By ALN | Published: JULY 20, 2012
My colleagues and I were inspired to start ALA because we were tired of complaining about the state of affairs in Africa and not doing anything about it. Each of our experiences of living and working across Africa had made one thing clear: the most important thing Africa needed to focus on to achieve real progress was improving the quality of its leaders. It had also become clear to us that addressing this leadership problem by trying to reform our existing leaders was a futile exercise. Instead, we would need to systematically groom a whole new generation of leaders from scratch.
So we came up with the concept of an institution that would find, develop, and network the future leaders of Africa. The core of the institution would be a two-year boarding school program that would provide world-class training in leadership, entrepreneurship, and African Studies. We would draw students between the ages of 16 and 18 from all 54 countries in Africa. And we would support and engage with these young leaders well beyond the two year program, to build a powerful network of least 6,000 leaders over a 50-year period who could transform Africa.
Since opening our doors five years ago, we have received almost 13,000 applications from 48 African countries, and selected almost 500 young leaders to be part of the program. Over the course of reviewing these 13,000 applications and through our work with the almost 500 individuals we currently have in the program, we have managed to gain a ‘bird’s eye view” of education systems across the continent. Sadly, the picture we have seen is not a pretty one.
Mainstream education in Africa is simply not preparing young Africans to bring about the change that we so desperately need. African education systems are in dire need of overhaul in three main areas:
Most education systems in Africa are remnants of the systems that existed during the colonial period, such as the O and A-level systems that are prevalent in Anglophone countries and the Baccalaureate and Brevet systems that are found in Francophone Africa. As such, the content is not very relevant to Africa and is greatly outdated. For example, I recall learning about the American prairies and wheat farming in Iowa in my high school geography class in Zimbabwe and reading Shakespeare and Chaucer in my English literature class in Botswana. Not once did I read Ngugi wa Th’iongo or Wole Soyinka’s novels. The case study for hyper-inflation in my economics class was about Germany after the first World War. This strikes me as odd because we have a wonderful example of hyper-inflation in Zimbabwe that could have been used as a case study instead. How can we solve our problems in Africa if we do not understand our own culture, history, politics, geography, or our own economies? Most of the young people who come to ALA are learning about Africa for the first time in their lives, which is shocking to me.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the greatest determinant of educational outcomes in a nation is the quality of its teachers. This is far more important than facilities or class size. As I always say, “put a great teacher under a tree, and you will have a great school.” Simply put, a competitive nation should attract its best talent into the teaching profession. Yet here in Africa, people usually venture into the teaching profession as last resort when they cannot find other opportunities. We need to borrow techniques from countries like Finland and Singapore, who successfully attract their highest-caliber professionals into the classroom. The requirements for entry into the teaching profession are as stringent as those in medicine or engineering, and the prestige associated with being a teacher is extremely high. To improve teacher quality in Africa, we need to significantly raise the bar for entry into the profession across the continent and teach a narrower range of subjects. I would focus on only three subjects: Math, English, and Science. This would allow us to have fewer teachers who we can pay much better (instead of spreading our limited education budget over a large pool of less-qualified teachers). This will enable us to attract higher-caliber professionals into the classroom, and thus achieve the same kind of success Singapore and Finland have achieved with their education systems. With the advent of mobile phones across Africa, and with increasing access to broadband, we should also be adopting technology like the Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) and e-teaching to supplement the poor quality of teachers we have in the classroom.
Lessons in most African classrooms look the same – a teacher walks in, the class stands up to greet him or her. The teacher then writes notes on the board, from the same notebook he or she has been using for the last 10 years, and the students copy the notes. The class ends. There is no discussion, no opportunity to challenge anything the teacher has asserted, and no opportunity for the students to learn from one another. Students are told to memorize facts and later regurgitate these facts on a test. African classrooms need to shift from being teacher-focused to student-focused and student-led, where students are encouraged to ask questions, where the teacher is more of a discussion facilitator between students rather than a lecturer. Looking in textbooks for “the answer” is not the way Africa will solve its problems. We need to cultivate creative, independent thinkers. The main skills being taught should be creativity and independent problem-solving ability, and not how to memorize facts that will soon be forgotten anyhow. Problem-solving skills and creativity will remain with a student forever, and will actually be useful one day in solving the myriad problems impacting Africa.
By reforming our education systems such that we have more relevant content, higher quality teachers, and teaching methods that focus on problem-solving ability versus rote memorization, Africa will be able to achieve its much-awaited ‘renaissance’ and finally rise to become one of the world’s leading powers.
Founder & CEO
African Leadership Academy
(Please note that the African Leadership Academy is a separate organization from the African Leadership Network, even though they were both founded by Fred Swaniker)