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Opinions of Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Columnist: Olugbenga Jaiyesimi

Rethinking formal education in Nigeria

Minister of Education, Prof. Adamu Adamu Minister of Education, Prof. Adamu Adamu

Formal Western education as introduced by our colonial masters and missionaries had always been geared towards a purpose. Missionary education was to produce catechists and ultimately gave us Bishop Ajayi Crowther. Early colonial education produced middle-level manpower for the budding civil service and ultimately the late Simeon Adebo.

Independence demanded more professionals, more engineers, more doctors, more administrators, etc so universities were set up to provide them. Also, technical schools and polytechnics provided personnel with technical skills.

There have been constant reviews of the school curriculum. We have had the 6-3-3-4, now 9-3-4. Despite these reviews, the golden era of Nigerian education seems to be behind us. A time was when the Nigerian doctor could work anywhere in the world with his Nigerian degree. Today they are required to take a series of exams.

The greatest calamity to befall Nigerian education was best captured by Professor Joel Babatunde Babalola, a Professor of Education, in his inaugural lecture, where he said, “Nigerian universities produce tankers rather than thinkers.” He also said, “…Nigerian graduates cannot interpret life situations in light of the knowledge they acquire. Once they are challenged with problems outside their comfort zones, they are lost, as if they never attended university.”

Passing a child through Nigerian public or private schools would have a child’s God’s gift of creativity, enquiry, imagination, wrung out of him or her. He or she is left an adult waiting and wanting to be spoon-fed information, unable to add value to his job or to society without further intervention. Others have put it in different ways,” “…Nigeria graduates are untrainable,” “…standards have gone to the dogs.”

Foremost educationists, that is the professional teachers, don’t offer much of a solution, they seem to compound the problem. Being out to impress parents rather than enable and ennoble their students, pupils in elementary schools are loaded with topics we – their parents – studied while in secondary schools. The likes of the anatomy of the heart and isosceles or scalene triangle being taught in primary at ages where the pupils can’t comprehend the subject matters. All over Nigeria, we find three-year-olds being coached for exams at end of term or session.

In universities, it’s all about buildings and structures. From multimillion naira gates to flashy buildings with no real sublime substance inside of them. In other words, we have been addressing the shell or form leaving behind the substance or essence of education. This includes how students are taught, what they are taught and ultimately who teaches them. These have not received the attention they deserve. Only discerning parents recognise the shortcomings of the education they pay millions of naira for in both private and public institutions.

It is time to nurture students, who think rather than those who upload and download – regurgitators. We have to stop producing automatons who can’t do original thinking not to advance to thinking outside the box or lateral thinking etc. It is time to nurture imagination and imagery, curiosity and discovery. It is time to allow for the maverick over conformity and uniformity because it is the maverick, the nonconformist that moves society to higher levels.

The world has moved on from the bronze age to the industrial age, from the jet age to the knowledge/information age better-called creativity age. Underpinning these transformations is the thinking man. The thinking man, as produced by thinking societies in Europe, America, England and lately Asia, leaving out Africa. Is it any wonder that our traditional broom hasn’t been improved upon?

We grew up with bulky phones in our homes. Only American police officers use phones in their vehicles. This was in the ’60s. Now I am thinking of video conferencing from my car. This is the progression you get from societies that nurture their youth to think.

Our educational system cannot, would never improve our traditional broom or anything at that. It is time to stop chasing the shadows of curriculum reviews, citadel beautification, expensive gatehouses and attend to the core and substance of education or tutelage.

We must recognise that every child is born a thinker and very creative. Every child is born to explore and discover, to enquire and be curious. It is society through superstition, false beliefs, heavy-handedness and mal-education that truncates and stunts this thinking man. Other progressive societies start from this God-given base and nurture or encourage and lubricate imagination, innovation, enquiry, inquiry leading to creativity and solutions to societal problems. In the United States, teaching or lecturing at the tertiary level is two-directional. The students probe the lecturers while the lecturers mine the students’ minds for new insights. God help the lecturer who is not on top of the subject.

Here, if you teach wrong and irrelevant materials, the students suck and sock it up and regurgitate for you at exams. If a student faults his lecturer’s material, he or she is failed. Write appropriate information, not in your lecturer’s notes and you are scored zero.

We have to hone the imaginative spirit our children are born with and to do this we must bring creative teaching back to school. In Finland, children are not rushed. Children attain the age of six before formal reading is introduced. Children are allowed to learn by play and discovery. Students are made to love learning not just pass exams. Glorification of those who do well in exams to the exclusion of the maverick the nonconformist and those who habitually think outside the box is putting a limit on the advancement of society.

Talking to young teachers while writing this article I discovered that they are hemmed in by lesson notes prepared for inspectors who monitor them. Any new thing outside this lesson notes prepared creatively to assist students is frowned on. Our brightest and best must be encouraged to enter the teaching profession. Yes, medicine, engineering, law must take a back seat to teaching or teachers in nursery, primary and secondary education. Teachers must be assessed by their students’ performances. No free rides, your students excel and you are rewarded.

More than half our student population think in their mother tongue or pidgin English so if we want a thinking nation, we must go back to instructions in the mother tongue. What we lost by debasing mother tongue and calling it vernacular is enormous and is up for discussion for another day. Suffice to say that instructing science in this vernacular ‘culturises’ science and makes it much of our own. Now, it is called western education. Teach biology, physics in Hausa, Efik, even standardised Pidgin English and see the effect it would have. Along the way, the mastery of English is also encouraged. So, a two-language policy is run. Teach in mother tongue and continue with mastery of English from nursery to post-degree.

A student should be able to translate any science information into his or her mother tongue or into the language of the region he is growing up in. That is mastery not just parroting or cramming in a tongue one is unfamiliar with. After all, Nigerians studying in non-British universities are given six to nine months to master the language.

The Bible has been translated into various Nigerian and African languages. Let’s do the same for biology, chemistry, physics, etc. To late Professor Babatunde Fafunwa, who pioneered instruction in Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, your time has come.