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Opinions of Thursday, 26 March 2009

Columnist: Anaba, Bernard

The Benefit of Hindsight


“The further backward we look, the further forward we can see” This is an insightful prelude, once made by WINSTON CHURCHILL, one time British prime minister. This statement highlights our journey through a largely myopic and classy educational system in the past and the way forward. I am compelled to foray into ones own past experiences as a microcosm which, most likely is a snapshot of what many other Ghanaians may have known. Needless to say it has become customary for our leaders and 'politico-economic' commentators to fall back on the argument that seeks to compare Ghana to Malaysia. Indeed the last time I heard that it was from our immediate past president J.A Kufuor, who made the comment during the country's golden jubilee encounters, two years ago. Today as I write and as history unfolds further forward, we will need to revise our notes to read '52 years ago, Ghana and Malaysia were at par'. Well, the question is, knowing what we know today, if the years were to be rolled back 52 years in time, are we going to do anything different?

There are several ways a country may choose to approach its developmental agenda and surely, indisputably, one of those is education. With a reflection back into the long journey into academia, I feel sad trying to cast my memory back to the early days at school in the late 70s. In fact, one has fond memories but there lingers a regret about my brilliant companions at school during those early years who are left far behind and in most cases poverty. The more one reflects, the more one feels convinced that Ghana as a country lacked vision, at least after the demise of the great Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. In my late 30s and with the benefit of hindsight, I strongly feel if our leaders during the formative years of Ghana as an independent state, had eschewed selfishness, partisanship and myopia on national issues, such as education, I probably will be writing something different today. Having had some middle school education and gone on to have some patchy teaching experiences in both city and rural Ghana, the feeling of nostalgia is even more stronger. After 9 years of a more or less limiting pre-secondary school system, I suddenly but sub-consciously found that my life was leading to no where to step into a 10th year in “form four” as it was called then. I developed an ambition partly from the cheap affluence that surrounded my community at the time and mostly from some easy role models. It was easy to see the 'Joneses' but even more so one could also feel a brick wall presenting no real chance of becoming a 'Jones,' The Ayawaso educational district of Accra was an active educational district but has perhaps failed a lot of its pupils in the public schools of old. Many were my contemporaries who showed much more promise but were perhaps unfortunate not to get the rare inspiration I had. Finding out that the challenge and the future on the table was not enough in the curriculum that was suppose to mould us, I decided to go for the “common entrance.” Was it common? Hell! no, rather it seemed more for the privileged who attended private or preparatory schools only meant for a long haul academic ambition(the future doctors and engineers). It seemed then only the progeny of the 'well-off' could afford to pursue “book long.” While all in the public schools were entreated to a cascade of subjects ranging from history to basketry and shoemaking, all intended to make one everything of an all purpose school leaver but ambitious. Those in the preparatory/private schools were rightly groomed, well planned only to pass the common entrance examination with excellence to the top schools. If you ever dared from my school to try the entrance examination, you certainly need some private tuition and be ready not to make the grade for the top schools reserved for the privileged few. And so, today I will probably not be the only person out of a class of about 45 pupils started with, to make it with an educational achievement of at least, a first degree. I was certainly not the brightest. This was how Ghana's utmost exploration of her best possible human resources seemed then. It was reminiscent of the straight-jacket division of purpose that the biological life history of the termites portrays; some are bred as kings and queens, some as soldiers and others bred for working all their lives. Don't get me wrong, a lot of public school kids were able to breakthrough, yes breakthrough! But the spirit of the educational system at least as I know, in the mid 70s could not help all the country's kids to dream irrespective of background or ability, but for a privileged few. If you could afford to attend a preparatory/private school then you were automatically meant for higher academic achievement. And if you find yourself in a public school, think first to become a craftsman. In the psychology of things, it played out rather prejudicially well in my school. If you had the “cojones” to rear your head up for the common entrance examination, you were viewed with some degree of scepticism. You were either viewed with respect as a studious “yes we can” student, or as a delusional soul wanting to be perceived like the ambitious lot in preparatory/private schools. I can certainly remember those public school days when it got to a point in the mid 80s when we were no more proud to wear the “kharki kharki” uniforms. In such triteness, individual pupils did not want to be identified as public school attendees. And therefore mimic those in the secondary or preparatory schools by wearing lighter shirts to school. So, our school was littered with a mosaic of shirts of many shades of dull colours. It might have been a reason why the government decided to change the whole pre-secondary school attire into proper school uniform for all Ghanaian pupils, in the late 80s. This was of course, in tandem with the good intentioned JSS system, irrespective of class. What is the point? The point is, Ghana as a country had an educational system that never encouraged all its kids to dream beyond middle school, from the word go. We did not have an all inclusive 'right to dream' structures to unearth all the potential of the citizenry, but rather pursued to the fullest, the classy British educational system left behind. And today, are we doing anything different? Yes, we still do not get it. On the level that we usually compare Ghana to the Asian tigers, the goal post is always shifting and we are too far behind even after considerable progress, considering trendy and recent international educational league tables. In 30 years time, at this rate, we will most likely still be moaning about failing to learn from history. Here again, “ the further backward we look, the further forward we can see”. We are suppose to learn from the past, but are we?

Global Village

One certainty about the 21st century is that people all over the world do not discriminate against knowledge and talent. We live in an era where the 'winner takes all'. Everyone gravitates towards the best in this world. The world all over clamour for the same top lawyers, the same top footballers, the same top managers, the same Tiger Wood, the same Roger Federer, irrespective of where they come from. If a Ghanaian ever becomes the top ranking tennis player in the world, he or she will be the top attraction in Wimbledon, French Open, Australian Open, US Open etc. A knowledge economy is the future, even the western world are struggling to keep up, how less a developing country like Ghana. Knowledge gives the ability to predict and manage present and the future. In today's world, any group of people who are able to manage and predict the future will wield an enormous power, needless to say it is often said knowledge is power. The most advanced economies have a predictive and discerning power that makes them what they are. Only watch closely and one can see how 'CIA and FBI' agents' projection of Africa's production levels affects African commodity prices in the world markets, they call it intelligence. The people who acquire the intelligence whether geophysics, physical sciences, social sciences, biological sciences, sports talents etc., and about the world we live in will be in demand anywhere, every time, all the time. Any country that is able to equip its citizenry with the most informed decision making processes into the future, certainly acquired through modern education, will be counted as premium. I have always heard politicians bemoan “brain drain.” They are often one sided in their views, so they fail to see the other side. In recent times, our politicians who bemoan “brain drain” are so quick to add earnings from their citizens abroad in their economic projections, what a contradiction! To every coin there are two sides. If we cannot stop our citizenry going abroad to seek greener pastures, an economic imperative, we can certainly look at other ways to make it into something positive so that any time we project earnings from abroad, it is no more a contradiction but a well intended gain. Today geographical boundaries are increasingly being blurred in wealth creation and exploration. There is so much outside our borders that we should strive to gain. We can gain this proxy wealth around the world by not limiting ourselves to the boundary dynamics. The current credit crunch may have given some governments, notably developed ones enough reasons to return to protectionism, but something is clear. Globalization in ones estimation, has come to stay. It plays more in the minds of people around the world than what governments might be thinking. The world is so dynamic that people would not cease to move around to relate and seek more wealth elsewhere.

Strategy in Values

One cannot help but to be ambivalent about the future. While other countries around the world are endlessly engaged in a 'psycho-civil' warfare of projecting themselves as the best and superior of humanity, we in Ghana and largely Africa are still mired in the cycle of dependence and inferiority. We do not only work hard to project sectarianism but perhaps hard-wired to always be sniffing for help from abroad. However, it was refreshing to read on Ghanaweb, 5th March 09 about the government's intent to convene an all-party national educational reform conference. This is long overdue if we are to take a strategic view and forget the partisan piece-mill approach attempted in the past. A strategic view because there is the need for a bigger picture that transcends partisan politics. We need a bigger picture because in 20-30 years time, looking back, we will only see and feel Ghana's progress not political parties or individual governments. A national strategy under a strategic secretariat will afford us national standards against which Ghanaians will judge all governments towards achieving set national goals. Indeed this needs a national consensus leading to ideals that will be embedded in our national values, hence the importance of an all-party national conference. We certainly need a value system that recognises the right to education and to be educated as deserving. Our values system will define what our descendants will aspire to be. Unfortunately as the Vice President, John Mahama, said during the national vice presidential debate in 2008, we the youth today are influenced more by foreign cultures and more worryingly, we only admire the materialism of the west that is a drain on our scarce foreign exchange reserves but renege on the ever essential quest for knowledge in these countries. It is often said society will change but will do so on the people they admire. Who do we admire in Ghana? Just the rich?, 'get rich quick drug peddlers'?, stomach politicians?, or national heroes' whose life achievements everyone should aspire to? The last time I read something on cocoa, it said Ghana has a unique way of fermenting cocoa beans which is so much sought after and commands a premium price in the world market. Thinking carefully of this, it is easy to know why we are effortlessly excellent at fermentation. In Ghana, most 6 years old kids, particularly in rural areas know how long to dip the corn, cassava, millet, sorghum etc. in water for good effect. This has to be done in order to satisfy our never ending appetite for fermented foods. Yet, this crucial cultural system which, could have been dismissed as primitive, is yielding a premium value in the global market for cocoa. Also, reading recently from the Financial Times, UK, on 10th March 09, I found an interesting view on Ghana's cocoa industry. Michael Scapinter, writing on why Cadbury UK, intent to go Fairtrade ( premium prices for Ghana's cocoa beans) is not a popular idea from its UK consumers, who are most likely to dip deeper in their pockets. The company's intent to go Fairtrade is borne from the situation where it fears production falls from Ghana is hampering the future of the company's supplies. This, according to Scapinter is due to Ghana's youth abandoning the cocoa farms because of low prices, its largest supply source. The 'not so happy' consumers feel if Ghana's youth are no longer interested in Ghana's cocoa industry, it should be allowed to die the natural death of “creative destruction,” apologies, Schumpeter. In that case, Cadbury would seek cheaper and growing alternative sources from elsewhere in the interest of its consumers. But Cadbury feels it will rather pay more by going Fairtrade than forfeit the premium value of Ghana's cocoa which it cannot presently get elsewhere. This is just an example of how we can let education give us a premium effect in the global market of labour, if we are able to construct a value system where quality education comes to us like our unique fermentation of cocoa beans. I reiterate the need for a cultural value system because it could be an easier route. We may be recounting the cost of providing quality and accessible for all education, not to talk about free education. Undoubtedly the financial outlay for an ambitious educational reform of any kind will always be enormous, but a cultural re-engineering of our educational system of this kind will certainly prove to be the cheapest, because if properly imbibed, it will become effortless to engage. It is also the most affordable and yet can have the most lasting generational influence. Integrating industry and educational institutions is an area we as a country have woefully failed. In fact, we all know the USA is a leading country in transforming ideas through the labs or boardrooms into real world wonders. How do they do it? They have done it by creating a cultural system where 'trying and failing' rather than 'failing to try' is an embracing chip in their psychic. People are encouraged to dream and are helped to recreate the dreams in practical situations. We may also endeavour by narrowing the gap between industry on one hand and our educational and other organised institutions on the other.

Language Dynamics

We have an enormous opportunity to become a regional hub of quality education which can be, not only a foreign exchange earner but knowledge multiplier. There are however, a lot we may have to do to attain a first class educational system in the world. We may have to overhaul our teaching systems to make them more effective and interesting. We may also have to look at how to create interest in the study of certain lesser liked subjects like maths. The language of teaching has to be looked at again, it is an integral part of learning and conceptualising issues. Looking around the world, it is not difficult to see why countries who have evolved their language systems into official levels and able to capture all modern scientific and mathematical concepts are able to achieve higher academic successes, relatively. Language comprehension makes it easier for people who have spoken the same language from birth, to conceptualise issues taught in that language. In our case concepts seems more abstract to assimilate owing to the fact that the language and context are normally different from what we are familiar with. Sometimes, one has to silently translate in order to understand. In other circumstances the examples do not match because they are not made in the appropriate context and circumstances. Sometimes what may seem amusing to a foreign audience may seem stupid to a Ghanaian audience, in other words an “ananse” folklore will have a meaningful edge to Ghanaian audiences than to an European audience. The dynamics of language comprehension is a complex one for us in a multi-dialect country but nevertheless an important variable that needs a serious consideration. A four year old child in Ghanaian will try very hard to speak English but from my observation, a child of similar age in the UK is about 5 times more capable in fluent English compared to a child in Ghana. Generally children in Ghana will struggle to respond to interactions in English even though, they may have the understanding. They usually painfully lack the vocabulary to express themselves as children in the UK would have done easily. This is because children in Ghana are always confusingly spoken to in different languages ; Twi, Ewe, Ga, Frafra, Dagbani etc., even before they could start school. Consider that in the long-run all these kids are going to compete in the global arena where English is a predominant medium. The point is the lack of good understanding of the language of teaching especially in the early ages of learning, hampers easy and quick comprehension and conceptualisation. Looking back at my teaching experiences in rural areas, one thing was common, poor English language comprehension did not help in class interaction and participation of students. The inability of pupils to communicate in a language dampens their confidence and the result is disinterest in classroom activities. They become withdrawn and the free functioning of the brain becomes blocked altogether. As a result, a large number of pupils in rural areas from the word go, are inhibited from exploiting their potential abilities. This can be liking to a vehicle in a perfectly good condition to operate but lacks the fuel to move. The educational system from the start should equip children with the requisite language ability to enhance learning during the formative years. In fact, it will be a good start to adopt the slogan 'every child has something to offer' This can be a principle which should be drummed home in our teacher training institutions, and to parents and policy makers. Good language ability breeds confidence, interaction and understanding. In fact, I firmly believe as a nation, if we were ever to have a common dialect that is sufficiently developed to capture the complexities of all theoretical reasons or concepts embodied in the sciences (physical, life or social) and mathematics as other international languages do over the years, our state of development would have been different. The point is a good language grasp whether technical or linguistic breeds conceptualisation of ideas and hence the development and advancement of a nation. Some people may naturally have the “gift of the gab” but that gift can flourish further if they have sufficient scope provided by a matured language to explore and conceptualise. I am tempted to hypothesise that, it seems the insightful and intuitive thoughts of most accomplished people are transferred from their deeper minds into consciousness and reality aided by language. Language therefore helps these people to transfer their knowledge and to be understood by the rest of society.

Even after finalising this script, fresh evidence about the language problem is difficult to ignore. In a front page publication of the British news paper the Sun, on the 18th March 09, an unmissable headline written in bold; Crises In The Class Room: BROKEN ENGLISH, appeared. The article written by Graeme Wilson sought to highlight the cost and standard of education of kids born to foreign parents whom English language is not the first language. There is no doubt the least, that these kind of news paper bask in sensationalism, bigotry and anti-immigration 'virtue'. But that aside, it was noted that not only does it create the need for more specialist teachers hence higher cost but also a difficulty for class teachers. Now, if even a country like Britain has concerns about the standard of pupils in England not having English as their first language, then we in Ghana are in hell!, to think of the number of dialects a child in Ghana has to speak before learning English which, is not common in our streets. God knows how many excellent students in the old days of GCE O' level, who would have gone on to achieve greater things if they were not deemed failed in English, a requisite without which one cannot enter Sixth form then and, of a wasteful long school leaving system.

By Bernard Anaba