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Opinions of Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Columnist: Nana Awere Damoah

Nana Awere Damoah writes: Schooled, educated or learned?

A few weeks ago, I was going to a meeting early in the morning at Ofankor, near Pokuase in Accra. I boarded a trotro from my house at Lashibi and alighted at T-Junction, near Trade Fair. When I am going to Labone or Cantonments areas, that is what I usually do, and from there I pick an Uber to my final destination.

On this particular day, I reasoned that there would be traffic on the way to Achimota Mall, where I was to meet my business partner and my regular book designer who was to meet me there with a dummy of a new book we are working on, titled Highlife Time 3.

With traffic, I envisaged that the surge at that time of the day would take my final Uber cost up through the roof. So, I did something different. I opened my Uber app, indicated my pickup location and destination, got the estimated fare and hailed a regular taxi, negotiating like a boss. I got about GHS 5 savings on the estimated Uber fare, and also, with the regular taxi, without any associated surge increases.

There are many people who like to argue that what they learn in school is not relevant to the real world out there. Such people say that because they don’t know the power of application. We go to school to learn how to learn. And learning is a lifelong process.

At about the age of ten, my Dad gave his first prophecy about my future career: his son will be an Electrical Engineer. He gave the prediction after observing me move a light fly with a piece of wire! When I was ready to enter the Secondary school, he changed his mind with the aid of my teacher: a Medical Doctor I will be. My headmistress insisted I studied Biology in the sixth form due to excellent grade in Biology.

I read Mathematics. I wanted to study Computer Science at the University; my Mathematics tutor changed that! Finally, I decided on a course that could give me the opportunity to satisfy all these myriad desires, prophecies and talents, which could challenge me, and open doors to a thousand careers. So I studied Chemical Engineering - at both bachelor and master’s levels.

I love Chemical Engineering. One of my favourite courses was Thermodynamics, taught by the funky Dr George Afrane. Thermodynamics is full of chemistry and calculations. One of the tools of problem-solving I learnt during this cause is an iteration, as part of optimisation.

Iteration is defined as “repetition of a mathematical or computational procedure applied to the result of a previous application, typically as a means of obtaining successively closer approximations to the solution of a problem.” Iteration involves starting with what one has and then you improve the solution, by looping, by repetition, by trial and error, step by step to the enhancement of the solution.

What I had done with the Uber experience on my way to the Achimota Mall was a pure iteration. A week later, I took it further when I downloaded the Taxify app and used it to compare the Uber rates. With these two sources of data, I was able to better negotiate with a regular taxi just last week when I went to Tema Community 7 from my home. I got three variables to choose from, to maximise my choices and to get the best use of my resources.

I had applied my learning from over 20 years ago.

The real world beckons, my dear brothers and sisters. You are a sum total of all the experiences you have had up to this day. How will you apply what you have learnt here? And will you be one seen as just schooled or one who has been educated? And will your education end once you leave school or you will be a continuously-learning person so you can move from being called educated to being referred to as learned?

One of my pastimes is watching old movies set in Ghana and these days you can get some of them on YouTube. Films like I Told You So, Heritage Africa. No one can miss movies by Kwaw Ansah in such an exercise. So a few years ago, I watched Love Brewed in an African Pot, Heritage Africa and Kukurantumi: Road to Accra again.

In Heritage Africa, the main character, who wanted to appear and act more British than the Queen, had changed his name Kwesi Atta Bosomefi to Quincy Arthur Bosomfield and had risen to become the District Commissioner of Accra in His Majesty’s Gold Coast. One aspect of the film stayed with me. His mother, played by the legendary Alexandria Duah, gave him a family heirloom which had been passed on from generation to generation, amongst the male heads of the family.

It was believed to carry “the soul and pride” of the Abusua; his late uncle had been the previous custodian and now it was Kwesi Atta’s turn to hold it in safe custody, to be his source of strength and pride, to be held in trust and passed on to the next generation. As soon as his mum left, Kwesi took this family treasure to his office and showed it to his British boss, who expressed his admiration of the artefact. Kwesi asked his boss to keep it as a gift from him.

A few days later, Kwesi visited his mum in the village and the old lady’s first question to him was whether he was keeping the heirloom safe. When Kwesi told her he had given it out to his boss, the mum wailed loudly and exclaimed: “Ebei Kwesi Atta Bosomefi! Sukoo pii yi a ek?? y? yi, ?nsua nyansa kakra enfiri mu a?” meaning “after all your long years of schooling, did you not learn or gather any wisdom?” The film editor translated the question as “What happened to all the classroom education?”

In my holy village of Wasa Akropong, we say that there is a difference between home sense and school sense. Indeed, my Wofa Kapokyikyi would say that adwen nko, na nyansa nko, which literally means that not all who have brains have wisdom. It also means that knowledge must be applied with wisdom. For instance, a wise man knows when to open his mouth and when to close it, when to talk and when to hold back; wisdom is the right application of knowledge.

David was an applications person. He did a horizontal application. When he was to face Goliath, King Saul asked him if he had fought such a battle before. You remember what he said? He referred to his time fighting the wild animals who came after his sheep when he was a shepherd. I Samuel 17:33-37 has the story:

Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth.

When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them because he has defied the armies

of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

On my way to Cape Coast yesterday, on the bus, I was reading an ebook titled ‘One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of’, written by Richard L. Brandt. You see, I am now a bookseller, among other things, having taken a break from over 16 years of working in factories, to build a few businesses based on my passion; so I am learning a lot from the life of Jeff Bezos.

In the summer after high school, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and his friend decided to create a summer school to teach fifth graders for two weeks. They taught them ‘about fossil fuels and fission, interstellar travel and the prospect of space colonies, black holes and electric currents’ etc. The author of the book quotes the two young teachers as saying that ‘we don’t just teach them something; we ask them to apply it’.

Be like David, be like the kids that Jeff and his friend Uschi taught. Be people who apply what you are taught, not in a vertical way but horizontally. Not in the silos of the fields you were taught in, but lateral or horizontal applicators, across fields.

Be lifelong learners. Geoff Anno, a former Music & Productions Director of Joyful Way Incorporated, Ghana, said that ‘If six months from now, you do not know twice what you know now, you will be left behind.’ And I agree with him. The world and information is moving so fast that if you don’t keep abreast and updated, you will become ‘colo’. A waterbody that is not refreshed with a fresh supply of water smells.

There are a great many people today who stopped learning the moment they finished ‘school’: University, Polytechnic, secondary School, vocational school, et cetera. They just stopped learning. Don’t be like them. Continuous learning will make you a better and well-informed person each day. Continuous learning will improve your marketability each day, and make you more productive for your employer. Continuous learning will guarantee that six months from now, you will not be an ignoramus.

Learning is acquiring knowledge or developing the ability to perform new behaviours. It is common to think of learning as something that takes place in school, but much of human learning occurs outside the classroom, and people continue to learn throughout their lives. The best and longest lasting school is the school of life, the Self-Tuition school. Four common methods of learning continuously are: by experience, by observation, by listening and by reading.

There is a lot you can learn each day by observing those who are better in various fields than you are. Observe your boss as she conducts her day-to-day work, and learn. Observe your subordinates or juniors as they work and ask questions when you don’t understand anything. Anyone who is afraid or shy to ask questions never learns, never grows. There is a lot to learn from our experiences; every experience is an instruction, a chapter in our life, and you should continuously summarise key lessons from it. By listening, one can learn a lot. Listen to what people say, take notes of insights that come your way.

And when you have learnt, apply. Don't be a sponge that only absorbs. Note that a spongeworthy of its name works. It scrubs. A soaked sponge should be put to work. So apply what you learn for it is by practice that one perfects. Remember my Uber example. Apply your knowledge to Ghana’s problems; it is in solving those problems that your education can be useful to the society. I read once that knowledge is not power; it is the right application of knowledge that is power. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many powerless knowledgeable people in this world.

And then learn again. And apply. And learn some more. To apply. Always focus on planning, doing, checking or reviewing, and then acting to finetune. And then starting the loop again. It is a powerful tool for continuous improvement introduced by a man called William Edwards Deming, whose support and expertise helped Japan become what it is today in world-class manufacturing, after the Second World War. It is PDCA, the Deming Cycle. Plan-Do-Check-Act. Did you realise I just applied a principle I learnt as a quality assurance professional laterally to life in general?

Today, what I do is far from what I learnt in school or even learnt in industry, working in corporate life. My activities now as a book publisher, bookseller, writer and author are quite different from my mainstream training as an engineer. Or are they? In some ways there are different, but that is only if you think in the silo mode. Because I see myself as an applied engineer, utilising my skills across these varied fields.

In 2005, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, gave a commencement speech at Stanford University. I wish to end with the concluding part of that speech, quoting verbatim:

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

“Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s...On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’”

I wish to say same to you: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. That is the only way you can be on the path of continuous learning and application, iterating, optimising, creating solutions, making mistakes, learning, questioning, implementing, solving and making a mark on your society.

Then, we can say, in the end, that you are not just schooled or educated, but as a learned person, or more aptly a learning person, you are affecting lives.

God bless you.

19 May 2018

This speech was delivered at Mini Explo, Joyful Way Incorporated Phase 2, Cape Coast Wesley Girls High School

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