Saturday, December 20, 2008

FOR A CULTURE OF LEARNING

By Biko Agozino
bagozino@yahoo.com

In an earlier article (http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/), I asked parents, students and teachers to send me information on their study methods and the results they get from those methods and I promised to share my preferred methods with all. No one has responded so far but I still keep reading articles about the sorry state of education especially in Africa and among the African Diaspora. So I will go ahead and share the study tips that I share with my students as part of my syllabi. If you try them and they work for you or even if they fail to work, please write to me and comment.

Before I reveal my study methodology, let me reflect on the nature of the problem briefly. It is reported that there is a gap in educational achievement between people of African descent and almost any other group of students around the world. Racist theorists claim that this gap is genetic and conclude that people of African descent are inherently less intelligent. I find this conclusion incredible given that people of African descent are overwhelmingly creative especially in the arts. I am convinced that it takes a lot of intelligence to invent a new style of music and African people have been doing this even without formal education in music. The examples are jazz, blues, high life, rock n roll, ska, soul, Afrobeat, funk, reggae, calypso, socca, raga, hip-hop, rapso, rhythm and blues and so on.

If African people have been able to invent new musical styles and patent many inventions in industry even without formal training, then something must be wrong with educational systems that start from the assumption that Africans are less gifted intellectually. Besides, African students who are female are increasingly outperforming their male counterparts in most parts of the world with gender equity in access to education. That is why I came to the conclusion that when a student is struggling with formal education, whatever the racial, class or gender background, the problem is most likely that the student is not equipped with proper study skills.

The emphasis is deliberately on study skills and not teaching skills. No matter how poor a teacher is or how impoverished the educational system, there would always be students who would excel in the examinations because they managed to learn what others failed to learn. Similarly, no matter how effective a teacher is or how nourished the educational environment, there would always be students who would struggle with the learning materials. Statisticians call these groups of students outliers on a normal curve and expect that the majority of the students would cluster around the average or norm. I am not a fan of the normal curve because I see no reason why most of the students, if well equipped with study skills, could not all be positive outliers or over-achievers all the time.

However, when it is reported from Nigeria that less than 20% of Senior Secondary School students passed their examinations this year, sliding from the 20% that succeeded last year, I am alarmed. With all due respect to all those who have identified the problem in faulty policies and inadequate funding, the failure rate is just too much and too unprecedented to be explained away simply as a structural problem. I would like to believe that it is also a cultural problem that could be fixed irrespective of the structural constraints. I am encouraged to formulate this hypothesis because the few that succeed in Nigeria or among the African Diaspora also study under the same structural constraints but manage to survive the pressures and thrive academically.

I am not saying that national policies are not necessary nor that funding is not required. I am saying that even with the best policies and best funding for education, we will need a cultural change to turn around our educational failures. The necessary cultural change is in the direction of a culture of learning with less emphasis on the culture of teaching. If all you learned in education was what the teacher taught you, then you must be mediocre indeed. As the example of the musical creativeness and inventiveness of people African descent demonstrates, there are many things that we are capable of learning and mastering even without a teacher. Also, at the university level, there are no teachers but lecturers and the students are expected to take more responsibility for their own learning!

Once upon a time, for centuries, there were laws made to prevent people of African descent from learning to read and write but our ancestors resisted such cruel laws by learning by themselves and often excelling even at the risk of being convicted of the crime of learning. More recently, it has been discovered that people who are successful academically are less likely to take unnecessary risks in life and so, encouraging greater academic success is crucial for the survival of people of African descent in a world where they are increasingly marginalized despite a few more black faces in high places.

So, finally, here are my tips for students and I also call them tips for self-management in my syllabi because they are life skills and not just skills for passing exams:

1) Make sure that you get eight hours of sleep every day. Einstein said that he needed no less than 10 hours sleep daily while both Thatcher and Obasanjo said that they needed less than four hours and some would say, no wonder. Oh yes, the Nigerian Home Video industry is probably contributing to the failure rate as students may stay up late with parents to watch video after video and thereby fail to get enough sleep. You need enough sleep especially on the night before your examinations but also on every night, including weekends and holidays!

2) Make sure that you always eat a healthy breakfast and do your poo daily. It is also sad to note that many students go to school on empty stomachs either because the family is too poor to afford breakfast or because the kids stayed up late for whatever reason and did not wake up in time for breakfast before going to school. And in many cases, they do not move their bowels and rush to school with all that smelly farts, belly aches and headaches that a proper toilet could have relieved early in the morning before they head to school. If you need to skip a meal due to poverty, consider lunch a better target. It was not for nothing that the Black Panther Party instituted a free breakfast programme. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

3) Exercise daily and eat fruits, drink lots of water too, not just juice or soda. Students should learn from the Great Nelson Mandela by reading his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom. He exercises for 30 minutes every morning before a breakfast of oatmeal porridge and fresh fruits. If we add to that, the need to drink lots of water and avoid sugary drinks, we will have students who are less hyper-active and who could concentrate better to study.

4) Make sure that you have your own study timetable and manage your time well. Almost every school has class time-tables but not every student applies this principle to their own studies. You need to have your own time-table to guide your own private study daily just as your school has its own timetable. This is what the Great WEB Du Bois was referring to when he said that he did not burn any midnight oil in Harvard University in order to be successful. Rather, he parceled out his day to the minute and spent a lot of time in the library learning.

5) Make sure that you read before and after the class, taking notes, then summarize and integrate all your notes with the lecture notes. This point is important even in mathematics. Make sure that you copy down all the examples in Maths that the teacher puts on the board. Then go home and practice the examples by changing some of the numbers. The examination questions will be the same examples with a few numbers or letters changed in mathematics. If you practice maths everyday, few questions would be too hard for you in the examination. On all other subjects, read and read and read beyond the recommended textbooks. Ben Carson, the world renown neurosurgeon used to be called the class dummy until his illiterate single mother resolved that he was allowed only three hours of television a week and that the rest of the time, he and his brother should spend it reading two books a week after which they would write reviews of the book and read out their reviews to her. Barack Obama reveals that his father made a similar point when he visited him at the age of 10 and he was watching endless television programmes at the home of his grandparents. His father asked him to stop watching and go and read a book but his grandparents said to leave the boy alone, that he could not show up after ten years and start bossing everyone around in their house. Obama senior insisted and his son sulked off and banged the door of his bedroom but today, that same advice is what he is giving to parents in America: turn off the television and read a book with your children!

6) Use memory aids to help you review for exams and remember that preparations for the exams start from day one. So many students struggle with exams because they wait until the week before the exams to begin revising or reviewing for the exams. That is the hard way and sometimes the hardwork pays off but if you want to do it the smart way and still get even better results, here is your tip: You must start preparing for the examinations from day one! Before the class, read something on the topic and take notes. During the class, take detailed notes of what the teacher has to say. Then head to the library or somewhere quiet after the class and read some more on the topic, filling any gaps that the teacher may have left during the class. If you are in Africa without much access to books, do a Google Book search or a Google Scholar search on your topic and you will find full articles and relevant book pages from which to take notes and credit the authors. Then summarize the main points on the topic with the keywords and finally use the first letter of each keyword to make up a memory aid or mnemonic that would help you to remember all the key points on that topic even in your dream. That is it, you do not need to cram or memorize large chunks of information for the exam. It is not just for exams but for job interviews, business proposal pitches and political campaigns when you could impress your audience by speaking without notes because you could always remember the key points and express them in your own words.

7) Remember that your examination essay is like any scholarly essay and that it will be graded accordingly. So always provide references to scholarly sources in the examination, have introduction, body and conclusions. For university students, I advise that as a rule of thumb, every examination answer should carry at least five scholarly references just like every term-paper. I also advise students to think critically about the sources that they are citing – if you agree, say why and if you disagree, also say why.

8) Rest your back when you are studying or writing to avoid developing back pains. This one is not just for studying but also for the world of work. Many students have formed the poor habit of hunching over their desks while reading or writing. Soon their backs would start to ache and they would lose concentration. If they carry this habit to their offices, soon they would develop chronic back pain and take a lot of ineffective pain-killers or go for unnecessary back surgery. The simple solution is to always rest your back when you are reading, writing, eating, driving or watching television. Rest your back all the time.

9) In the examination, divide the time available by the number of questions to ensure that you do not spend too much time on one question and not enough on others. This one is self-explanatory but I should add that you should attempt the easier questions first before going to the tougher ones.

10)Use office hours or make appointments with your teachers for academic advising and if any topic remains unclear, do not be afraid to raise a question in class next time.

I hope that these tips will help to make learning more fun for our students and help them to maximize their potentials as high-achievers. Please go to my blogsite and leave a comment: http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/

Saturday, October 25, 2008

WHEN THE PIRANHA MET THE HONEY BEE

‘I formed habits of work rather different from those of most of the other students. I burned no midnight oil. I did my studying in the daytime and had my day parceled out almost to the minute. I spent a great deal of time in the library and did my assignments with thoroughness…’ – The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, 1968, International Publishers, pp 140-141.

THE PIRANHA OR THE HONEY BEE?

By Biko Agozino
bagozino@gmail.com

A senior university colleague once told new graduate students during an orientation ceremony that they should aim to emulate piranhas in their search for knowledge by insatiably consuming all available information and stripping the sources down to the barest bones. I thought that the imagery jarred especially when images of wounded books with missing pages in the library or books loaned and never returned came to mind.

The images of escaping enslaved Africans and political prisoners in French Guiana’s Devil’s Island, who were probably controlled with tales of escapees who were eaten by piranhas, also flashed past. More recent research suggests that piranhas are rather shy of humans and shoal out of fear of predators and do not have the stomach for a large meal, making do with tiny circular bites. Besides, not a lot of skeletons exist to validate the man-eating bogeyman tale in a James Bond movie. So the piranhas might not be all that bad as an educational model, after all, as fish, they are in school all their lives.

Nevertheless, I decided to challenge the recommendation of my colleague if only to prove to the students that in academia, there are no sacred cows and all ideas are open to challenge on academic grounds. I told the students to emulate instead, the honey bee. Image of the schooling and graduation of bees into work teams in the movie, Bee, also flashed; and how he fell in love with a human, discovered a honey farm, how he fought to end the exploitation of bees in honey farms and saw the consequences of neglecting to collect nectar and thereby failing to pollinate the flowers and keep the cycle of vegetation going, and how the community of bees was reorganized the old-fashioned way to try to save the earth.

I called on the students to emulate instead the busy bees which do not strip flowers down to the barest in order to fetch nectar. Instead, they team up to pollinate them in order to make plants bear fruits that could be eaten by humans and by others who might also scatter the seeds to bring forth new flowering plants that would ensure endless supply of nectar for the bees to keep producing sweet honey for baby bees and bears and humans to enjoy. That is closer to the reality of graduate education than the imagery of the scary piranhas although the image of the Queendom of the bees jars with democratic ideals too, but academia is deliberately structured as a meritocracy and not as a democracy.

Later, one of the graduate students came to say that she was scared for me because she did not know that it was possible to disagree with the opinion of a senior university official publicly without fear of victimization. So I asked the student if she saw herself as a honey bee or as a piranha? She chose the honey bee but she joked that she would come back later to see if I was wearing a plaster from the punishment that she expected me to get from the critique of the senior official. I reassured her that there is academic freedom and that she should no longer fear critical thinking.

The fear of critical thinking among scholars reminds us of the warning by bell hooks in her book, Teaching to Transgress, that critical thinking is a painful process for many students especially when instructors are challenging them to be very critical of taken-for-granted beliefs. Students should be encouraged to enjoy their studies instead of being scared with the usual call to work hard as if they do not work hard enough already.

The students are familiar with the gospel of hard work since they had been hearing nothing but that since elementary school and preschool days. Many students still dread exams but leave serious studying to nearer the exam period and then overwork, trying to cram large chunks of information, like a very hungry piranha, perhaps, but with a regular sized fish belly for digesting all that information. Hence many students fall ill psychologically and physically during the examination period. So the students know all about working hard although some still need to be reminded. Once upon a time working hard was known as working like an African (on the plantation). Hard labour is now what you get for a serious felony in some jurisdictions. So why work hard if you can work smart and get better results?

I bring students the good news that they no longer need to work hard if they know how to work smart and get even better results. I call it the smart students’ guide. It may not work for everyone but every student that tried it confirmed to me that it is effective. There are ten points in the guide and all points would have to be observed to maximize results. No need to add that it is not just a study skill but a life skill that trains the student to be a relaxed problem-solver with critical thinking. Students, parents, teachers and all those who are interested in learning more about this smart way to study and learn more should write in and tell me how they currently study and their results and in my next posting, I will reveal the systematic method to all.

Given reports that the West African Examination Council failed more than 80% of the candidates in 2008 and given continuing educational achievement gaps affecting especially students of African descent internationally, it is time for us to address the need for effective study skills.


Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology, Criminology Unit Coordinator and Deputy Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. bagozino@gmail.com or onwubiko.agozino@sta.uwi.edu

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Grandpa, How Did You Vote?

BY BIKO AGOZINO

Americans are a people who have a love affair with history-making. There are many monumental moments in history when Americans left their gigantic marks in epochal moves that have helped to change the course of history on grand scales. There is no need to recount such historic events to prove the obvious point. Suffice it to say that Americans are presented with another such epochal moment of change-making choice by the candidacy of Barack Obama.

Years to come, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, social scientists, historians, journalists, biographers, film makers and total strangers would be asking eligible American voters of today how they cast their votes on November 4th 2008. For instance, ‘Grandpa, how did you vote in 08?’

Some would answer that it was the first time that they ever voted in their lives, the first time that they participated in a presidential campaign, or the first time they contributed money to a presidential campaign with much enthusiasm. They could look at the grandkid with a broad smile and say, ‘Grandma and I are proud to have helped to elect the first black president of the United States of America.’ Wow!

The future generations would look at your choice as awesome and feel connected to the history that you would make with the way you cast your votes on that day. Many first grade students may be showing and telling about the grandparents who helped to elect the first black president!
Some may vote against the first black president but how would they explain it to their descendants?

Would they lie about their vote and let their conscience prick them for not choosing the road hitherto less traveled on? The sports-loving Americans know when they have a chance to win a grand slam with a slam dunk and they would not pass over the opportunity to win personal, national and international glory with one rare chance to change history with a single vote.

Some Americans would choose the chance to tell their grandkids with a clear conscience that even if they always voted for a different party in the past or because they have always been independent voters, they voted this time to help make huge history by electing the first black president of the country.

Voting for Senator John McCain to be the first prisoner of war who could have become president or to make Governor Sarah Palin the first female vice president are also historic but not on the scale of electing Senator Barack Obama as President and, as his Vice President, Senator Joe Biden (who moved that historic Congress motion for the unconditional release of saint Nelson Mandela from prison that was voted down by some who must now be obviously regretting the way that they had voted down that motion that signified American sound judgment).

Of course, it is not just because the candidate is ‘Black’; he is also incredibly good with sound policies, a solid team behind his successful ground-breaking campaign and with a rallying call for meaningful change that energized millions of voters. In fact, Obama is not even black since all ‘Black’ people are really brown in color; just as ‘White’ people are, without exception, not white but pink in color; just as Asians are far from being ‘Yellow’, for that matter.

It just so happens that the people called ‘Black’ in America have had a peculiar history that makes the voting on November the 4th more symbolic and more significant as a chance to make history by voting for Obama. That is probably why many Americans are yet to make up their minds how to vote on that day, they are probably weighing the enormity of the historical responsibility riding on those votes that they are about to cast. But as Americans like to say, this historic choice is really a no-brainer.

History tells us that the majority of pragmatic Americans would choose to make history by voting Obama-Biden overwhelmingly. And long after the votes are counted and recounted to be certain that all votes were properly tallied, proud Americans would seek to hold the first black president accountable by offering support, criticism, policies, prayers and services to help make sure that their votes would be more than symbolic since they could also help to make his regime one of the most epochal and most successful presidencies ever. The rest of the world would be happy to oblige with admiration for a good example of American democracy. You Go Americans. Si Se Pueda!

Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology, Criminology Unit Coordinator and Deputy Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. bagozino@yahoo.com or onwubiko.agozino@sta.uwi.edu

To leave a comment or read more on my web log, please go to:
http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Willie Lynch Failed

How to Free the Enslaved

Dear Children,

You may be wondering why I sent you the Willie Lynch speech for discussion. The reason is that some people believe that his fear-envy-distrust methods still work today to prevent black men from being true men and to prevent black men and black women from building healthy families. There are no chains around our feet (as Bob Marley sang) but if we suffer from mental slavery, then we are not yet free from slavery. The key to freedom is therefore the mind or the awareness that we are not yet free. The speech emphasized that the way to maintain slavery is to weaken the mind of the men and keep them physically strong.

That method failed because our ancestors maintained a strong mind and we are lucky today to have strong minds of our own to protect and advance our freedom. In other words, we must use all the educational opportunities available to us to make our minds stronger so that no one would enslave our people ever again. The slave-holders failed in their attempts to weaken our minds, we owe it to ourselves to make sure that we do not allow our minds to grow weaker. So education is the key to our freedom and equality as human beings, we must take it seriously.

No matter how strong a person is physically, if he is not well educated, then he will be a servant to people who are weaker physically but wiser. The most famous people in the world are not the strongest but often the wisest. Human beings are not as strong as many wild animals but human beings are more dominant because of our intelligence, unity, creativity, courage and love.

The speech of Willie Lynch also said that a good way to dominate black people is to keep us divided by making the young fight against the old, making women fight against the men and making the light-skinned fight against the dark-skinned. They try to keep us divided by making us distrust one another and only trust the slave-holder. Again the method failed woefully because our people still retain the respect that we show to elders, our men and our women continue to love one another and we love all people who are good to our people no matter what skin complexion they have. This means that we must love all (our) people and maintain our unity in order to prevent others from enslaving us ever again.

Willie Lynch talked about black people as if we were horses to be broken down and controlled. He assumed that if you humiliate a black man in the presence of his woman or children, then the woman and the children will never show respect to the man again. The good news is that black people are not horses, we are human beings and no amount of effort to humiliate us or turn us into wild beasts would succeed.

Again, education, love and unity will prevent anyone from treating us like beasts of burden. Horses do not speak a language but Mr Lynch called for our languages to be destroyed and replaced with a deceptive language which says that ‘our crops’ are not really our crops but those of the slave-master. Again, this has not succeeded because our people know that we need to study and work smatter to create wealth for ourselves because their wealth is not really ours.

So my beloved children, do not let anyone stop you from getting the best education possible, do not let anyone make you to hate your elders, do not let anyone make you to hate your women, do not let anyone make you to judge anyone based on the colour of the skin rather than the content of the character. Develop your minds by reading histories and biographies, science and philosophy and not only fiction, develop a scientific mind by asking questions, develop your language skills by speaking publicly about what you need without fear, speak up for the voiceless, show love to everyone and support justice and fairness and no one will ever enslave you. Keep writing too.

Lots of love.

Dad

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hancock Decoded


IN CLASS WITH HANCOCK

By Biko Agozino

I have just seen the box office hit movie, Hancock, with my two teenage sons and their 12 year old cousin. As usual, after seeing a movie with the kids, we engaged in debates about the representations and subtle messages in the movie. I asked the young men if they liked the film and they all agreed that it was a great film. I asked them what they liked about it and they said that Will Smith was the greatest superhero ever. Then they asked me if I liked the movie and I said no that I did not. Why not? They all asked in unison.

I asked the children to compare Will Smith’s character with other super heroes played by white actors. They said that all super heroes have their nemeses because people are suspicious of those who have superhuman powers. Many people dislike Superman and Batman and Spiderman especially when they are slow to beat the bad guys or when the bad guys impersonate them and make it look like the bad things were being done by the superheroes. Sometimes people dislike the superhero because they envy the superpower or because they fear that he may use the same power to defeat them if they did anything naughty by themselves. So they were not surprised that people were complaining about John Hancock in the movie, it comes with being a superhero.

I asked the young men if they knew of any superhero who was unemployed, or an alcoholic, or who slept rough on the streets, or used foul language, or tried to pinch the bum of women on the streets or called them bitches, or bullied children who were bullies, or had no girlfriend or family or went to prison just to learn how to say ‘good job’, or chased another man’s wife?

I told them that I suspected that Hollywood used these stereotypes to send the wrong messages to young black men and help to continue leading them astray. Some young black men may see the movie and believe that abusing large bottles of whiskey might give them superpowers. These are common stereotypes of the black man: unemployed, drunk addict, homeless, no family responsibility, cursing, ex-convict, childish, ignorant of his true identity and doing more harm than good.

Moreover, while he slept rough, it was a white boy who kicked him to wake him up by the side of the street to tell him that there were bad guys that he needed to fight and when he could not be bothered, the boy called him an asshole, an insult that almost everyone called him for his trouble of saving the world from dangerous criminals who were represented predominantly as foreigners or as black people while the criminal bosses were white men.

The young black men who saw the movie with me protested that Hancock gave up drinking in the movie. Yes, I agreed, but guess who made him give up drinking for a while? It was a white man who did so as if he had no mind of his own. Moreover, Hancock did not even know who he was, it was a white woman who defined him for himself the way white people like to be the ones defining black people’s identity. I Asked them if they have ever seen a superhero played by a white man who did not know who he was until a black woman revealed the true identity.

Why was Hancock persuaded to accept a prison term as the only way to win respect when it is easier to improve the image of anyone by sending him to the university? In the prison where black men were over-represented, Hancock had to prove his superpower status by pushing a man’s head up the ass of another man (a metaphor for male rape in prison), by dumbly saying ‘pass’ in the group therapy sessions, and by magically scoring baskets from incredible distance as if that was all black men could do in a world dominated by ideas of white supremacy.

Why was Hancock not given his own family or girlfriend in the movie instead of setting him up to appear as if he was after the white woman who was married to the white man who pretended to be his boss and who told him how to dress for work? He later claimed that the white woman kissed him after he had tucked her husband into bed as if he was the nanny or ‘manny’ but that was no kiss, it was a beating that he got from the white woman who simply told him that they were different because she was stronger, blah blah blah.

Finally, Hancock was persuaded to go to a different planet to avoid tempting the white woman who claimed to be his mystical wife as if getting rid of the black man was the only way to resolve the sexual desire of white women for the forbidden fruits of black masculinity. By some kind of coincidence, John Hancock was the name of one of the Founding Fathers of America who was a slave trader, tax dodger and smuggler.

Films like Hancock are rated PG with the expectation that parents would guide their children in reading the codes in the movies but not all parents have the time, skill or interest to do so adequately. As a result, schools may have to fill this void by having seminars and workshops in which popular films will be closely read and analysed by a students’ film club to guide students against the negative messages encoded in films. So PG films should also be rated SG for School Guidance.

Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. His documentary film, CLR James: The Black Jacobins Sociology Series is being serialized by NCC Channels 4 and 11, Trinidad and Tobago.