Education Sector’s Abdul Kargbo reflects on his contrasting schooling experiences in Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, and the United States, one of the richest.

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Che senso ha andare a scuola? Tra meritocrazia e mediocrità

Due temi ricorrenti in questo sito sono affrontati in quest’articolo: la perdita di senso dell’istruzione scolastica nel mondo occidentale e il disfunzionamento dell’interfaccia tra i sistemi scolastici del Nord e quelli del Sud.

Where Education Is a Matter of Prestige

Published in Education Sector, Independent Analysis, Innovative Ideas, May 24, 2007

In today’s debates about how best to improve student performance, little mention is made of how students’ personal views on learning may affect their academic achievement. Specifically, commentators seldom discuss students’ understanding of the utility of an education and the effects of this perception on how much they value education and how well they perform in school. Perhaps because doing so can be controversial. Ask talk-show host and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey, who faced criticism earlier this year when, in comparing students in South Africa to those in U.S. inner-city schools, she indicated that the American students valued education less. "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there," Winfrey told Newsweek. "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school." Winfrey quickly drew the disapproval of a Washington Post columnist, who countered that in the inner-city schools he’s visited, most students "desperately want to learn."

As someone who attended school in both Africa and the United States, I think both Winfrey and her detractors are somewhat off the mark. It’s not enough to argue about whether or not inner-city students want to learn. Rather, we should be asking why these students don’t value education enough to want to do well at it.

I found myself considering this very issue on a recent trip to Sierra Leone during which I visited St. Edwards Secondary School, where I had studied for four years. I was stunned to see how little had changed in the 16 years since I left for the U.S. The school building—built in the colonial period—was still the primary structure and, except for a recently applied coat of paint, looked as outdated and inadequate as it had in 1986, when I started the eighth grade. The grass around the sports field was still brown and overgrown, and the field itself was still a dust bowl. Yet, despite Sierra Leone’s crumbling educational infrastructure, I remembered that as students there, we had placed a very high premium on learning. And, in many ways, much more so than the students at my high school in the U.S.

By the time I left Sierra Leone in 1990, three decades of post-independence corruption and economic stagnation had taken a heavy toll on the country. The results were everywhere: uncollected garbage in the streets; shanties scattered throughout the capital; no running water or electricity in people’s homes.

Schools were not immune to the general deterioration in the quality of life. St. Edwards, for instance, woefully lacked many of the basics of a modern educational institution. The physical structure of the school was badly deteriorated, the glass in the windows had long ago been stolen or broken, there was no running water in the students’ bathroom, and many of the faucets and other fixtures were missing. Physics, chemistry, and biology classes were held in the second-floor labs, but these contained very little usable equipment of any kind. The spigots, which once provided gas for Bunsen burners, had not pumped out anything in decades. There was not a single working microscope in the entire school. And even if there had been working instruments, there was no electricity to power them. In the library, the bookshelves were almost bare and, of the few remaining books, most were outdated—published as long ago as the 1950s.

Despite the poor condition of the facilities, getting an education was a privilege in Sierra Leone. But it was not free, and the only children who went to school were those whose parents could afford tuition fees. Still, education was so highly prized that even the poorest people, who daily had to do without basic amenities, strove to get enough money to send their kids to school. Once in school, students provided their own textbooks and readers. We often relied on relatives who lived abroad to send books or tried our luck at used booksellers’ stalls in the city’s commercial center. In class, we often sat three or four to a book. In some cases, so few students had books that the teacher would spend the majority of the lesson transcribing paragraphs from the textbook onto the blackboard, while we frantically tried to copy down the information. At home, we studied by candle or lantern light because most houses—despite being fully wired—got no electricity, and only a few households had personal generators. Many students walked long distances to and from school because there was no school bus system.

Still, the expectations and standards for students were high. We were expected to cover all the material in our syllabi and pass the same exams that students had taken in bygone days, when our school offered more in the way of infrastructure and amenities. I had already started studying geography, French, and literature in primary school and, in secondary school, music, government, economics, accounting, biology, physics, chemistry, and African history were added to the curriculum. By age 15, I had committed to memory soliloquies from Hamlet and Macbeth, studied classical economic theory, examined variations in different forms of government, read about the history of pre-colonial Africa, and learned the capital of every African country and all its geographic features and natural resources.

Discipline and competition were central elements of schooling in Sierra Leone. Corporal punishment was liberally meted out for infractions both major and minor. Failing an exam or giving the wrong answer to a question earned you one or more strokes of the cane (a reed-like stick carried and used by most teachers) across the palm or buttocks. But the psychological consequences of academic underperformance were even more devastating than the physical because we were competing against our peers for status. In every class, students’ average grades were tabulated to produce a hierarchy in which everyone was ranked first, second, third, etc. Needless to say, nobody wanted to be last. At the end of the school year, top students in every subject and every class were recognized in a prize-giving ceremony. For us, the pressure was not only to master subjects and pass exams: how we did in school was a matter of prestige.

By early 1990, the already bad economic and political situation had worsened, due in part to the war in neighboring Liberia, which was already spilling over into Sierra Leone and filling the streets of the capital with refugees. Realizing that the situation was only going to get worse, my mother sent my brother and me to the U.S. to live with her sister.

I was a few months away from my 16th birthday when I arrived in the U.S. I enrolled in the 11th grade of a public high school in Prince George’s County, Md., where I quickly discovered that teaching and learning would be very different from what I’d grown accustomed to in Sierra Leone.

Unlike St. Edwards, my new high school was housed in a large, modern, electrified building with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. The school had running water, toilets that flushed, and a public address system. The area around the school building was paved and the grass was green and neatly trimmed. There were tennis courts and a lush playing field for football and soccer, as well as a parking lot full of buses that took students to and from school. Inside the school there were computer labs, a gym with indoor basketball and volleyball courts and a weight-room. The library was full of books that we were allowed to take home. Best of all, we did not have to worry about textbooks: the school provided them.

In the classroom things were even more different. Unlike the strict disciplinarian style of Sierra Leonean teachers, my new teachers interacted with us on a very personal level. Many even insisted that we call them by their first names. They were patient and fair and took care not to single anyone out for praise or humiliation. So focused were teachers on fairness that I had no idea who was the "first" or "last" student in any of my classes. Best of all, there was no corporal punishment. Sometimes, though, I wished this was not the case since many of my classmates seemed less into learning and more interested in getting laughs and talking back to the teacher. Certainly not every student was disruptive or disrespectful, but the troublemakers had a disproportionately negative impact on teaching and learning. Teachers often spent as much time trying to enforce discipline as they did actually teaching. And most students seemed to not care about their actual grades. In fact, some of those with the lowest averages almost seemed proud of their bad scores.

Also, unlike my Sierra Leonean teachers who taught to the fastest students, my teachers in the U.S. tried to make sure that everyone grasped the material before moving on. In addition, they emphasized a broader comprehension of topics, rather than pure knowledge of facts. For instance, I learned that the significance of the American Revolution was not simply that it was a war fought between the U.S. colonies and Great Britain from 1775 to 1783, as I had learned in Sierra Leone. Rather, we learned about the conditions of colonial life under British rule, why some aspects of this life were intolerable to many colonists, and how a combination of these factors led to the war of independence. Looking back, I believe my U.S. teachers wanted and expected us to understand concepts as much as—if not more than—they wanted us to know facts.

This notwithstanding, I never felt that I was being fully challenged. At enrollment, I had discovered that I would have to retake several classes because of the difference in Sierra Leonean and U.S. grading scales. Once I started school in the U.S., however, I quickly realized that I was not going to be learning very much new material. With the exception of the American authors, my English literature classes covered material that I had already studied. And, although U.S. history was a new subject for me—I had studied only African and European history in Sierra Leone—I had already studied the World Wars and the Four Revolutions in my first year of secondary school. My Advanced Placement French classes covered grammar and vocabulary that I had learned in primary school, and my microbiology class was less advanced than the biology classes I had taken in my first and second years of secondary school, when I was between 12 and 13 years old.

What I found most frustrating was that, while teachers might have genuinely wanted everyone to get an equal grasp of the material, they erred too much in favor of ensuring that everyone passed tests and exams. These were so simple that even students who had not even bothered to show up for class could still get a passing score. While most of my tests and exams in Sierra Leone were essay-style, most of the ones in the U.S. were multiple-choice and required few or no essay-style answers. For a typical history or geography exam in Sierra Leone, I would have been required to choose three out of five questions and to write four- to five-page answers for each. For math and the physical sciences, students were expected to do all their calculations by hand and write both the calculations and answers neatly on the answer sheet. Calculators were not allowed, although in the more advanced math classes, slide rules could be used. There was no such thing as a study guide, and all one could hope for was an in-class review session prior to the exam.

Imagine my surprise when, on the day before my first exam in the U.S., the teacher handed out a study guide. During the exam, I was even more surprised to discover that the questions were almost identical to the ones in the study guide in both format and content! I got straight A’s in all my high school courses including the Advanced Placement ones, and even scored a 4 (the next to highest score), on the AP U.S. history exam after living in the U.S. for only one year.

After high school I went on to college where I continued to excel, but much of my graduating class did not attend college. In the ensuing decade and a half, I have often wondered about the cycle of coddling and apathy I witnessed between teachers and students in my high school. Why were teachers so reluctant to challenge their students? And why—despite evidence showing a direct correlation between lifetime earning potential and level of schooling—were so few students interested in doing well enough in high school to go to college?

Looking back, many students at my U.S. high school had probably assumed for one reason or another that they would not go on to college. After all, while I did not understand it at the time, my high school is not in an affluent school district and many students came from low-income neighborhoods, bringing all the problems of poverty into the classroom. Still others might not have had the proper guidance from parents and school administrators that would have enabled them to take the necessary steps toward college enrollment. I am certain that many did not even know about the financial aid options available to them. Those who did know might simply have been daunted by the prospect of incurring substantial student loan debts.

But this cannot be the sole explanation. After all, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world with limited opportunities for social and personal advancement. There, however, education is valued because it is seen as a guaranteed path to social and professional advancement and holding an advanced degree is enough to earn one the respect and admiration of peers and the wider society. In the U.S., on the other hand, while my high school peers all expressed a desire for personal success—vaguely understood to be ownership of a house, car, or some other material thing—few seemed to see the utility of education in getting them from where they were to where they wanted to be in life. And, almost without exception, the people they admired—athletes, musicians, entertainers—had attained success through talent or training and not a formal education.

This under-appreciation for learning is not just limited to students in low-income districts. In college I befriended many students from wealthy and upper-middle-class families who were more interested in athletics and partying than in their studies. After graduation, many were able to fall back on family and personal contacts to land their first jobs and get the requisite experience that would ensure success later in life. At a time when almost everyone is entitled to a high school diploma and increasing numbers have the opportunity to attend college, internships, work-experience arrangements, and personal contacts seem to have become more relevant to future success than educational achievement.

It thus appears that while the popular view is that everyone has an equal shot at success, some students cannot always see how education can put them on the path to success. And who can blame them? If they seldom see the long-term benefits that can come from being educated, can they realistically be expected to work hard at something they don’t believe will pay off in the future? Ultimately, many students may conclude that academic achievement will play only a minor role in their future career prospects.

Since the 1999 Lome Peace Accords that ended hostilities between the Sierra Leonean government and rebel forces, free primary education is a reality for many children in Sierra Leone. On my recent trip, I saw students walking to and from school in the scorching sun, wearing threadbare uniforms and worn-out shoes. Many carried their books in their hands because they did not have book bags but, despite the visible signs of poverty, they looked proud in their uniforms, proud to be going to school and proud to be students. This pride, I believe, stems from their belief that an education will give them their best shot at success in life.

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P.S.: Articoli associabili a questo tema che si trovano in questo sito:

- Stare a scuola ha senso?

- La perdita di senso

- Insegnare in scuole difficili

- Nella trincea della scuola di frontiera