As new school year begins
We are in September, the second part of the double maxima that characterize our rainy season. And with the greenery, wetness and mess, it is also the month of school fees and financial frugality; of books, new bags, uniforms, and the beginning of a new school year.
As teachers and students enter into another school year, we are once again thrown into a monotonous rat-race of schooling and academics that we call education. We shall begin to witness the giddiness on the roads, as school buses, erratic parents on school runs and frenetic commuting school-goers cause hellish traffic with city workers. The town would be awash with an early morning montage of half-awaken toddlers and pupils, dragging over-sized bags and lunch boxes, to attend a nondescript regimen of structured learning that would last eight hours. For some, this daily exercise, with periodic breaks, would last for between 14 and 20 years, at the end of which a certification is issued. This is school, this is education in the Nigerian context.
But is it? Has anyone taken time to reflect on the value of this education to individual cultivation and refinement? Or even on national development and social progress? Do the time, resources, energy and human capital dissipated on this venture worth its while? In a fit of self-flagellation, I have asked, why is it that, with so much busyness in ‘education’, proliferation of subjects and information overload, we are still where we are today. I have tinkered with so many reasons until I stumbled on the model of education that made the Scandinavian countries the world’s numero uno in terms of quality education. The Scandinavian countries, comprising Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, supposedly have the best conditions of service for teachers in the world. To get a glimpse of how their model of education functions, consider how Finland runs its educational affairs.
In the last 40 years Finland is said to have perfected the act of quality education delivery. Its school system is ranked internationally as overall number one, with only two per cent high school drop-out, and its students speak four different languages.
Finnish teachers are reputed as the best and brightest, for they are selected from the top ten per cent of the students. Like doctors and engineers they are the best paid, even though they teach four hours a day. Compare this with Nigeria, where education departments of our universities are dumping grounds for desperate and frustrated applicants of the university matriculation examinations. Because many of these students are ill-prepared for, and hardly ever motivated by, the imposed course of study, they become a liability on the society as teachers. The other day, an elite school that wanted to shore up its educational profile, selected some self-motivated topnotch graduates as teachers after rigorous tests and screening, only to turn them down when administrators discovered they could not pay their salaries. The school later settled for below average candidates who were ready to take peanuts.
Children in Finland do not go to school until the age of seven. In school there is no grading system, and students only take one examination when they turn 16. For proper interaction, each classroom is said to consist of 16 to 20 students, sometimes with three teachers. Primary school students have only four hours a day in a class, and whilst in class they enjoy 15 minute break after every class and 75 minutes of recess. What is more? They rarely have any homework. Besides, 43 per cent of secondary school students go to vocational schools to learn skills. This school system that has been described is said to be100 per cent state-funded.
In contrast, our administrators tell us that for our school system to be efficient, schools must be privatised. We have more private primary and secondary schools than state-funded schools, and almost an equal ratio of tertiary institutions between private persons and the state. Yet, the celebrated high-flyers of today’s school complex are no match for the products of yesteryears’ conservative system. Today, our children are thrown into schools and flogged to learn writing even before they could barely walk. They sit for nearly the whole school period only rushing to get a bite of their sour lunches. For them, break time is often a time to forcefully rest their heads in class because there is no playground, let alone facilities for recreation.
Even in some mission schools supposedly combining work and play, you hear disoriented administrators barking: “Students, go and read ya books.” Home works and projects compete with classwork for relevance. The same teacher who teaches in the school joins a coalition of other teachers to establish an after school programme called school lesson. Apart from this, ambitious teachers still organise another lesson called ‘take home’ different from the usual school home work. With this learning overload, one would think Nigerian Newtons and Einsteins are being made. But you are wrong.
Because Nigerian students are inundated with examinations throughout their school life, the fun and gain of learning are lost. They are lost because the inner-lying potentials that should facilitate skills acquisition are undermined and undeveloped, owing to undue emphasis on passing exams. Our children spend more time in school than others, have more subjects than many others, and get more home works. Yet, no inventions have been recorded, practising technicians are still school drop-outs, values are in a free fall and corruption has pitched its tent with us. If we are yet to understand our problems, let alone solve them, what then are our children learning?
But hope is not lost, for we are consoled by the fact that things have not always been like this. We were witnesses to times when teachers had the dignity, prestige and material benefits of the best paid professionals today; when American postgraduate degrees were considered inferior to our Bachelor degrees, and when medical doctors from Europe and elsewhere lobbied for housemanship placements in our teaching hospitals. It is trite to ask:
How did we get it wrong?
I think the Scandinavians have been able to forge a system so efficient, effective and socially rewarding because they looked inwards 40 years ago, rather than look up to the west for answers to their peculiar problems.
In the same way, Nigerians and the different cultures that make up Africa must look inwards to tease out and develop educational paradigms that would solve Nigeria’s peculiar educational challenges. Just as the Scandinavians did not wait on the west for guide, Nigeria does not need any global standard to trail after in order to solve its educational challenges. True, we need western education to participate in global affairs, but the wherewithal to solve our problems must emanate from principles derived from our culture. It is high time we developed an educational philosophy that is culture-bound, and tailored to solve problems. Anything short of this is a Sisyphian cycle that leads to absurdity.
Dr. Okeregbe, a visiting member of the The Guardian Editorial Board, is a senior lecturer, Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos.