Moving from the brink to the brim of academic excellence

Joseph F. Kamara: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 12 October 2019:

The brim of academic excellence is the state of being exceptional. We live in a society obsessed with being exceptional. Whether it is as workers, parents, students, lovers or cooks, we are expected to be outstanding. We must strive to be the best employee, craft an outstanding body, have an amazing relationship, all while being exceptionally happy. Even the most ordinary institutions also are expected to be nothing less than excellent.

Companies want to be “world class”, schools have become “academies of excellence”. Being good enough is seen as simply not good enough. Be that as it may, our quest to be excellent has many positive consequences, but it also can be damaging. Lionising excellence can create huge inequalities.

When high performers are showered with rewards, the great mass of us who are average miss out. This can spark resentment in those who feel that they don’t measure up. But the obsession with being exceptional does not just harm the great mass of average people. It can also do damage to people at the top as well.

When we realise our institutions are necessarily limited, we might stop overloading them with expectations that they will inevitably fail. Aiming for good enough may help to avoid the tragic and all too common situation where our ever-extending demands overload both us and the institutions we rely upon.

At a moment like this, when education faces attack from multiple fronts, it can be helpful to step back and address a central question: Where did we go wrong? Back in the days, when as a country we were known as the ‘Athens of West Africa’, education was fit for purpose. The structure of the curricular then, could get you a job even with a secondary school leaving certificate.

My father, who happens to be a student of the class of 1948 at the Albert Academy, (now believably the oldest Old Boy, and seated here with us), was able to secure a job as Station Master in Moyamba District, with just a School Leaving Certificate. The quality and value of the certificate then, is my reference point and not the availability of a job.

In today’s education, a University degree cannot even guarantee a secured job, again, not necessarily because of availability, but rather, the inability to perform at an expected level.

Our educational system could be likened to a chariot on two wheels, academic excellence and social purpose. It seems to me, we have lost one of the wheels, the social purpose wheel. Education should have a social purpose in addition to striving for academic excellence.

The current obsession with academic excellence, one can argue, has altered our idea of higher education, and the current focus on status has perpetuated inequality and limited social mobility.

Currently, the dominant view is that education quality is synonymous with content mastery. A Western model of education usually dominates the content of and the approach to both primary and secondary education. School systems evaluate students’ performance based on their ability to achieve international standards with an emphasis on math, science, language, and social studies.

These programs allocate scarce resources to topics like Chartist and French revolutions, or prime numbers,—topics that may provide intellectual stimulation, but have little relevance in the lives of impoverished children. There are no higher levels of schooling or professional job opportunities awaiting most of these children; they will likely end up unemployed or starting their own small street trading.

Our schooling provides neither the financial literacy students will need to manage the meagre resources under their control, nor the guidance needed to create opportunities for securing a livelihood or building wealth. In addition, schooling provides little assistance to promote the physical health needed for economic stability and quality of life. Life expectancy is low in impoverished regions, and not just because of lack of quality medical care.

Many of us were taught that if you study hard and get good grades, then you will get a good job after school. That is no longer a reality. Students are finding that to be competitive in the job market, they need much more than a diploma. Higher education institutions are expected to ensure students graduate having developed the skills, work experience, and professional network necessary to succeed in today’s competitive job market.

Reasons for this clear deficiency in the quality of education include the stress put on educational systems by rapidly expanding student access. Increasing class sizes leads to packed rooms that compound pervasive longstanding problems of high student and teacher absenteeism and school closures

How can we re-establish the’ social purpose and yet attain academic excellence? The solution, I suggest, lies in considering not only what schools are good at, but what they are good for. More so, how schools can, and should respond to societal challenges to promote positive social change with matching technology.

We must develop a robust educational model that combines traditional content with critically important financial, health, and administrative skills, which can be delivered via existing school systems and teachers.

Such a model will shift the goal of schooling away from the achievement of standardized learning outcomes toward making a positive impact on the economic and social well-being of students and their communities. The model requires significant changes in both content and strategies of instructions.

For too long, successive governments have invested in education under the unquestioned assumption that improved test scores were clear evidence that their investments have paid off. But if, as I argue here, mastery of the basic primary or secondary school curriculum is not the best means for improving life chances and alleviating poverty in our country, that model is broken.

Investing in interventions that produce the highest test scores is no longer a valid approach for allocating scarce educational Leones or the scarce time available for the development of young minds. It is time to seek out the interventions that lead to the greatest social and economic impact for the poor.

So therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, to attain the brim of excellence, our approach ought to include three elements essential to a high-quality education:

Entrepreneurship

This includes financial and marketplace literacy. It focuses on helping children learn to manage money and market transactions, enabling them to identify and pursue market opportunities, and teaching them workplace skills to improve productivity and effectiveness.

Health education

This includes essential health behaviours, the importance and consequences of healthy behaviours, and the strategies for employing them that children can share with their families and incorporate into everyday life.

Empowerment

A student-driven approach that provides practical learning in a supportive environment and includes helping children develop critical thinking skills and the self-efficacy necessary to put them into action.

Content and activities such as these, enable students to learn and practice workplace skills and attitudes like delegation, negotiation, collaboration, and planning—opportunities that are rarely available to them outside of their families. Perhaps more importantly, these activities enable them to see themselves in idea-generation, problem-solving, decision-making, and leadership roles.

These can also be achieved to the brim of excellence, and I would like to share a story on perfection that touched me. An elderly lady once visited a Temple under construction where she saw a Carpenter making an Idol of god. Glancing around, she noticed a similar idol lying nearby…Surprised, she asked the Carpenter, “Do you need two statues of the same idol?” “No,” said the Carpenter without looking up, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage…” The Elderly Lady examined the idol and found no apparent damage. “Where is the Damage?” She asked. “There is a scratch on the nose of the idol,” said the Carpenter, still busy with his work. “Where are you going to install the Idol?” asked the Lady. The Carpenter replied that it would be installed on a pillar twenty feet high. “If the idol is going to be placed that high who is going to know that there is a small scratch on the nose?” the Lady queried. The Carpenter stopped working, looked up at the Lady, smiled and said “I will know it”.

The desire to Excel is exclusive of the fact whether someone else appreciates or finds fault with it or not. The pursuit of ‘excellence’, the desire to attain a goal of excellence, to achieve a higher level, to be the best that one can be but without the demand attached to the goal or desire, is important for success in life.

Pursuance of educational excellence is a way of life that differentiates dreamers from achievers. That Excellence demands tremendous effort and focus. It is a drive from the inside, not outside. And like in the story, it is not for someone else to notice but for our own satisfaction and efficiency.

Don’t climb a mountain with an intention that the world should see you, climb the mountain with the intention to see the world!

Esse Quam Videri-rather to be than to seem!

Editor’s note:

This article is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Joseph F Kamara at the 115th Anniversary celebration of the Albert Academy School in Freetown last week.

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