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/