materials that we needed to know to pass our national examinations, but we learned nothing more. We also lacked many resources, including an adequate number of text books, a science lab or library and other infrastructures to equip us with the requisite skills, knowledge, and leadership skills needed to contribute meaningful solutions to our world. It was my parent’s consistent encouragement for me to study hard the materials teachers were teaching us combined with their belief that education was the only gateway to ending poverty-words they always told us, that I succeeded to go on to college and graduate school.

Many stakeholders investing in developing world education, including African governments, operate under the unquestioned assumption that improved test scores from content mastery is clear evidence that their investments have paid off. However, mastering content of the basic school curriculum and passing national examinations does not necessarily prepare students to meaningfully participate in developing our global world.

Considering that young students, irrespective their origin are creative, flexible, and possess many hidden talents that can assist in providing for fresh ideas to solve today’s pressing challenges, offering them substandard education results in many missed opportunities. Further, quality education can improve the economic health of nations, enhance civic participation and reduce poverty and hunger across generations. Each additional year that a girl attends school can increase her earning power by 10 to 20 percent.

Of course, it is possible to thrive and succeed despite an uninspiring education, as I did, or with no education, like William Kamkwamba, the boy from Malawi who harnessed the wind and built the first turbine to help power his family and other families in his community, and Kelvin Doe, the boy from Sierra Leone who invented batteries, an FM transmitter, a sound amplifier, a three-channel mixer and a mic receiver by using garbage. Yet, these kinds of successes are the exception and overall, youth in these countries could benefit from a better and different kind of educational model.

Thankfully across Africa we are seeing more efforts to raise the quality of education. African Leadership Academy in South Africa offers students a quality education while giving them leadership skills. Bridge International Academies in Kenya is tapping into technology to ensure that students receive a world-class education for as low as 6 dollars a month. In the process of launching now, Teach for Uganda will train new university graduates to teach for two years using a model that equips students to think critically and to develop problem solving skills.

For my part, with my parents I founded Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy in my hometown in Kenya. It focuses on students as a whole, rewards students’ efforts and completely discourages the teachers from teaching students just to pass the exams. Rather, teachers provide the necessary environment and facilities like a library, computers and Ipads, and soon, a science lab, to ensure that our students are well-rounded. We encourage students to be creative thinkers who extend the knowledge gained at school to both pass the examinations and design and provide innovative solutions to local issues.

Once armed with quality education, young people can participate in solving our world’s pressing challenges, like extreme poverty, hunger and climate change. That’s what we hope our students will do.

Ultimately, if we want to see students thrive through a quality education, teachers must stop simply teaching toward the test, whether that’s in Kenya or the United States. Schools in developing countries must ensure that students attending the schools learn. These students are tomorrow’s leaders and citizens and we must ensure that they benefit and realize educations promise.

Esther Ngumbi  is a postdoctoral researcher at Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, a Food Security Fellow with Aspen Institute's New Voices Fellowship. She have previously written for allAfrica and written on other outlets including Medium, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, The Conversation, Aljazeera,  SciDev.Net,  and Inter Press Service.

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