Saturday, January 28, 2012

90% of what Nigerians learn in School is Useless

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This article was written by Atala some years ago when he was still a blogger, but he revived it in response to the indictment of Lazy Intellectual African Scum. If you don't know what I'm talking about, click on the link to read the tongue lashing given to us over-degreed Africans by a fictional Bwana Walter as transcribed by Zambian author, Field Ruwe. Well, after I received my share of the reproach, I sent a link to Atala at work and from emails, we continued the discussion when he came back.

Because his article is on the longish side, I won't go into our discussion except to say that while Ruwe made some valid points, as is the case with such tirades, the strength of the argument was lost in over generalization. Read Atala below and let's discuss in the comments. Are African intellectuals lazy, or are they indifferent and satiated by personal comfort? Do you consider yourself an intellectual, do you see yourself in Ruwe's article? What of Atala's, of how much use has been your schooling to your life goals so far?

On examining the ‘knowledge’ I gained while at school in Nigeria, I am forced to realise an unpleasant truth: 90% of my formal education is useless to me in my present day life. For instance, how many times has the knowledge that zinc reacts with sulphuric acid to produce hydrogen enabled me comfort a friend in distress? Of what use is the knowledge that the Benguela current flows off the coast of Namibia if it cannot clinch me a business deal? And that’s just the stuff I can remember - like some others I learned while I was still in secondary school.

There was this history lesson where our teacher was talking to us about the ancient empire of Ghana. Now history isn't really my cup of tea, but for some strange reason I vividly recall this particular lesson being about a man called Abdullah ibn-Yasin who founded a group called the Almoravids which later went on to invade Ghana in 1076. I don’t know why, but this particular fact has stuck in my head ever since. Perhaps at the time, my subconscious felt that this was a highly significant piece of information that would prove useful in my later life, and so it had decided to keep it safe in my memory.

However, looking back on this incident, I have to wonder what the whole point was. Not once - no, not even for a tangential reason - have I ever found it necessary to employ this knowledge of ibn-Yasin and his Almoravid movement. The sad thing is, I’m sure most people realize this point themselves - educators and students alike. But everyone persists in the same old follies in the name of - you guessed it - tradition. I’m sure they have all sorts of excuses to justify this relentless pursuit of tradition like “Well, having all this knowledge makes you a well rounded person” or “You never know whether it will be useful in the future”.

My response to the first claim is you can make someone well rounded without subjecting them to hour after hour of of formal education. I personally think that presenting information via formal education makes people view that information as ‘boring’ and ‘uninteresting’ and creates a lifelong antipathy towards such information. I have personal experience of this - I hated economics in secondary school because I couldn’t relate it to the real world, but my interest was only sparked off when I started coming across economic terms in news bulletins and I had the opportunity to talk to a very down-to-earth but knowledgeable person about what these terms meant.

To the second claim, I simply say that it is better to concentrate on determining what information is likely to be useful to students and giving them that information instead of adopting a scattergun approach and hoping that of the thousands of facts being blasted out into the educational arena, perhaps one or two “will be useful in the future”.

One very interesting aside to all this is that we could certainly learn a thing or two by looking back on our own cultural histories in evaluating how appropriate the kind of education we receive today is. I’m never one to rush to the forefront when it comes to championing pride in our local cultures since I believe in sampling the produce of all the world’s cultures, but I believe our forefathers had it right when educating their children for the life they were going to lead in society. If your father was going to be a farmer, then the chances were that you were going to be one too, and you would accompany him to the farm to gain ‘hands on’ experience. He didn’t sit you in front of a blackboard and draw a picture of a millet plant and write notes saying that kunu could be made from millet corn - you actually saw, heard, smelt, felt, tasted it happen. And I believe that the knowledge gained from this education was wholly useful to the recipients.

So if there’s something wrong with the mode of formal education today, what should it be replaced with? What would I suggest? Well, I’m sure most of you have heard the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day - teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. I feel that the crucial failing of the  educational system is that there is much giving of fishes - the students learn about all sorts of wonderful things in geography, history, chemistry and literature - but they do not learn how to learn. I’m at a loss as to how so little time can be spent on formally imparting such valuable knowledge, especially because all our lives we will have to continue gaining knowledge in order to help us reach our goals, and it is very much to our advantage that we sharpen our skills in doing so.

Another complaint I have mentioned already is that the knowledge that is gained in the classrooms has little relevance to the student’s life after education. Again, I find this unacceptable, especially as there’s no shortage of more useful and relevant knowledge that the student could be gaining instead.

So with these two points in mind, I will have our curriculum developed along the lines of the subjects below:

Mathematics. Apart from the fact that the science of numbers pervades our entire life, Mathematics is simply the essence of truth and objectivity. You can present arguments to show that Nkrumah was a good or bad leader or that Okonkwo in ‘Things Fall Apart’ was a hero or villain. You even have theories of physics and chemistry changing over time. But Mathematics is faithful and constant to her followers. One Plus One will always equal Two, no matter whether which lawyer or politician is arguing to the contrary.

Aside from that, there is a certain beauty in the various sub-disciplines of Mathematics. It is obvious to all who care to see - all you have to do is to consider the subtle mysteries of Algebra, the intricacies of Trigonometry, or the sheer beauty of Geometry. In fact, whenever I hear someone say they don’t “get mathematics”, I shake my head in sorrow and wonder how someone can be content to live a such life in the shadows.

Research methods. Research is something that we do practically every day of our lives to find out new information. So it makes sense to give specialist training to hone this skill so that it can be even more profitable to us. In this subject, there will be training on the identifying sources of information - people, Nature, printed matter, the web, e-mail, Usenet - and effectively obtaining information from these sources. There will also be training on how to the student can design his own methods of extracting information, especially via experimentation on people and Nature.

While learning this subject, students will choose various topics (for example, the History of West Africa between 1600 and 1800) and use that as means to practice their research methods, by finding out as much as they can about the topic using what they have learnt in the subject.

Presentation. This is another skill which we use throughout the rest of our lives, and as such it is another skill that students deserve to have special training in. The training here will include training in oral, written and graphic presentation; understanding your audience, and designing your presentation so that you can effectively communicate your ideas to them. Again, various topics will be chosen for the students to practice this skill on.

Learning skills. When we have got whatever information that we may have got during research, the next stage is to make sense of it. Again, this is something we have to do all the time, but again, there’s no time spent on formal training in this method. The training here will consist of techniques in memorisation; focus and concentration; analysing complex data by formulating the right questions to organise the data into a collection of coherent concepts; building up a ‘mental’ picture of the concept in the student’s head; logical deduction so that the student can draw conclusions from the data. Again, a topic will be chosen for the student to practice on.

Elementary psychology. We spend most of our lives interacting with other people, yet we have little formal training on how to do this. This subject will train students on how to understand how other people behave and react in different scenarios, taking into account the effect of local culture. The subject will also train students on the skill of emotional control - how to moderate their emotional reaction to various situations, so that they can keep their heads while others are losing theirs.

Basic Law. One of the saddest things to observe is how people are taken advantage of because they don’t know their rights in law. This subject will focus on educating students the more static and important aspects of current law, and provide pointers for future changes. In addition, this subject will touch on informal law, such as the customs and practices of the community in which the student is lives. This will, of course, include answers to questions like “How much do policemen expect to receive as egunje at checkpoints?”

Ethics. Here, real world scenarios will be shown and role-played so that students can see the positive and negative effect of certain types of behaviour. This doesn't guarantee that they will change their behaviour to seek longer-term happiness - but at least, they will have a better idea of what to do if they want it.

Creative Thinking. I admit that this is a bit of a wildcard. It’s true that you can't 'create to order', but I do think there are ways of thinking that make you more likely to come up with more creative solutions. This course will explore these ways of thinking and give students the opportunity to express their creativity through different means (not just in the area of art, but also in the area of invention and innovation).

Entrepreneurship Studies. This will give the students an idea of what is involved in setting up and running a business - spotting a demand in the market, creating a viable solution to satisfy the demand, creating a business plan, marketing the solution, building up the brand, administering the company, etc.

In addition, students may study any six ordinary subjects of their choice.

So that’s what my curriculum would look like. Of course it’s not going to happen in my lifetime - ‘mad’ ideas like this are often too scary to adopt right away. But I’m not really bothered anyway - I’m not overly concerned about the formal education my children (when I have them) will be getting, since I plan to be the main educator of my children, instead of leaving it to a bunch of teachers who are nowhere near as motivated as me to ensure that they get a good education.

In the meantime, I continue my search for someone who I can have an intelligent discussion about those events in Ghana in 1076 - no point in wasting ‘good’ education now, is there?


PS - So anyone ever heard of the Almoravids?

PSS - If Atala has got you thinking, you may like this Guernica article by Chimamanda Adichie on branding, charity, and class in Nigeria’s schools.

PSSS - Please feel free to email, FB and Tweet, who knows who may read it? We definitely need a revolution, and not just in our politics. Education and Health are the biggest indicators of socio-economical development.


  1. This is a theme that has been of great interest to me. I have a teaching qualification and spent about ten years of my life doing so, in Eastern Europe though.

    I completely agree with the recommended reforms you stated above but disappointed you didn't believe it would happen in your life time. I believe if we want to achieve something as a people, we need to be decisive and act now rather than later. There needs to be a discussion at all levels about the purpose of schooling. Is it a place to keep children busy and looked after while their parents are busy earning their daily bread or is it a place for personal development?

    Personally, I was very luck to have been to a very good secondary school (CIC Enugu) where I had the opportunity to participate in inter school debating society, drama, boys scout, current affairs club and so on. I believe these activities have helped me much more as a person than some school subjects.

    In my opinion secondary education should be modeled on this kind of active participation and ability to be creative and challenge the status quo. It is shocking when well educated Nigerians accept the fact that it is OK to bride a policeman at every road junction for no reason, accept the fact that someone can call the police on you for no reason, and that government officials believe the country belonged to them. This is an area I believe that was grossly missing. Emotional training was also missing in terms of negotiation, dealing with conflicts, etc.

    My bigger worry is actually with the primary education. It is totally ridiculous that it is completely blackboard and classroom based. But of course we need to begin with training the teachers.

    Thanks for starting this discussion.

  2. I totally agree with many things I studied back then in school were of no use to me now and by many I mean like 98%..More like the educational system needs to get updated.

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  3. Well, I don't agree with you 100%, there's need for a change to a certain level both at both the secondary and tertiary levels of education but for you to say that what we learnt at secondary school has no relevance to our after-school life is so very wrong. It all depend on ur area of specialization. And in case you don't know most of what you listed as your planned curriculum is already being practiced to a certain level at my university. Like i said early, it all depends on your area of specialization. Good work anyway.

  4. Our broken education system is simply a part of a seriously damaged puzzle. I don't know how much anyone would achieve simply by focusing on it or any other part of the puzzle, for example, poor health care or lack of basic infrastructure. We have to approach Nigeria's problems on a macro level. The systems and structure of Nigeria is flawed, and the problem is only worsened by our penchant for electing unqualified individuals with the hope that they would gain the competency to transform our broken country while on the job. The reality is it's not going to happen.

    But since we are reluctant to dismantle our current structure, we should at least elect competent, visionary leaders who can make the system work to our advantage.

  5. Whilst I agree with the article in principle about the need for change in our educational curriculum which is long overdue, but to say 90% of what we learn in school is useless is quite alarmist in my view. Education has always and should keep evolving to meet the demands and challenges of the time. I have advocated for this in some articles I have written on my education blog:

    There are no shortages of great ideas that could bring about positive changes towards a better educational system. Sadly, little attention has been paid to those who are in the front-line to make this happen - the teachers. You can invest in shiny and glossy school buildings. You can draw up the most inspiring curriculum on paper but if you haven't got highly trained and motivated teachers to deliver it, good education would only remain in our imagination. We must invest in good teachers instead of vilifying them by changing the whole way we train, educate and remunerate our teachers.

    We should also be mindful that education does not only serve as a platform to acquire skills and knowledge but also to empower individuals to become leaders in their chosen fields, professions and communities.

    On the subject of Ruwe's article, it would be fair to say I consider myself as an intellectual. I say this only on the basis that I hold a teaching qualification and Masters degree in Education, which have provided me numerous opportunities to carry out educational research that inform my practice as a teacher. Am I lazy? No chance, I try as much as I can to use my intellectual ability and opportunity to make small contributions to my motherland in anyway I can.

    The role of African intellectuals will always be undermined otherwise perceived as laziness by Ruwe. As long as we have political leadership that lack the ideas and imagination to transform their countries, African intellectuals will continue to remain victims of stifled creativity.

  6. Thanks for all the responses to the article. I'll reply them all here:

    @Christopher, I'd love for the changes I propose to happen in my lifetime, but I realise that it would mean a big change to the status quo. Just think about all those textbook publishers and teachers that would be out of work if a completely different curriculum had to be drawn up. I think that the change *will* happen, though - I just think it will be from bottom up, driven by independent and innovative school, not from the government.

    I agree with you on the value of extra-curricular activities, but I still do not think that they directly tackle the issues I raised. In any event, it is not mandatory to be a member of an extra-curricular club, so even if they did help a student learn life skills, there is no guarantee that he would sign up to learn them.

    @Dekky, thanks for your comment. To quote Naija4Life (who I'll respond to later, 98% is *very* high. :)

    @Mr Nasir, to be clear, I didn't say that *all* that we learnt in secondary school has no relevance; I said (in my experience) that *90%* of what we learnt has no relevance, and I'll gladly stand by that figure.

    Also, I think that university is a bit late to start learning these skills, since there is no guarantee that many students will go on to university, and these are skills that are needed in everyday life.

    But I'd love for you to share your experience; what percentage of what you learnt in school is still useful today, and how is it useful to you?

    @Prism of an Immigrant,

    I'm not saying that education reform should be the only thing that the government should focus on fixing. In fact, I think that it is bad policy to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. But in so far as education (along with other sectors of life) needs to be fixed, this is how I would propose to fix it, and I feel that what I am proposing would not conflict with plans to fix other areas, like health, infrastructure, etc.

    @Naija 4 Life,

    Like I said to @Mr Nasir, I stand by that figure of 90%. You say that the education curriculum should evolve to meet the demands and challenges of the time, but do you really feel that this has happened with Nigerian education? If not, then it should not be surprising that most of what students are getting in the name of education is useless. I did check out your blog, but I couldn't find a post on what subjects might make up an ideal curriculum. Please feel free to point me to one.

    I agree with you that teachers should be motivated and remunerated. But the focus of my article is more the content than the delivery system; even a motivated and well-paid teacher is useless if he is doing a great job of teaching his students useless skills.

  7. @Tola Odejayi, I think it's fair to say we both agree on the fact that the education curriculum in Nigeria needs to change. However, I'm not sure how you arrived at the figure of 90%. Is that figure based on research? If so when and where was this carried out? What variables did you use?

    The way you describe the current provision as useless is very loose in my view, especially if not backed by evidence. The fact that something is old does not necessarily mean it's useless, it probably just needs to be improved. For example, the ICT Secondary curriculum in the UK is on the verge of being revamped. Consultation is currently ongoing to bring back programming in schools as part of the new curriculum. When ICT entered the UK school curriculum in the 80s, it provided opportunities for programming, it was watered down in the 90s and now it's creeping back to schools. Do I consider programming useless when it lost its place from their curriculum? Not really, maybe they felt it wasn't relevant at the time.

    Perhaps you misunderstood my original comments but I didn't lay claim to what subjects could make an ideal curriculum. Neither did I criticise your effort in doing so.

    Granted, your article was focused on content rather than delivery but you can't discuss the two issues in isolation, from my experience working in education. The very reason why I said education has always and should keep evolving to meet the demands and challenges of the time.

  8. I think Atala over-generalised. If you say we need to learn how to learn' than learning all those 'so called useless courses are all part of the learning to learn process. You learn to read and retain knowledge, sift through the knowledge acquired and discern what is important and what is not.

    notwithstanding, most of your suggestions make sense. Research methods/presentations are lacking in our secondary and university education (compared to what obtains in western education) that i think is a shame. Entrepreneurial skills are bemoaned by students globally as lacking in their education.
    A friend insists that for developing countries like Nigeria, 90% of the courses offered in Universities should be engineering/production/manufacturing/biotech - hands on courses. Looking at the sorry state of our industries..i am tempted to agree.

  9. Even I myself, I've lost interest in schooling as a whole although I value education.

  10. I agree with Atala's curriculum excepton the Mathematics issue. I remember using three pages of my 60-leaves note book in Secondary school to copy the 'almighty formula' in mathematics. This to me is useless as I have never applied it in real life. Apart from the basics of addition, multiplication, subtraction and division, the rest is irrelevant to me as an individual. There are some of us that would never get mathematics but we'd love to be architects or doctors but can't make it because of our inability to pass WAEC maths.


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