Empowerment education: A guide to curriculum reforms in Liberia

By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
May 10, 2001

This article intends to establish some foundational and basic principles for curriculum reforms in Liberia. It is suggested that such reforms must be reflected at all levels of the education system. In a previous article in this magazine, I made reference to the need for an introduction of a core curriculum to promote consciousness-centered learning as a prelude to social transformation. I also intimated that such a core curriculum with its emphasis on building national character and a sense of civic purpose would contribute inordinately to making the ideal of a learning society a concrete reality. In Liberia as we know it today, there is a fundamental tension between what is and what ought to be. Such tension tends to permeate all aspects of national endeavors in the current political and institutional atmosphere.

But this tension can be resolved. Given the dismal state of affairs in Liberia, what ought to be might indeed, only become a possibility within the context of a change process and far-reaching social transformation. It is imperative that such transformative process occurs in two mutually interdependent domains- the epistemic (knowledge) domain of reasoned discourse as well as the domain of social action. Both the epistemic domain and the domain of social action are intrinsically complementary, because reasoned discourse forms the basis for social action and transformative change. In the past many social theorists have contributed variously to this discussion of the relationship between knowledge and social action (see Bernstein, 1985, Bordieu, 1977, Bowles and Gintis,1976).

But as I have come to see it, the critical theory of communicative action espoused by Jungen Herbermas is limited and constrained by its own internal logic. It is essentially limited by its detachment from the practical realities of humans in modern transactional societies. I chose to comment on Habermas's theoretical contribution in relation to the relationship between rational discourse and social action because he is the best known contemporary exponent of critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition.

Further, Habermas unique and more powerful contribution is to situate rationality as central to the critique of modernity and discourse on human emancipation. Thus, his theory of language and communicative action give us a somewhat radical orientation and allow us to gain access to a rational basis for making ethical and normative claims about what ought to be ( Collins, 1991). It is ultimately significant to make reasoned and independent judgments regarding ethical and normative claims about what ought to be, because what is or what exists is not always rational. Thus, while communicative action may be necessary instrumentally, it is by no means sufficient in fostering a progressive agenda for realizing a resistance to the technocratic rationality of industrial societies, and the emancipatory aspirations of the underprivileged.

What the Habermas overreaching theory of language (language being a mirror of human experience) does is to consciously, or somewhat unconsciously draw a wedge between the epistemic domain and the domain of social action. But such artificial and imposed dichotomy as a matter of practical necessity is quite impossible. Hence, the pitfalls of Habermas logic in terms of setting an agenda for alternative ways of knowing, experiencing and interpreting modern societies. Thus, the communicative rationality of Habermas falls short in countering effectively, the dominance of technical rationality in the spheres of ideology, institutional discourse, and curriculum in the academy. Hence, for knowledge to become a prelude to empowerment and practical social action, the role of experience as a mediating framework in the educative process must be taken seriously.

Furthermore, reflective practice as perceived by cognitive psychologists (see Witkin,1978, Cavanaugh, 1993) has become a major construct in curricular innovations for developing professional expertise for the 21st century. In fact nowadays everyone in the professions have become "reflective practitioners." This brings us to our main point in this essay-conforming the centrality of experience in empowerment learning and social action. What can we say or do in such of an explanation and enduring solution to the anomalies affecting the process of schooling in Liberia? How can such solution be located within the context of a more durable framework- which is experience and learning for empowerment and meaningful social action?

Traditional culture, academic underachievement, and reflective practice

Prior to the introduction of western education in Liberia, the country had a system of indigenous education, run by village elders and chiefs, designed to perpetuate the cultural practices and norms of individuals and groups in distinct collectivities. Formal or western education in the territory now called Liberia was introduced in 1830 by the American Colonization Society when it passed a resolution to that effect. Later the Society also passed a Law mandating compulsory education for children 2 to 12 years of age.

But I would agree with Rose (1988) to some extent as I noted in my earlier article, that the central challenge facing Liberia today is a reconciliation of the needs of the country and its people with the nature of the educational system. In the past a variety of individual, governmental and donor efforts have been taken to create a mass system of education. Efforts have also been made to correct persisting problems in the system at various levels including organizational, planning, curricular and resource management. But what has escape these efforts is the need for a total overhaul of the system. Piecemeal and haphazard approaches are not adequate in solving institutional and attitudinal constraints. What we have in Liberia is an educational system fashioned in the 19th century to serve the interests of a repatriate political elite, but yet we expect this system to be otherwise and to solve 21st century problems in educational development.

When the modern system of education in Liberia was being formed there was no attempt to reconcile elements of African tradition (representing our various ethnicities) with the perceptual and operational tools of the western system. Indeed, Crummell and Blyden, who were best friends and fellow workers in the beginnings of Liberia's modern system of education, largely shared (although Crummell's views were less subtle than Blyden) an extreme distaste for the traditional cultures of Africa ( Appiah,1992). Blyden, like Crummell, believed that Africa's religions and politics should give way to western traditions of Christianity and a constitutional order based on the values of republicanism (ibid).

But today there are numerous problems in the education system, the nature of which we could not possibly begin to understand without an appreciation of the constellation of traditional and western patterns and styles of learning. This constellation undergirds cognitive and affective processes which explain the high dropout rate for example, and other related problems of academic underachievement in our society. Besides the huge shortage of material resources to allow schools to operate properly, schools have had to cope with an intolerable record on attrition and retention rates.

But yet no one has bothered to ask as to why is it that 40 percent of children of school-going age entering primary education dropout before reaching grade one? And why is it that for those of the cohort entering grade one only 40 percent reach grade three, and only 25 percent reach grade six? The net enrollment ratio for primary education is 40 percent. It seems to me that this figure is very low compared to enrollment ratios for similar level of education in other developing countries. Why can't this number be increased gradually and deliberatively. Where is the overt policy commitment and strivings to do so? To solve this problem there must be a realization that the solutions may lie in coming to terms with much more fundamental and structural issues.

Liberia ranks among the least literate of the English-speaking African countries, with an average adult literacy rate of 30 percent and an annual growth rate in primary enrollment of 2.6 percent. A country which was founded to be a beacon for hope, enlightenment and "civilization" in Africa did not actively campaign against illiteracy until the 1940s, when the governments of Nigeria and Ghana began their adult education campaigns. Dr. Frank Laubach was invited by the then Tubman administration to lay the groundwork for a national adult literacy program in Liberia. A presidential proclamation was issued for the commencement of a national literacy program in 1950. But this effort soon dissipated as with many other such efforts in the history of social and educational policy in Liberia.

Anthropologists and cognitive psychologists (Dawson, 1967, Berry,1976) have thrown light on the cognitive and affective variables which help tremendously to explain the lack of progress in academic achievement in dual societies. My reference to duality as a constitutive variable suggests that in countries like Liberia, you have a modern sector of education and a traditional sector of education and socialization. These two sectors interact and influence one another negatively or positively pending on the structure and nature of the interaction. Some social theorists have attempted to explain cross-cultural differences in cognition by contrasting a modern "scientific" culture and a "traditional" culture ( Hvitfeldt, 1986).

Horton (1967) has contended that in traditional cultures there is no developed awareness of alternatives, whereas in scientifically oriented cultures such an awareness is highly developed, as it is crucial for the development of science. Scribner and Cole (1981) tend to confirm this thesis in their report of research among the Vai. They suggest that the difference may be due to the fact that "modern peoples" receive training in context-free communication while "traditional peoples" do not.

Watkin, Paterson, Dyke, Goodenough and Karp (1962) developed the concept of psychological differentiation or cognitive style using the field-dependence/field independence construct. A field-dependent cognitive style is the tendency to rely primarily on internal referents in a self-consistent way, whereas a field-independent cognitive style is the tendency to give greater credit to external referents ( Witkin et al as cited in Hvitfeldt, 1986). Research done by Witkin and Goodenough (1977) has shown that field-independent people function more autonomously because of their reliance on internal referents.

This also allows them to structure situations on their own. Field-dependent people tend to seek more emotional ties with others and tend to have a more interpersonal orientation (Watkin and Goodenough, 1977). Dawson (1967), has reported based on work carried out among the Temne and Mende tribes of Sierra Leone, that such differences in psychological differentiation are often the result of child-rearing practices. His findings suggest that societies in which parents are extremely dominant tend to produce children who are more field-dependent, while societies in which parents play a less dominant role, encourage individual initiative, tend to produce children who are more field-independent.

Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) has reported that field-dependent people appear to be more successful with verbal tasks and content which is human or social, while field-independent people tend to do best on analytic tasks involving inanimate and impersonal material. They referred to individuals who have the ability to cope with the demands of both cultures as often as being bicognitive, functioning within both the field-independent and the field-dependent modes. Havitfeldt (1982), carried out a microethnographic study among the Hmong (the largest ethnic minority in Laos) in the United States and concluded that greater understanding of their cultural knowledge and the ways in which it influences classroom learning behavior can help in avoiding unfounded assumptions about how Hmong students perceive classroom interactions.

There is not much evidence of this type of careful ethnographic study of how the cultural knowledge of Liberian students influences their cognitive styles and perceptions of classroom reality. Even though there is no doubt that there is a need for such research to inform policy and intervention approaches. In fact since the 1960s, attempts to study teaching and learning practices from a cultural perspective have become frequent. The growing awareness of the situated nature of human action have led to a recognition of culture as an important element in attempts to understand and improve learning. Stigler and various co-workers ( cited in the International Encyclopedia of Education, 1994), have demonstrated how the superior performance of Asian children in mathematics may be linked to roots in cultural beliefs about the nature and origin of mathematics competence, as well as differences in concrete classroom practices.

John Gay and Michael Cole in their research on primary cultural differences (cited in Ogbu, 1992) reported that the arithmetic concepts in Kpelle culture were similar in some respects to those used in the Western-type school but differ in other ways. The Kpelle had few geometrical concepts, and although they measured time, volume, and money, their culture lacked measurements of weight, area, speed, and temperature. These differences in mathematical concepts and use had existed before the Kpelle were introduced to Western-type schools. What is clear from the results of these studies is that cognitive attunement has an affective as well as cognitive dimension which facilitates or hampers adaptation (see Sdade, 1989).Thus, a reconciliation of the needs of society and schooling patterns in terms of boosting academic competence must incorporate these primary cultural differences into viable instructional systems that are both formal and culturally particularistic.

In this context, there is a lot to be learned from the apprenticeship system which has long existed in vocational training in Liberia. In my view, the success of the apprenticeship system, whether in tailoring or rudimentary engineering skills, reflects the power of experience and reflective practice in a proactive pedagogical context. Because participants may lack elaborate language codes, they can start with experiential learning and move on gradually to building the intellectual capacity for extracting general principles from particular experiences. This process approximates to what goes on in formal classroom learning. The only difference is that participants in experiential learning must move from the field of action to symbolic learning or must combine both processes.

For example, Jean (1977) has argued that the inductive teaching/learning techniques of the tailor apprenticeship training do not necessary prevent the formation of general problem solving principles taught as deductive techniques in formal schooling. Perhaps such training in inductive techniques enhances one's ability to problem solve on the basis of deductive principles. This notion solidifies the significant role of experience and reflective practice in developing competence and expertise for empowerment and social action. Indeed, the main strengths of experiential learning or learning through practice are intrinsic motivation, direct relationship to further practice and less tendency to forget learning gained from action ( Rippey, 1993). Commenting on the appraisive character of self-reflective learning, Mezirow has this to say (1985, p.25):
"Knowledge gained through self-reflective learning is appraisive rather than prescriptive or designative. Action is emancipatory. The learner is presented with an alternative way of interpreting feelings and patterns of action;the old meaning scheme or perspective is reorganized to incorporate new insights; we come to see our experience better."

Concluding remarks

This essay is about introducing a new dimension into the debate about educational reforms in Liberia, going forward at this outset of the 21st century. The central theme of my discussion here is that education must be a means to an end in order to have a human and practical meaning. This follows that the process of learning must be an empowerment process and one of gaining access to an orientation for meaningful social action and positive change. The curriculum framework that has been proposed is that which incorporates the value of experiential learning and the cultural knowledge of those participating in educational programs at all levels of our education system. I envisage that educational reforms in a progressive era in Liberia might be consistent with a permeable approach to problems of educational development. Finally, it is suggested that an understanding of primary cultural differences in terms of the relationship between the modern and traditional sectors, through careful scientific research, might provide clues to problems such as retention and academic underachievement in Liberia.

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