I’ve just wrapped up a visit to our Fundi Bots Eastern Uganda office, and while it was a lovely and inspiring visit, there’s this one thing I can never shake off each time I travel.
The one thing that truly scares me about this lovely country of ours, more than anything else – put aside corruption, misuse of resources, nepotism, political entitlement, etc. – is how bad the education system truly is. Of course, the reason for this is in the very things I asked us to put aside.
Basic literacy and numeracy are severely lacking. Reading, Writing, Speaking and Maths.
I’ve spoken with, engaged, mentored and interacted with students of UPE and USE (Universal Primary and Secondary Education) and it’s heartbreaking how the most basic foundation of education is failing; S4 and S6 students who are nearly incapable of effectively communicating in English, and that’s before you get to asking them to communicate the subject matter of their classes.
And this is in relatively urban areas; the problem gets exponentially worse the deeper you go into rural areas until you reach a point where you might as well stop using English.
Of course, we can use our mother tongues, and there are proponents for the idea of using local languages as a pedagogical foundation. But we are one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Fragmenting an already weakly implemented curriculum into more than fourty local languages is a logistical and implementational nightmare, not to mention the inevitably of once again circling back to English as the dominant global language that will be necessary once the student travels or engages beyond the confines of their district.
So where does this leave us? We need an overhaul, that much is true, but fundamentally, we need very strong and rigorous implementation at all levels, specifically at the grassroots. I could fill a small book with ideas and suggestions for improvement, but here are just a few off-head suggestions.
i) We need to respect, honour and reward teachers, not treat them like second-class citizens who have failed at other professions. And sadly, the majority of teachers are teachers because they have literally failed to find better career options to study at tertiary levels.
Teacher training, skill development and career preparation need to be given the same prestige and rigorous investment as any engineering or legal profession. They need to be paid well and paid on time so that they can exclusively focus on the dissemination of knowledge.
On a side note, I find it ironic that we relegate the education and upkeep of our (beloved) children to people we consider second-class citizens, like teachers and maids.
ii) We need to treat classrooms and schools like the core foundation of society and knowledge that they are. Student attendance should be priority, teacher absenteeism should be dealt with strictly and resources should be provided equitably in a timely and efficient manner.
We need to provide tools that enable and maximise knowledge acquisition and retention and improve learning outcomes for ALL students, irrespective of age, location, tribe, gender and socio-economic standing.
A government student from Nakapiriprit should be at the same level as a government student from Kampala. Let the difference be a result of intellectual ability, passion, skills, etc, not resource availability.
iii) Girl education needs to be highly prioritized. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. We need gender equity and equality in education.
For example, a lot of men scoff dismissively at menstruation, but we underestimate how much the stigma affects the performance and mindset of our girls.
Those of us – men and women alike – who’ve grown up in entitled and privileged societies where sanitary pads are relatively available and affordable are especially guilty because we cannot imagine prioritizing other things during menstruation periods.
In many societies, the average girl student is absent from school almost 25% of the time during her periods because they cannot stand the stigma and embarrassment at school, not to mention the societal beliefs that she is now ready for marriage. All of this is a foundation for very high failure rates and a continued culture and downward spiral of disillusionment, disenfranchisement, illiteracy and patriarchy.
iv) We need to URGENTLY move away from rote memorization/cramming as a benchmark for academic performance. We should strive to create a culture of learning, exploration and the consistent quest for knowledge as a means for intellectual achievement. Education should be about opening the doors of the mind and showing the possibilities, not about forcing students down pre-determined paths and boxing and locking them into systems that take away passion and creativity.
Things have gotten so bad in schools that many parents are moving towards homeschooling their children to maximize their learning potential.
In summary, our societies have an incredible amount of vices, many of which are quite simply the result of our eccentricities and peculiarities as inherently self-centered humans, but at their core, the majority of our problems in Uganda (and Africa at large) can be solved by simply creating a strong educational foundation in our children and in future generations.
Each time I work with students in science subjects, my mind always wanders back to the ultimate question: how do we create a standard baseline for excellence in education and build up from there? And each passing day, I realize that the standard baseline is numeracy and literacy.
Reading. Writing. Speaking. Maths.
And the big question on my mind now is, how do we get there?
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