Forget memorization, let’s make it memorable!

When you see a traffic light                                                                                                                                                           There is something you should know                                                                                                                                           Red means stop                                                                                                                                                                                     Yellow means get ready                                                                                                                                                                     Green means go, go, go and go

When I was in nursery, this is the rhyme I was taught. Considering the fact that we had no traffic lights in our town, this might have sounded ridiculous to our parents who could not stop us from reciting it back at home. When I turned 17 years and went to the city and saw the traffic light for the first time, I knew exactly what to do. Of course, I didn’t recite the poem out loud but you bet I recited it all the same. I wasn’t ready to let anyone know I was fresh in the city…Funny enough, when I came to the states where traffic lights are within 100 meters of each other (I hate the main street), I still do recite the poem whenever I get to one…just so you know why my lips are moving when you stop by my car in traffic.

In primary school, there were some subjects that everyone was bound to make an A in. Everyone got an A not because the classes were easy, we did well because the classes involved some form of activity. For Math for instance, every child will go around after school to collect Coca Cola bottle caps. We went in search of these bottle caps in groups and always had fun seeing who will get the most caps. After we have brought them all to the teacher, the teacher distributed the caps as evenly as possible among the students. These are what we used to learn our Addition and Subtraction problems. For instance if we were asked to solve ’13 +12’, we would just count 13 caps to one side, count 12 to another, and then add the two sets of caps to get an answer.

Moving on, I know for sure I’m not the only one who forgot an answer to a question in the examination room only to remember right after submission, sometimes, right outside the door. Whenever I got that happen to me, I will ask myself how I learned that particular thing or how I was taught. I realized that those questions are the ones that I never discussed with my friends. Prior to examinations, my friends and I formed study groups where we discussed questions and their answers. There was no way I missed any of those questions, I always got them right. But those I didn’t discuss, although I had learned them, were always hard to remember.

The point I am trying to make is, the normal straight forward lectures do not always produce the best results. It takes rather unconventional and creative ways to keep students interested in boring lectures. It also takes a lot of interaction between students and peers, and among peers in order to get information across to leaners. The onus lies on both teachers and students to make learning fun….

My Grandmother’s Recipe

Once in primary school, I got into a fight with an older kid in another class who was trying to bully my friend. Considering the fact that in my adult life, I am only 5.4 inches tall and weigh 125 pounds, much of this height and weight I gained only in the last 3 years, it wasn’t a particularly great idea to stand up to this tall kid. A little blow on the mouth was all it took to shut me up. I went home with one of my front teeth threatening to fall off any minute. My grandmother who is a strong believer in the potency of salt (she uses salt to treat all kinds of illnesses, from malaria to skin diseases to plain old cough), gave me a solution, highly concentrated with salt. My task was to fill my mouth with as much of this solution as it can contain for about fifteen minutes, spit it out and then fill my mouth again with another batch. After this, my grandmother moistened a ball of cotton wool with salt solution and then placed it on the root of the trembling tooth and asked me to hold it in place firmly with my lip. Her aim was to firm the root of the tooth so it does not fall out.

Assessment in the school system to me is like this: to check if the salt solution and cotton wool were doing their job of firming my tooth, I will take the cotton wool out and then wiggle my weak tooth to see if there was any sign of it firming up, every fifteen minutes. My grandmother kept cautioning me to stop doing that but I failed to listen until finally, the tooth fell out. Although my initial objective was to just ‘assess’ my tooth, I did more harm than good. A teacher engaged in an online debate on the importance of assessment used a different analogy of a plant being repeatedly ripped out of the soil to examine its growing status. Her argument was that, there are better ways of assessing students other than a standardized test.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that as educationists, our curriculum should be wide enough to cater for all kinds of students. As diverse as our thought processes are as humans, we should try to accommodate each other’s lines of reasoning. Having a specific rigid grading rubric where a student gets less marks depending on his or her deviation from the supposedly right answer, is not correct. Insisting that one travels a straight line in other to get to a particular destination, can be interpreted in so many ways by different students (just like this plot shows, this is for my engineer friends :)).

If teachers do their jobs well, I am of the view that there is no need for assessing the performance of the students after a lesson. If my grandmother had told me that the reason why she asked me to keep the cotton wool firmly in place with my lip was to prevent my teeth from moving and therefore allow it to be firm, I don’t think I would have found wisdom in the need to assess the firming process. If we do our jobs well, the result will definitely be positive, no need for assessment. Every teacher ought to be like my grandmother, she believes the process, and so she finds no need for assessment.

 

Chew and pour; Pass and forget

The title of this blog is a very popular phrase among students in Ghana. From infancy, students are ranked as either good or bad, based on their ability to regurgitate exactly what the teacher wrote on the board, in an exam room with no board. The questions are mostly straight forward like ‘what is osmosis’ and the teacher in turn has a rigid marking scheme where points are taken off if some words are omitted, with no attention paid to how the student understands the term.

As such, students blessed with retentive memories were deemed very smart while students that might not have this ability but are creative enough to truly understand the term and define it in their own way, are at a disadvantage. For a long time as a student, I thanked God and sang all the Hallelujah songs to Him for making me smart. I started to sing a different tune when I got to America. Immediately I stepped foot in an American classroom, my level of smartness reduced significantly and then I started praying fervently for my numerous recent sins to be forgiven, so that I can be smart again.

Being a merciful God, He eventually gave me a renewed mind after I had had the rudest shock of my life in my first semester exams. I had had my basic education through to my first degree in Ghana and only came here for graduate studies. Prior to this exams, I had a 100% success rate of predicting every question that might possibly be asked in an exam. I was the local champion throughout my schooling in Ghana with the special talent for correctly anticipating the questions that a teacher was most likely to ask. I was the special girl with the neat handwriting who wrote out possible questions for a future exam, which got photocopied by everyone and was used as a study guide among my friends. Those were the glorious days when it was cool to be my friend and I got special presents nearing exams time, just so I could bless you with my special sheet of paper with my anticipated questions! Wheew!

So, you can just imagine my shock in my first semester here when I got into examination rooms and instead of ‘what is osmosis?’, I encountered ‘in your own words, help your little brother to understand what osmosis is by designing an experimental illustration that tells him a story that pertains to his life history, which will make his friends laugh, but make his aunt and uncle proud of him, while getting him on the teacher’s favorite pet list’ or something like that! I was horrified!!

I digress. But as I said, God was more merciful to me than I deserved and so after that epic failure in that first semester, I got that special tick to unlearn my old ways of learning, forego my local hometown hero status :( and really understand the context of lectures, if I were ever going to be successful here. It would suffice to say that I made it through my master’s degree and got into a doctoral degree program (thanks to fervent prayers!). I don’t think I got any smarter or I  matured (whatever that means) in graduate school, but because I unlearned to stop ‘chewing and pouring, and passing and forgetting’ and learned how to ‘understand and think, and conceptualize and never forget’. This is what mindful learning is to me.

Poverty Porn

I am one of the people that are of the view that media outlets like CNN, BBC and Aljazeera have done more harm than good to the people of Africa. Whenever I see a documentary on Africa on these media platforms, they are about how poor Africa is, or how sick its people are or how they are in one need or the other.

Most African countries are depicted with more shameful images than I have ever come across. Thus, for a lot of people that I know and have interacted with, their opinions of Africa are limited to wars, the quest of blood diamonds and hunger. I recently met an old woman who told me in the face that I smelled really nice for somebody from Africa and that my skin looked too good for someone who had lived in Africa all of her life. When I inquired about the reason for her statement, she said she knew that Africa has little access to clean water or water for that matter, and therefore, a lot of people took their baths, using their urine. To say that I was horrified, is an understatement.

I know this lady really well, and she is one of the nicest people that I have ever met and I know for certain that she did not make this statement out of malice. Thus, I blame the media and other organizations like UNICEF, USAID, and UKAID that have glorified themselves by painting damaging pictures of Africa.

My roommate asked me whether I just started driving when I came to America and went on and on about how she has heard that only a few people actually owned cars in Africa. I was really uncomfortable with that topic because just like everybody in America, I started learning how to drive when I was sixteen, and even I am not from the richest of African families. Another one of my roommates asked me whether I was the only member of my family with a mobile phone. I showed her a social media group messaging site, that had over thirty of my family members participating in a group chat and she was amazed.

I don’t blame my roommate though and neither do I blame people that have similar sentiments. I blame the media and other NGOs that campaign for money to ‘help’ Africans. I read somewhere that if foreign aid could develop any place in the world, Africa would be the most developed continent in the world. I agree with this statement because a lot of aid is seen to be given to the continent but not a lot of development is seen. Perhaps, the biggest aid to be given to the continent is to help get rid of corrupt leaders and then, everyone would see just how much poverty can be alleviated in Africa.

Western media tend to focus on how foreigners and other international organizations are saving the people of Africa, creating the pseudo impression that Africa is filled with a bunch of lazy, poor and hopeless people in need of saving by the foreigner. What good does this really do for people that are living in Africa? Will it be more beneficial to people in Africa, if a minute of global news item every week, were dedicated to young Africans that are changing the livelihoods of the people in their community through ingenious ways? Won’t African people be inspired more by the successes of their fellow Africans rather than by the poverty that is constantly shown?

I know of Africans that are generating electricity out of the filth produced by their community, for their community. I know a lot of African youths that are building shelters for the homeless out of used soda cans. I know Africans living in Africa that are inventing cars that do not run on any petroleum products. I know of a lot of Africans that are studying abroad and are performing just as well as their more western counterparts, although they had their basic education in ‘poverty-filled’ Africa. The poverty porn representation of Africa should stop.

Stereotypic Advertisements

Social media in Ghana was on fire last two weeks because of a commercial that was run on national televisions about a drug. In the commercial, the main character, a married man in his early thirties was having lunch with a lady that looked about the same age. The man excused himself to go to the bathroom where he almost dropped the wedding band that he had been hiding in his pocket. When he rejoined the table, the camera showed the fingers of the lady to make it clear that the lady was not his wife because she had no ring. This lady was therefore projected as the side chick of this married man, who may or may not know the man was married.

When they got up to leave the restaurant, one could see that the lady was very slim and carried herself with a lot of confidence. After that scene, another scene was shown where a woman, also around the same age, was looking in the mirror and feeling miserable because she was plump. She kept on holding her tummy in and pressing against her sides to see what she would look like if she were slimmer. She heard a knock on her door and went to open the door for her best friend who had come in, to offer her some comfort. She exclaimed on seeing her best friend, commenting on how good she looked since she lost a bit of weight. The lady told her she was forced to make those adjustments because her husband was cheating on her with a woman who had smaller body features. She then told her friend that if she was ever going to hold her husband’s attention, she had to look leaner and went ahead to prescribe a medication.

The lady who appeared to be at her wits end and therefore totally in agreement with her friend, asked her visitor to quickly accompany her to the pharmacy shop so she can also purchase this wonder drug. Just before exiting her house, the camera showed a wedding picture, of the then thinner lady on her wedding day with her husband, who happens to be the man who was in the restaurant earlier with the lady with supermodel features. Upon entering the pharmacy shop, the two women were joined by the slim lady with supermodel features, who rattled about how men were falling at her feet because she is slim and how the drug can help them become slimmer and therefore, be able to keep their husbands.

In Ghana, advertisements have to be subjected to screening by the National Media Board before they are aired on televisions. The question therefore is how this advertisement with a singular aim of shaming women who look thicker, was allowed to successfully go through screening and show on televisions. What informed the decision of the board to pass this advertisement? Why would the company that manufactures this drug think that body shaming, is an easier way to get their drug sold?

This exposes the level of rot in our society today. A society that tags someone as beautiful or ugly because of their size. A society that thinks that thicker women are incapable of holding their husbands attention because they are too big. A society that paints men to be only interested in the size of their women. A society that makes it okay for a woman to be involved with another woman’s husband. A society that thinks it is okay for such an advertisement to be run on national televisions for the youth to be exposed to such behavior. I wonder what next the media will be allowed to feed consumers…..

Drug Abuse or Too Many Drugs?

Since I stepped in America, I have been exposed to the horrors of medication.  In Ghana, I never really remember taking any medication for any illness apart from malaria. Each time I had a head ache, I was asked to drink lots of water and take a nap. When my tooth ached, I was asked to sleep it off. When I had a skin disease, I was asked to take three showers daily until my skin looked better and each time I had a severe cough, my grandmother will grind lots of pepper and ginger that made me feel better as soon as I drank them all. No medications seemed necessary. Neither were dosages; somehow, everyone knew just how many ginger was adequate or how much sleep qualified as enough without making you look lazy.

I remember times when I had a bad cough or was battling malaria. My mother will boil some herbs in a pot and I was only required to sit by the steaming pot with my entire body covered with a thick cloth, so my body could absorb the steam from the pot and I could inhale some too. Usually, that is all it took to cure a bad cold or free me from malaria.

When I came to the states though, the opposite was the norm here. I had to go through several tests and immunizations. Within a week, it had been determined that I might be contracting measles sometime in the future, meningitis, a month or two from the day of my arrival or I might already be exposed to tuberculosis. I was subjected to so many immunizations and medications that I fell ill.

Before I came to the states, I don’t remember contracting a single illness that lasted more than three days but here, my illness was so bad, they were thinking about quarantining me for some time or taking me back to Ghana. The first time I took a flu shot was when I came to the states and in that same year, I got the worst kind of flu that kept me up at night and made me feel horrible during the day.

I don’t know of a single person in Ghana that takes medications for a headache. Everyone I know just sleeps it off, takes in a lot of fluids and eats lot of fruits. Here in the states however, the tablets that my roommate has to take every morning is more than the number of tablets I have taken my entire life. I am not even exaggerating! I did not even know that depression was an illness that people took medications to fight against. If you were feeling moody or unhappy in Ghana, all you had to do was look at the people next door who had nothing to eat or were wailing because they had lost a loved one, to make you feel good about your life. No one ever went to the hospital to be treated for depression. I know for a fact that I did not know that depression pills were existent until I got to America.

When I told my roommate that I was finding it difficult to sleep at night, she diagnosed me of insomnia and prescribed an off the counter drug for me. When I called my mother back in Ghana to complain about the same issue, she asked me to stop eating late at night and to switch off my light before I jumped into bed. Medication was the last thing on her mind, whereas medication was the first suggestion my roommate made. This, and many more incidents, prompts me to question the prescription of medication here in America. Is it that drugs are so abundant here that medical researchers need people to try them and therefore ask doctors to prescribe them for their patients? In Ghana, like other developing countries, is the absence of lots of medication driving the choices that people make? Despite the fact that mortality rate in Ghana is higher than that in America, there are a lot of healthier people in Ghana than there are in America. Is drug abuse an issue in America that needs serious consideration?

Scandals in Government

So my dad and I are arguing about the choices of the sitting president of Ghana and how his choices determine the pace at which the country progresses. One of the choices that the president made, concerns the ministry of education. I have very strong sentiments about this choice because, I convince myself every day that if I ever decide to go into politics, it will be because I was lured with the position of the minister of education.

My dad has a very opinionated personality and over the years, has stuck to just one political party, defending their actions and inactions, and celebrating their achievements. He supports the sitting president whether he is wrong or right, because the man is a member of his party! One time, he decided to not talk to his blood brother for over a year because his brother voted for the opposing party. That is the kind of man he is. I was raised to support that party although I have never actually voted in Ghana.

Recently, when I started questioning the actions and also inactions of the sitting president because I felt he could do better, dialogue between my dad and I, have been lengthier and more heated up. I refuse to back down and kowtow to his opinions, while he vehemently protests against my opinions. One of such arguments is about the president’s choice of the deputy minister of education.

In a fairly recent interview of the minister in question, it was brought to light that he never really completed his first degree studies at the university and therefore, does not have a certificate. The government was beginning to pressure the university authorities to give him his certificate. I found this to be disgraceful, especially since he is the deputy minister of education.

I am not saying that the minister should have a lot of degrees up his sleeve, neither am I saying that a degree determines anyone’s competence. No! I have seen way too many educated buffoons to last me a lifetime to make such an argument. I just think it is a slap in the faces of all the professors and academicians in Ghana, who can very well serve in that capacity. It is a blow to me personally, as an individual striving to reach the top of the educational ladder.

My dad argues that if he were the president, he will ignore qualifications and only concentrate on competence. Which brings me to my question of how competence can be measured? For someone, who had no political experience prior to the recent election, where he played a key role in convincing a lot of students to vote for the president, how else can his competence be measured if not for his educational level? Yes, a degree is only a piece of paper and is not a measure of one’s competence or intelligence, but how else can we effectively measure the competence of an individual who has not served in any government position prior to his election? Especially in the educational sector, where he has been elected to head, what qualifies as the benchmark to assess his qualification if not for a certificate?

Is it not disrespectful, to say the least, to all the academicians and professors that are going to serve under his leadership, who obviously know better than he does about how to propel the ministry forward? Is this not how nepotism starts? One elects someone he knows and trusts to serve in a leading role, because he is not convinced of the allegiance of the people that are more qualified. As students, we are required to write an exam at the end of most of our classes to examine how well we know the subject matter although we attended classes. That is how we know that we have actually learned something from the class. A paper as my dad puts it, or more aptly, a certificate, is just like the results of a test, to prove to ourselves and everyone that, we know the subject we have learned. That is the accepted benchmark in education. So why would anyone think that a deputy minister of education can still serve competently, whether or not he has a certificate? I will be happy to hear what other think of this matter.

Drama in the Universities

I have always wondered what it will be like if students on campuses across the globe decided to embark on massive demonstrations against high cost of tuition and reading materials. In light of the demonstrations that were held by students on different campuses across the states against the President-elect of the United States, I have started to give this topic more thought.

There are so many rules and regulations in the university that students do not necessarily find useful and therefore, dislike tremendously. An example on top of my head is a well-occurring debate among my friends and I about the necessity of parking permits for graduate students. Every one of my friends think it is ridiculous especially since we are obliged to pay comprehensive fees that should include such costs. Why can’t graduate students be allowed to park on campus free of charge? I recently received a ticket for parking by the drillfield after 6pm because I parked at a spot that was only for faculty and staff. I mean, rules and regulations are generally for the best to ensure effective administration, but after 5pm, why should some spots be still out of bounds for graduate students? A lot of my friends share this exact sentiments and others.

In Ghana where I had my first degree, it became the norm some time past, for female students to be subjected to sexual harassment by male lecturers. At one instant, a student got impregnated by a male lecturer and the family of the girl had to force the lecturer to marry her. What irked me the most about that instant is that the university decided to not get involved in that ‘mess’ and to allow the family of the student to take charge. Had the student been in the comfort of her home and under the constant protection of her parents, rather than attend the university, will she have been impregnated? Why couldn’t the university authorities take control, subject the lecturer to a disciplinary board and probably ask him to step down or suspend him at least, for being intimate with a student?

This brings me back to my initial interest in the role of students on campuses and whether or not students can cause drama in the university by embarking on demonstrations to protest against what they feel is a disservice to them. What will be the outcome of such massive demonstrations? Will the university become a better place? Or will the university be engrossed with such chaos that teaching and learning become ineffective?

I am patiently waiting on a time when students will say they have had enough of high tuition costs and therefore protest massively against their payments. Will it cause the university to adjust plans and accommodate the interests of students or will the plight of students, demonstrated in such manner, be ignored?

The University’s Future

To ensure active learning, the first thing I want to see changed in higher education is the adoption of self-guided instruction. This approach allows students to set their own pace, different from the traditional lecturing-assignment-class procedure. Students go to classes when they want to, influenced by the topics they are most interested in, and go out of their way to find materials that enlighten them on the subject of their interest. The lecturer can only make suggestions but the student has the final say on what books he or she reads to ensure that they get the necessary information.

With the increasing usage of social media platforms all around the globe, I will like to see some schools, especially schools in the west that engage in distance learning to use every day social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It will be interesting to see how much more students learn, given the fact that their required course work as well as the research of their professors are all on social media platforms where they normally go only to be entertained.

I will also like to see more emphasis on job skills rather than the traditional theoretic way of teaching and learning. Employers are looking for employees that already have the skills needed at the job site, more so than they need employees with the theoretical know-how but no hands on technical experience. I will like to see higher education focus more on equipping students with skills that they will need at the job site, rather than book knowledge.

I also want to see higher education that has more graduate teaching assistants and visiting scholars from the job field, taking on more of the teaching responsibilities rather than tenured professors. Graduate teaching assistants and people that are still in the job industry, have the current field knowledge as well as the technical know-how to better inform students, compared to tenured professors who have more experience in research and technical writing. Although tenured professors have a role to play in higher education, I would most prefer graduate teaching assistants and visiting scholars from the industry to teach students.

The last thing I want to see changed in higher education is a better relationship between students and faculty. I want to see students become more comfortable in approaching their lecturers and telling them about their fears and concerns as well as their real interests. This can only be achieved if the barrier between lecturers and students is completely eradicated through counseling and increased social life that evolves around both students and faculty.

Innovation in Higher Education

Below is an infographic showing the reaction to faculty in higher education to social media attacks and responses

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When an app, Yik Yak, was introduced on certain campuses to allow anonymous opinions, the attached infographic below is a representation of the reactions of faculty and students.

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