The U.N. Millennium Development Goals have a strong focus on ensuring that by 2015, children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. As we approach deadline it appears that the global target for achieving Universal Primary education may not be achieved, but nevertheless, there has been significant progress in many counties. In my own country, Ghana, enrollment of children in primary school has increased to almost 84 percent from below 61 percent in 1999.
I am excited about our progress, which marks a significant change. But as we educate more young people in the basics of reading, writing and counting, I can't help but wonder if these skills will be enough help them begin to better their lives and develop their country in an increasingly complex and competitive world.
We may be teaching more young people, but are we educating them?
Having a literate population is but a very small step towards ensuring that we attain educated, self-confident citizens with the ability to identify local problems and the skills to solve them. Throughout Ghana you will find young people, especially in the rural areas, leaving school with few employable skills or the ability to think for themselves to work out solutions to the challenges they face. We are not developing enough young people with the ability and confidence to succeed. The harsh truth is that the quality of the education has to become just as important as the number of students we put through school.
In my experience the problem starts with the traditional method of teaching in Ghana - rote memorization. From primary education up to the university level, students are made to learn simply by memorizing information. In high school, I was given a bad grade on a class paper because I did not reproduce the definitions exactly as I had been asked to memorize them. So in order to pass my classes I followed the process we jokingly referred to as "memorize, pass and forget." My experience happened some 13 years ago but I'm sad to see that this practice still exists in many schools in Ghana, especially in the rural areas. Young people are not taught to be critical thinkers or to challenge the information they are learning. Instead they parrot back what the teacher has taught, often without understanding it. In order for Ghana to progress we need children to be able to think through ideas and use their natural curiosity and inventiveness to solve problems, but these are not skills they are being given.
The turning point for me was when I attended Ashesi University, the first university in Ghana to adopt and blend the liberal arts approach to education. Ashesi's mission is to educate a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa; to cultivate within students the critical thinking skills, the concern for others and the courage it will take to transform a continent. I graduated and became an entrepreneur driven by the belief that science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) were the skills needed, especially in rural communities where people rely heavily on donor aid or the government and do not have the technical, vocational or analytical skills needed to thrive in the marketplace.
I now run an organization called Soronko Solutions, which uses mass technology to develop innovators and problem solvers in rural communities. We have developed an interactive supplementary educational curriculum that allows rural children to acquire problem-solving skills through web-and-mobile learning platforms. They are learning to code and conducting experiments, competing for an annual innovation prize, and participating in our apprenticeship program.
We have piloted our curricula in five rural communities and the results so far are amazing. Children who had never seen laptops or tablets before are now discovering ways to apply the technology to fix problems in their communities. We're exploring a range of problems in different sectors, from an app that helps the deaf communicate with others to mobile doctor apps that could help people identify disease symptoms and treatment options for malaria, tuberculosis and cholera in local languages.
What we are most excited about is being able to demonstrate that in Africa, as elsewhere, children learn faster and better when education is more practical, applicable and hands-on and not just an exercise in rote-memorization. We hope to partner with the government and other organizations to improve on our curricula and encourage innovators and problem solvers in rural communities all over Africa. With the youth population rising on the continent we need to ensure that young people have the right skills to help fight poverty, change lives, develop their communities and, ultimately, improve the economy and the people's wellbeing. As we head to the next phase of the MDGs, "memorize, pass and forget" must become a thing of the past.