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Anis Haffar Writes | Functional education for our youth - How WAEC can help

Tue, 19 Aug, 2008

Sometimes it takes a while to see the obvious. But consider a situation where a teenager gets an A in Home Economics, or Agricultural Science, and yet is unable to cook a pot of rice, or grow tomatoes in the backyard to supplement the family chop money.

The anomaly raises an obligatory note for the West Africa Examinations Council (WAEC): That it is time to sound out new prospects for examinations that test candidates by (not what knowledge they can memorize or rehash, but) what they do with knowledge, and how they create new knowledge and valuable products through initiative and applications.


Such possibilities may sound far-fetched. They may draw apprehensions of various hues. But they are worth mulling over now than ever before. The proper approaches will, without doubt, distinguish functional literacy from rote learning. When minds move into action, nations respond. For education to be handy in Africa, especially, academics have to merge with applications.


There are functional and precious differences between Knowledge (What is X?), Understanding (What does X mean to you?), and Application (What can you use X for? or What can you create with X?). Knowledge is power only if it is properly understood, and used. Graduates’ joblessness and disappointments do not just happen; they are caused. If innovations are expensive, try complacency. Just as students and teachers need continuous assessments, so do the examinations themselves.


The habitual galleries (List 2 reasons … State 3 disadvantages … Mention 4 ways … Fill in the blanks, etc.) have a place, yes; but they test merely the repetitive, lower thinking profiles of knowledge based on texts given.


A great many students exhibit capacity for applications excellence far beyond the tedium. They are national assets and should be respected as such, and not “infantilized”. On their shoulders rest the fortunes of the state. What they require, above all, are value-added, inspiring, and flexible learning experiences that extract substance from potential. The challenges in the 21st century require examiners to think globally, and act locally by taking a bold step out of the typical.


In crafting functional curricula or user-friendly methodologies, two key allowances prevail: First, guided practices (in teaching elementary, secondary, or tertiary) should reflect and complement students’ aptitudes, and best impulses. Thus, prompting techniques have to advance beyond “correct” interpretations sometimes. Evolution is not static; it moves without limits. In the face of untold challenges, the one-way-only steps impede creativity, and stall the pace of progress. Discretion - the gray-area flux between objectivity and subjectivity - provides the leads, and prepares teachers to know and support each learner in diverse ways.  


Second, intellectual energies may be sieved off the stiff and hazy “psycho-socio-religio” brands, and used for pragmatic purposes also; for example: art, product design, clotheslines, drama, screenplays, publishing, cartooning, and various student-inspired products or services. These explorations (and their practical ends) are as worthy for pre-schoolers as university graduates. Vision and pragmatism move mind and body respectively, and prepare learners as professionals or entrepreneurs.


In all, the duty of educators is to draw interests and multiple meanings (starting with the learners themselves), to promote varied ideas and perspectives, and to treat subjects and topics as living entities tagged with function and value.


Meaningful student victories are achieved by respectable and shared effort than received via the sole sweat of pros wielding correct answers, threats, and exams. An acceptable instructional and curricular balance will show class perspectives and possibilities on one side of the scale, and individual or group project initiatives and products on the other.


The Ghana Education Service (GES) syllabus provides some general but useful clues for teachers, heads, and examiners. Some key aspects may be condensed as follows:


  • Developmental issues: Aim “at increasing the pupil’s knowledge about critical issues … reasons why some nations are rich and some poor. (Use) initiative in improvising and planning new and useful materials”
  • Science: “eliminate superstition … (challenge) the pupils to develop their own ideas”.
  • Activities: “The instructional model to bear in mind is understanding followed by practice”.
  • Content: “read widely enough (to) have more information than is contained in the content”.
  • Evaluation: “Evaluation exercise can be in the form (of) project work”.


Functional literacy is the essence. It shuns the rote-learning trap or cramming (the “chew, pour, and forget” disorder) that, paradoxically, passes olden examinations. (The youth have found ample ways around the aged puzzle through either technology - by texting the expected bookish answers to pals via mobile phones, or buying the exams outright.)


When education pales into drudgery, it defeats individual initiative; the collateral damage causes poverty and frustration. In time, it devalues national independence. If learners cannot apply or use the knowledge they have toiled for, and for which nations and parents have invested large sums of money, then it stands that the focus and process of its acquisition are both suspects.


The challenge for examiners, really, is in devising the criteria and the means to re-assess the critical (precious) aspects in the syllabus: i.e. the higher thinking profiles. Authentic learning tasks and standardized tests, therefore, will have to embrace students’ foolproof applications. That, invariably, will lead to students’ own innovative pursuits and ambitions. That is the crux.


Many international institutions, in their admissions criteria, review candidates by growth and activities that lead to some leadership and service, and recognition of talents and abilities. Their goal is to attract to their campuses people who bring a breadth of skills, experiences, and passions. And to encourage lifelong learning, proactive colleges and universities guide students to fashion their own personalized majors (tailored to fit, as it were) according to each student’s unique size in interests, calling, and motivation.


Such innovations thrust learners’ aptitudes, effort, and expressions into the living present. How else do people become proficient in the real world? How else can students grow to be self-knowing, self-supporting, and nationally conscious? These indicators serve as preludes to useful tests.


One shrewd aspect of the curricula in some U.S. school districts reflects the power of examples through annual fairs in which kids - from 1st grade on - work at projects. It is a big to-do, and climaxes in fanfares with awards and blue ribbon prizes in various categories: plants, animals, environment, the arts, science applications, and so on. The evaluation criteria are based on purpose, originality, method, and effort. The exhibitions grow user-insights and values beyond mere paper and pencil tests.


The fairs attracted a community of educators, artists, publishers, toy makers, the media, and city councilors looking for fresh ideas. It is quite an eye-opener to see 6 or 7 year olds – sporting missing front teeth and smiles – demonstrate the workings of projects, and responding to visitors’ queries.


The displays help the youth to create their own paths, and take responsibility for their own growth. The focus is hands-on, early on, and creates “a community of practice”. If the youth waited till college, it might be too late for some.


The main ingredients in such ventures are curiosity, assertiveness, discovery, support, innovation, and hands-on approaches. By the way, these qualities fit the young Bill Gates like a glove. His imaginative searches and applications have brought the future to everybody’s doorsteps: from Seattle (U.S.) to Bangalore (India), Ningbo (China), Oxford (Britain), and Accra (Ghana).


It is best to develop competence and confidence (the so-called cognitive and affective domains: the secrets to successes) at very early ages, and to showcase imaginative impulses. The question to be asked at the end of an education step is not the clichéd “What has the student learned?” but the relevant “What have students become by applying their learning?” 
Invariably, authentic pursuits put learners in the driver’s seat, in the spotlight, and in the money. They explain visibly why some nations are rich, and others are poor.


It doesn’t help to keep the youth memorizing and reproducing texts or filling in blanks for paper qualifications. Functional education remains supreme. The commitment to make a difference will place Ghana ahead.



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