More or less: thoughts on the spread of education in Nigeria

Here are a collection of my observations and insights gleaned from friends and colleagues Nigerian and foreign, regarding the history and the result of the spread of education in Nigeria.

It is frequently observed that there is greater access to education than ever before in Nigeria. Sometimes people claim then that Nigerians are better educated than ever before. Somewhat optimistically and logically then, I and others have concluded that the immense task of developing Nigeria’s languages and translating the Bible should be more achievable now and faster than ever it could have been in the past.

I am starting to think that this is sadly naïve. The true situation is more puzzling and more complicated than the simple narrative of ‘Nigeria is better educated than ever before’.

Observations/generalisations:

  1. More children are going to school than ever before, often starting at age 2.
  2. Most (formal) education does not begin in the languages children understand best but in languages of wider communication (English, Hausa…)
  3. Nigerian parents are very serious about education.
  4. One way Nigerian parents show how serious they are is by refusing to use their best language with their children, but instead communicating using their superficial Hausa, English etc.
  5. Schools are great money spinners.
  6. Children are generally kept very busy with teaching in school, homework and supplementary holiday classes.
  7. Education is largely seen as a key to getting a well-paid job and certainly not a worthy pursuit in and of itself. (Possibly unless you are Yoruba.)
  8. The certificate/grade/mark is the most important part of education.
  9. Endless repetition and regurgitation without understanding is normal; problem-solving is unimportant.
  10. No-one expects to apply what they have learnt to any aspect of real life.
  11. You prove you are educated by spouting excessive verbiage, talking ‘big grammar’ and bamboozling your audience with terminologies and jargons. It does not matter whether you use the impressive and obscure terms correctly.
  12. Many teachers appear to understand neither how to teach for understanding, nor the subjects they are supposed to teach.
  13. Standards of attainment are gradually falling.
  14. Falling standards are being tackled by raising the attainment goals expected, not by raising the standard of teaching.
  15. More young people than ever are studying beyond Secondary School, but the study skills of most students in their 20s/30s are well below what you would expect of British Secondary School leavers.

In conclusion, it seems as though many more people are considered educated, but without that education being of much real use.

This presents us with challenges when we want to build on the unprecedented level of education to help develop the country generally or even individuals. Obviously just as in the past there were many Nigerians who excelled tremendously in learning before and after Europeans came, there are still many who thrive despite the state of the current education sector. However, for many, we are faced with a situation of having to deconstruct much harmful understanding before building a better understanding of education itself and the subject matter at hand.

On the one hand, more people than ever before are familiar to some extent with computers. This is a great blessing. On the other hand, very few Nigerians want to read anything. Similarly proficiency in writing English seems very low indeed. Despite year upon year of instruction, basic numeracy, critical reasoning skills and general knowledge are woefully inadequate.

Perhaps my perspective is a little biased because I generally end up working with people who are still in Nigeria. Those who can, seem to leave, on the whole.

So what can we conclude?

  • Don’t be fooled by the wider spread of education in Nigeria; it’s superficial.
  • If you plan a grand scheme based on large numbers of educated young people, you’ll probably be disappointed and need to do a lot of deconstructing.
  • If you want people to apply what they learn to real life, you’ll need to work especially hard to connect education to ordinary life.
  • If you want people to teach, you need to replace all the disastrous models of teaching they have likely experienced.
  • If you want to employ people to sit doing nothing at all in an office yet drawing a meagre salary, then you’re onto a winner because that’s what the population at large have suffered through their years of education to do.

(Finally, let me add in case you think these generalisations are too damning of all Nigerians, that my closest Nigerian colleagues are in fact largely amazing and I don’t know how they survived and stayed sane and actually learnt anything.)

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