As policymakers discuss the future of development after once the Millenium Development Goals expire later this year, one of the big topics surrounding education is quality. How can we make education that is relevant to everyone?
In Africa, formal education systems that were set up during colonization and primarily meant for the elite. When countries became independent, they kept the essential parts of their colonizer’s education system and as time has passed, the formal system in place has left many people behind.
One of the most crucial pieces of this question goes back to the language of instruction. In a recent trip to Cape Verde, I spoke with an education specialist who mentioned the challenges of educating the population in Portuguese, while the majority of Cape Verdeans speak Creole (a mix of their local language and Portuguese). This same dilemma occurs in most African countries, where the language they learn in school is different than what they speak in their homes and communities.
Take the case of Senegal. Imagine a village where Diola has been spoken for centuries, then a child is put into a formal school to learn new concepts such as math and reading in a completely foreign language, French. He has to overcome the normal challenges of being in school, all while learning a y new language. When he comes home, he has no chance to practice this new language. Since children are always expected to achieve a certain level, they are often forced to drop out of the system when they do not. Since 2009, the Senegalese government and partners have experimented with teaching in national languages, but it requires six years and a hefty $29 million to achieve their goals.
Another question of relevance is in the curriculum. A child growing up in a rural community will not necessarily be able to use some of the traditional formal content. For this child to succeed, she needs skills which will be transferable in her community and local economy. If a student, and her parents, do not see the relevance in what they are learning, it will be difficult to convince them to invest time and money in school.
These problems are very complicated. The ideal situation would be to teach students in their mother tongue, but since Senegal has 38 spoken languages, course material would need to be translated, printed, administered and monitored in 38 different ways, which would be a logistical and financial impossibility.“Additionally, many languages are only spoken orally and have no official or standard form of writing which would make finding people who can read and write in these rare languages a huge challenge Furthermore, creating a national curriculum to be relevant for such a diverse population would be quite challenging.
Considering the complications of having national curricula be diversified to this degree, UNESCO and UNICEF have agreed that non-formal education can be a viable solution to deliver education to out of school children, as well as adolescents and adults. Non-formal education is flexible and innovative, diverse in its pedagogy, and has the ability to cater to specific learning needs of all ages, ethnicities, and gender. It can be particularly successful in reaching the most disenfranchised groups, and even help them to bridge into the formal system. Check out initiatives like Hope for Teenage Mothers in Kenya, providing vocational education to teenage mothers, and Tostan, delivering non-formal human rights education to empower positive social transformation in six countries in West Africa.
To begin to solve this, the definition of “education” needs to be changed to include not just the formal system. Having a formal degree does not always imply one is educated, and it is crucial to harness the potential of non-formal education to serve the needs of a diverse population. People in Africa want to learn, but they need something which will directly serve them. Governments in Africa need to embrace the value of non-formal education programs as an option for their populations and begin to set up systems which will recognize and encourage this type of learning.