By Nat Galarea Gbessagee
How and to what extent the Liberian educational system ought to be reformed will depend on the perspectives of individual parents, educators, and policymakers. However, in “Reforming the school system in Liberia in five easy steps” (see The Perspective, December 2015) educator Elliott Wreh-Wilson proffers a national educational reform agenda that includes reduction in class size, promotion in in-service training and graduate scholarships for teachers, promotion of Liberian students’ fluency and proficiency in the English language, and utilization of technology in the classroom. Think tank executive Emmanuel Dolo also pontificates in “Confronting the Liberian education challenge” (see The Perspective, December 2015) an educational reform agenda that emphasizes teaching effectiveness, improved student achievement, an elevated role and recognition of teachers in Liberian society, and national investments in both teachers’ development and teaching quality.
The propositions by Wreh-Wilson and Dolo can hardly qualify as a panacea for the vexing multiple problems with education and educational reforms in Liberia. But the two men provide vital talking points to generate public interest in and stimulate a national debate on the subject. For while the propositions make much sense in many respects in regard to reforming the Liberian educational system, they still leave much to be desired in terms of what Liberian children ought to be taught in Liberian schools. What should Liberian children be taught in Liberian schools? Does the Liberian national curriculum offer a “localized content” that prepares students for direct, active involvement in national development? Should Liberian students learn about themselves and their culture and immediate environment first before venturing out to learn about the industrial revolution, Bornu Empire, Plato and Socrates, quick sand, and Rip Van Winkle? Should classroom size (Wreh-Wilson) be emphasized over classroom content, or should classroom size and classroom content be sacrificed for Dolo’s collectory of “’smart’ students,” “new cohort,” and recruitment of “out-of-school population”? The answers to these questions are complex indeed, but they cannot be discussed in isolation of key arguments by many cognitive psychologists and literacy theorists that learning shares deep roots, if not direct correlations with a person’s language, culture, and environment. Accordingly, I enter this discussion in the context of furthering the debate on whether or not the Liberian educational system has to be reformed, revamped, and altered in any shape or form at all, and why.
Student-Learning Outcomes and the Curriculum
The role of language, culture, and the environment in student learning, student-learning outcomes, and student performance is theoretically recognized in the Liberian national curriculum. One of the general objectives of the Liberian national curriculum for grades 1 to 6 in language arts is to “identify and explain the social cultural, linguistic and ethnical environment and observe the role of language as conveyor of the cultural heritage” (MOE, National Curriculum for Grades 1-6, 38). Yet when discussing “interjections” under the eight parts of speech in sixth grade language arts, the curriculum provides this example: “Interjections (strong or mild feeling) Eg. Do you know who is singing? Yeah! Lucky Dube, of course! He’s one of my favorites!” (41). Certainly Lucky Dube was a great African singer, but he was not a Liberian artist. If the objective of the example in question was to expose Liberian grade school students to their local musical and cultural artists and icons, then the choice should not have been Lucky Dube but any number of Liberian artists, including Fatu Gayflor, Zaye Tete, Tokay Tomah Kailie, Sundaygar Dearborn, John Bricks, Baryo Kieh, and Kanvee Gaines Adams. But the Lucky Dube example is just a taste of the sorts of examples and topics covered at all grade levels and subject areas within the Liberian national curriculum for grades 1-12.
Of the six periods constituting the two-semester academic year under both the national curriculum and the Liberian educational system, topics on Liberia in 10th grade history are covered only in first period of first semester. Even at that eleven topics are crammed together for first period alone, including seven topics on Liberia and four topics on “foreign content” ” (i.e. content regarding the history and economic and political systems of Europe, Africa, and ancient empires and civilizations with no direct or indirect connection to Liberia). The five remaining academic periods in 10th grade history—2nd period to sixth period—cover entirely foreign content. Second period covers four topics on the ancient empires of Songhai, Mali, Ghana, and Karnem Bornu, while third period covers five topics on the Hausa States, Mossi and Akan States, Oyo and Benin States, Bakongo Empire, and Monomotapa Empire. Fourth period and sixth period are devoted to a single topic each on The Great Slave Trade and African History—Problems and Prospects, respectively. Fifth period covers three topics on The African Exploration, The African Colonization, and African History—Problems and Prospects (4-17).
The very inclusion in the national curriculum of topics on Hausa, Oyo and Benin, Ethiopia, Kush, and related foreign contents exposes a key weakness in the Liberian educational system that often reduces many Liberian children and young adults to yearning for external ideas and products and not knowing anything about their own surroundings and roles and responsibilities as Liberian citizens. For example, Yoruba is not an ethnic group in Liberia but Nigeria, and Hausa and Oyo and Benin are distinct federal states in Nigeria and not political subdivisions in Liberia. So it is unclear why a Liberian 10th grader attending a Liberian high school will be required by the national curriculum to learn a history text with specific objectives to “1. Discuss the origins of the Hausa States. 2. Explain the role of Islam as a force in the states” (22), and to “1. Discuss the origins of the Yoruba states of Oyo and Benin; 2. The influence of religion in these states; 3. The cultural contribution of these states. 1. Mythological origins of these states; 2. Historical origins of these states; 3. Religion and Administrative structure; 4. Decline and fall of Oyo and Benin; 5. Benin and Oyo in African History” (25).
These topics need to be evaluated against not only student-learning outcomes, but also in terms of the educational benefit to Liberian children and the cultural value to and of Liberia. But the problem of what we teach our children in Liberia is not confined to the inclusion of foreign content in the national curriculum. Topics on Liberian history have historically been slanted in the Liberian educational system to the point of inaccuracy or general lack of objectivity in terms of the information provided, given the mythical Matilda Newport story and the epical battles of Crown Hill, Fort Hill, and so forth. Unfortunately, the national grade school and high school curriculum in Liberia is still presenting Liberian history in the Matilda Newport tradition. While seven of the eleven topics for first period 10th grade history—The New State and Its Government; Liberian History / Territorial Expansion and Encroachment; Liberian History / Social Condition; The Liberian Economy; Liberian History / Four Selected Presidents; Liberian History / Foreign Relations; and Liberian History / The Coup Of 1980—are on Liberia, they are treated with less depth and less than endearing accuracy and/or objectivity. Students are asked to “Discuss Liberia’s vital and non-vital interests throughout the years [from independence in 1847] up to 1980” after completion of the topic on foreign relations, and to “Discuss the unique contributions made by” presidents Joseph Jenkins Roberts, William David Coleman, Arthur Barclay, and Daniel Edward Howard to the Liberian state after completion of the topic on selected presidents. Students are also asked to “Explain the root causes of the coup of 1980” and to “Analyze the shortcomings of the coup makers” after completion of the topic on the 1980 coup.
The curriculum is silent on why 10th grade students in Liberia need to learn not about the “unique contributions“ to the Liberian state of all twenty-four presidents plus the nearly ten interim presidents or heads of state of Liberia, but only the four former presidents in question. The curriculum is also silent on why and how the “vital and non-vital interests” of Liberia in foreign relations ceased to exist after 1980, and why Liberian 10th graders need to “analyze the shortcomings of the coup makers,” as opposed to a fair evaluation of the qualifications, leadership styles, and achievements of all present and former leaders of Liberia. More importantly, are Liberian 10th graders equipped to undertake comparative analyses of historical events? Can Liberian 10th graders really learn and master eleven different topics within the six-week timeframe constituting an academic semester? Should Liberian students in 10th grade history be subjected to five periods of “foreign content” and half period of content on Liberia? These are questions that go to the heart of what we teach our children in Liberia. Liberian children need to learn about their full history, and all other aspects of Liberia—both good and bad—in order to forge ahead as a collective whole and unite their efforts in reconstructing a nation-state that they will all be proud of and fight to protect and defend at all cost. The purpose of education in Liberia ought to be the preparation of Liberian children for future leadership roles and deep appreciation for the sociolinguistic, ethnical environment and cultural heritage of Liberia.
Unfortunately, the Liberian educational system’s heavy reliance on foreign content and general lack of clearly defined goals between literacy and learning will not be abated anytime soon. The Liberian education ministry announced in April 2016 a new five-year, US$65 million outsourcing project to commence in September 2016 that will effectively entrust public primary education in Liberia to an international public-private partnership (PPP) spearheaded by the American firm Bridge International. According to the Liberian Education Minister, the new partnership or “new project, launching in September, aims to bring lessons from elsewhere in the world, including South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK, to Liberia.” What is not clear, however, is what will be the educational and socioeconomic benefits to Liberia of teaching Liberian children “lessons from…South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK”? Will Liberian children get to develop a sense of nationalism and the zest for national development by learning “lessons from…South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK” than by learning about the linguistic and cultural mosaics of Liberia? Can Liberian children really get to appreciate their identity as Liberian if Liberian history, geography, political system, and language and culture are not made prominent and permanent features in the national curriculum for grade school, high school, and college? These are questions that also go to the heart of what we teach our children in Liberia.
Developing Localized Content and Literacy
The Liberian educational system is already overwhelmed by foreign content at all levels (grade school through college), so it is understandable why the National Teachers Association of Liberia and several NGOs involved with education in Liberia are opposed to the new partnership with Bridge International. But whether or not the Education Ministry succeeds in its current outsourcing drive, or Bridge International succeeds in improving the quality of primary education in Liberia, the main impetus for educational reform in Liberia will center on the introduction and utilization of “localized content” at all institutions of learning in Liberia. By “localized content” I mean that key topics in the national curriculum ought to reflect the cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic and political topologies that make up the nation-state of Liberia. The national curriculum cannot acknowledge that language plays a key role in society as “conveyor of cultural heritage” (38) and still fails to mention that five of the sixteen major ethnic group of Liberia –Vai, Bassa, Kpelle, Mende, and Lorma—have their own phonetic scripts for writing and related cultural and linguistic purposes that guide literacy practices in each ethnic group.
Literacy theorist James Paul Gee, relying on research studies conducted on Vai language and culture by psychologists Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole in the 1980s suggests that “Among the Vai, literacy and schooling do not always go together. There are three sorts of literacy among the Vai, with some people having none, one, two, or all three: English literacy acquired in formal school setting; an indigenous Vai script (syllabic, not alphabetic) transmitted outside an institutional setting…and with no connection with western-style schooling; and a form of literacy in Arabic” (33). Gee’s comments crystallizes the key ingredients for educational reforms in Liberia in the sense that in spite of multiple avenues for literacy development and learning in Vai society and those of Bassa, Kpelle, Lorma, Mende and other ethnic groups in Liberia, it is often the case for those persons who did not acquire English literacy through the western-style K-12 to college system to be mislabeled as “illiterates” and treated with scorn in society.
Whether or not literacy in Liberia is defined by English proficiency, by proficiency in Vai, Bassa, Kpelle, Lorma, or Mende writing script, and by mastery of the history, culture, and folklore of each of the sixteen ethnic groups of Liberia, literacy is context-sensitive. The practice of “literacy varies from one context to another and from one culture to another” (Street 77), so it behooves each society to develop a kind of literacy that will not appropriate and prescribe a uniformed standard of literacy across cultural and linguistic boundaries. The idea that literacy varies in type, context, and practice is also clearly elucidated by Stacia Dunn Neeley in Academic Literacy. Neeley outlines five basic types of literacy on which modern individual societies and educational systems thrive: Literal literacy—ability to read and write; Cultural literacy—language use within and knowledge of a shared culture, including its dominant ideologies and values; Critical literacy—language use with the purpose of questioning the status quo and initiating a dialogue of cultural critique; Academic literacy—ways of thinking, reading, speaking, and writing dominant in the academic setting; and, Cyperliteracy—the ability to read, navigate, and write and respond within electronic communications forums via the internet and other electronic databases (7-8).
These literacy types are germane to individual growth and development in any modern society, including Liberia, especially in terms of individual student success in academic and professional pursuits. Yet not all five types of literacy are embedded in the educational system in Liberia. At present literacy practices in Liberia are still situational and geographical, even if appropriated within specific cultural and linguistic contexts such as the traditional school system facilitated through the Poro and Sande institutions and the westernized school system facilitated through K-12 grade levels and college continuum that is the mainstay of the national educational curriculum. For many years now the traditional school system and the westernized school system have coexisted in Liberia, yet the Liberian educational system still lacks the sort of literacies that will prepare Liberian citizens for increased productivity in society and ample awareness and respect for their own cultural mosaics as citizens of a common patrimony.
Literal literacy and academic literacy are generally emphasized in the current educational system, even if still at the peripheral level. But cultural literacy, critical literacy, and cyperliteracy are yet to be embedded in the Liberian national grade school and high school curriculum and across the general educational system. Regrettably, critical literacy and cyperliteracy will not be made possible easily in a society like Liberia wherein many teachers and students are generally afraid to speak out, even on issues with which they are most familiar. School buildings and classrooms lacking electricity supplies, overhead projectors, computer networks, equipped science and professional laboratories, relevant textbooks, and related modern classroom amenities are a constant reminder of the depth of the multiple challenges and inconveniencies Liberian children and young adults face every day in pursuit of education in Liberia. Therefore, it is very important for the content of the national curriculum to reflect the cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic and political realities of Liberia. Classroom interactions and related individual involvements with literacy practices such as reading, writing, graphic manipulation, and public speaking generally seek to promote social bonding and learning activities within particular social and discourse communities. Even the simple use of diction within individual classrooms or social or discourse communities can have a chilling effect on knowledge acquisition and learning in general, whether positively or negatively.
Indeed, literacy theorist Brian Street reminds us that in individual society, “What is often attributed to literacy per se is more often a consequence of the social conditions in which literacy is taught” (22). Street says not only that “literacy practices are specific to the political and ideological context and their consequences vary situationally” (24), but also that given the cognitive, sociolinguistic, and political imperatives associated with literacy and learning, each society must make concerted efforts to recognize literacy as a complex undertaking and “develop strategies for literacy programs that address the complex variety of literacy needs evident in contemporary society” (24). Evidently, Liberia has no clear ideological basis at the moment for the pursuit of literacy as part of national educational goals, given the country’s continued reliance on foreign content in the national curriculum. What Liberia needs right now is a new educational reforms agenda that will develop appropriate strategies for closing the current literacy and learning gaps among Liberian grade school and high school students by deemphasizing heavy dependence on foreign content.
I can recall that when I attended grade school and high school in Liberia I was called a “student” and not a “pupil.” At school I used to study to “take my test or exam” and not “write my exam.” At college students used to be “studying or majoring in” an academic discipline and not “reading” an academic discipline. In today’s Liberia, however, the opposite is now true. Why? Because the national curriculum and general educational system are on borrowed wheels whereby the system emphasizes an English-only curriculum dominated by foreign content that usually avoids or minimizes any serious scholarly investigations and discussions of substantive subject matters relating to Liberian culture, linguistic makeup, and related national issues that directly affect the lives of Liberians. As a result, I believe that reduction in class size, proficiency in the English language, technology-powered classroom, teaching effectiveness, improved student achievement, and public recognition of high-performing teachers are simply the symptoms rather than the root causes of an otherwise underperforming educational system desperately in need of reforms. For if the content is not right for the occasion it will not matter how the content is delivered and by what means.
Classroom Size and Quality Education
In the final push for quality education in Liberia it will not be classroom size, troves of teachers-training facilities, monthly television programs featuring “best teachers” of the year, or easy access to relevant textbooks, laboratories, computer networks, and internet services that will carry the day. What will matter the most will be the “content” of what is being taught to Liberian children. If the Liberian child is not taught at an early age about the realities constituting his or her environment, history, culture, and language, it will not matter if ten billion US dollars were pumped into teachers-training programs and the construction of multiple school buildings in order to reduce class size nationwide to “20 or “24” students.
For nearly the last twelve years that I have been a classroom teacher in higher education I have always found the emphasis on student learning to be paired directly to the quality and effective delivery of course “content” and not class size. I have taught varying class sizes of 20, 35, 55, and 240 students in my professional career. In the United States, I co-taught a course in world cultures with 240 students, and I taught a developmental writing course with 20 students. In Liberia, I taught courses in public speaking, academic reading and writing, and technical writing with each class size ranging from 35 to 55 students. What was unique for each class, however, was not necessarily class size, but the content and emphasis of each course. The class with 240 students emphasized an important recognition and respect for the diversity of cultures, theatre arts, languages, and philosophical thoughts inhibiting the common world in which we live. The class was held in an auditorium or auditorium-size classroom with the teacher communicating through microphone and visuals, including thematic videos and movies. The students were in turn required to write several papers encapsulating their general experiences with the movies, videos, class discussions, and two live theatre performances.
The class with 20 students emphasized an improvement in student writing, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The class was equipped with 20 computers both to facilitate a healthy exchange between teacher and students, and to practicalize the lessons taught via various exercises using the computers. The students were required to write several paragraphs of narrative, descriptive, and persuasive essays. . The classes with 35-55 students emphasized writing and public speaking but had neither ready access to computers in the classroom or a resource room, nor a speech laboratory equipped with the latest speech equipment and gadgets. Students were required to produce several paragraphs of narrative essay, a public speech, or a recommendation report, depending on the particular class. In spite of the differences in class size, course emphasis, and classroom facilities, yet learning can and did take place among students in each setting based on the course content. For “Good classroom instruction (in composition, study skills, writing, critical thinking, content-based literacy, or whatever),” says James Paul Gee, “can and should lead to meta-knowledge…” (141), whether such knowledge is gained through acquisition or learning.
Broadly speaking, education is a combination of learned and acquired behaviors and related skills set, wherein acquisition refers to “a process of acquiring something…by exposure to models, a process of trial and error, and practice within social groups, without formal teaching,” while learning refers to “a process that involves conscious knowledge gained through teaching…or through certain life-experiences that trigger conscious reflection (Gee 138). In other words, any individual is capable of gaining relevant knowledge in any subject matter or discipline through acquisition or learning, both inside and outside a structured setting like a school building or community center, provided that the “content” of the subject of study and its delivery mechanism are clearly defined and implemented. This is why the “content” of the national curriculum must reflect the socio-cultural, linguistic, and political realities of Liberia irrespective of class size. Good teaching always leads to gains in individual knowledge whether by way of acquisition or learning, and it always takes a good classroom teacher to deliver a “good classroom instruction,” provided that the “content” is timely and relevant to society at large.
Now, whether or not knowledge is gained through learning or acquisition, student learning outcomes for particular courses are not necessarily tied to the number of students in a classroom; to how well a teacher is placed in the public glare of recognition, or to ready access to the latest computation software, instructional technology models, internet services, library and laboratory equipment, and related educational tools and gadgets. Student learning outcomes are usually determined and measured by the effective delivery of course content and corresponding student responsiveness to such course content. For many scholars have argued that what and how a student learns can make a world of difference in how a society progresses. And what a student learns springs naturally from the quality of the content taught. An even progressive outcome in student learning and performance in society can result if the course content is localized enough to account for the specific cultural, linguistic, and sociopolitical realities of the particular group of people—in this case Liberians.
Either due to residual historical stereotypes or general lack of information on the histories and contributions of the various ethnic groups of Liberia to Liberian statehood, too many Liberian students, teachers, and public officials are hesitant to identify with a particular ethnic group and to acknowledge the existence of a shared national culture in Liberia. As a result, many persons in Liberian society continued to view cultural literacy as a strange phenomenon that infringes on the wellbeing of Liberian society and national educational system. But cultural literacy, as defined by Neeley, is one of five basic literacies that impact the modern system of education, so it is now time that educational policymakers in Liberia begin to include the relevant localized content in the national curriculum and the general educational system.
The argument can be made that from a purely cognitive perspective, a Liberian child can learn and answer basic questions about snow and sleek, cheeseburgers, pizza, steamed vegetables, and other such American and European food and environmental realities at school and successfully pass a standardized test featuring questions about these realities. But from a cultural perspective a Liberian child will never get to appreciate snow and sleek or cheeseburgers and pizza as an American or Canadian child would do, even if the Liberian child ended up seeing snow and sleek or tasting cheeseburger and pizza. Whether lofty foods and conditions, the Liberian child will easily identify with kala, farina, cassava gravy, palm butter rice, fufu with palava sauce or pepper soup, jollof rice, dusty highways and roadways filled with potholes, and other such Liberian realities. The point is that every society must have a shared culture supported by the dominant ideologies and values system consistent with its cultural, sociolinguistic, and political realities. Liberian society and the Liberian educational system cannot be an exception.
As Neeley infers in her definitions of the five types of literacies, no modern society can survive on an educational system that prioritizes only literal literacy and academic literacy, without the benefits of cultural literacy, critical literacy, and cyperliteracy. The very issues of literacy development in Liberian society in many ways underscore the depth of the multiple problems facing the educational system in Liberia today. The paralyzing effects of economics and the commodification of literacy have overtaken the Liberian educational system so much so that there is now practically some sort of learning institution at every street corner in Monrovia and its environs and other urban centers across Liberian society today—be it a nursery school, junior high school, vocational school, or college. Yet, the quality of education in Liberia is on the decline. Many graduates of these myriad parochial and non-parochial schools springing up across Liberia every day are functionally illiterate and barely able to read and write in English or compose a basic correspondence without scores of grammatical errors.
Indeed, these are serious flaws within the Liberian educational system and national curriculum that cannot be attributed to classroom size or lack of trained teachers. Rather, the key problem is the lack of localized content to prepare Liberian children for future leadership roles, based on the socio-cultural realities and developmental imperatives of Liberia. To paraphrase Gloria Ladson-Billings, if Liberian students and their families can be seen as mere consumers of an educational system that values foreign content more than localized content, then Liberian “schools have no need to focus on the broad social goals of citizenship” (xii). For outsourcing primary education or incorporating Nigerian history in the national curriculum as 10th grade Liberian history will definitely confuse Liberian children about which values and goals to aspire to as Liberian citizens and as individual persons.
Dunn Neeley, Stacia. Academic Literacy. New York: Longman, 2001. Print.
Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. Foreword. Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown V. Board of Education. By Catherine Prendergast. 3rd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University P, 2003.
Liberia. Ministry of Education. National Curriculum for Grades 1-6. Monrovia. MOE, 2011. Pdf.
Liberia. Ministry of Education. National Curriculum for Grades 10-12. Monrovia: MOE, 2011. Pdf.
Liberia. Ministry of Education. National Curriculum for Grades 7-9. Monrovia: MOE, 2011. Pdf.
Street, Brian. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development: Ethnography and Education. London; New York: Longman, 1995. Print.
About the Author: Nat Galarea Gbessagee is a journalist, educator, and social commentator on Liberia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.