Several months ago, I spoke to a group of young entrepreneurs based in Port Harcourt, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. The summary of my message was that they need to ‘think beyond the box’. I deliberately used the word ‘beyond’ because I believe that the box – the status quo, as a reference point could potentially constitute a barrier to innovative thinking. Innovative thinking is needed in every facet of our national life. However, in relation to higher education, the rote learning and prescriptive pedagogy, which have been dominant since the introduction of formal education, constitutes a significant barrier to innovation in education. Despite progress in educational technology on the one hand, and advocacy for student-centred learning on the other, not much has changed in the approach to teaching and learning. This topic is even more relevant in the context of the so-called mismatch between skills produced from higher education institutions and labor market requirements. The skills being referred to here are not always subject matter expertise, they include socio-emotional skills such as critical thinking. Addressing the skills gap requires innovative thinking, thinking beyond the box.
The problem with traditional approaches to teaching and learning is that they fail to evolve with time. Here I clarify that I don’t mean actual method in terms of lectures, group work, take home assignments, and seminars, among others. I am referring to the form of teaching. The pedagogic form. In my interaction over the years with higher education students, I have learnt that with undergraduate and graduate students alike, the form of teaching and learning takes a prescriptive approach, in which students are mostly offered lessons to recall, recite and essentially follow. I describe this as donkey years’ pedagogy. This pedagogic form does not encourage critical thinking and innovation, and students are not encouraged by the system of assessment that accompanies it to explore the critical discourses on their topic of study. In operationalizing this approach, students are routinely compelled into reproducing what is presented in texts or by their instructor. This robs the system of critical minds and costs the nation the potential of developing a new generation of thinkers who can explore, disrupt and abandon the box, or at least think beyond it.
Donkey years’ thinking pervades the higher education landscape, and can be a significant barrier to any ambition of serious progress in science and technology that Nigeria may have. Students need the space to grow in their study, to think about the universe of possibilities within their field of study and develop their critical thinking in disciplines that require an extension of the boundaries. This is, after all, the point of higher education and scholarship, enabling students think, critically view the world and grow epistemologies and ontologies of their own about what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge is constructed.
This is why a pedagogic form that embraces newer approaches to teaching and learning are needed now more than ever. Approaches that provide students with the fundamental principles and allow them to explore ideas even further. While it can be assumed that students should be able to explore ideas on their own, it needs to be deliberately made clear that students need not reproduce their lecturers’ handout, handbook or text book content. The promotion of critical thinking as part of educational curriculum could be a useful avenue to enhance the production of knowledge that challenges the status quo both locally and abroad.
One way to advance this is to embrace the growing field of educational technology (EdTech), where there is an increasing democratization of learning, and a move towards learner centred approaches of delivery. One of such developments is the open educational resources (OER) which are free educational material available in digital form, and which are often licensed using creative commons, allowing users to adapt, improve and further develop these resources to fit their needs and those of their surrounding environment. Part of EdTech’s promise is the potential room it offers students to explore the material and to grow at their own pace. Despite its promise, the new EdTech is not a singular solution to all problems of teaching and learning, it need not abruptly replace existing forms and approaches. Rather a slow and steady adaptation and integration of its tools could be a useful means of enabling a more democratic approach to teaching and learning, potentially yielding better outcomes for both students, their institutions and the country.
A departure from donkey years’ pedagogy needs to be systematic and part of a wider education strategy. If well implemented, the introduction of innovative, more inclusive and democratic process of learning could significantly alter the status quo, yield important gains for Nigeria and contribute to the advancement of its aspiration of becoming a scientifically developed nation.