Education with production vital…intellectuals letting nation down

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DESPITE Zimbabwe’s high literacy rate of around 92 percent, there is little to show for it on the economic front.
Devastating sanctions that followed soon after a decade of the ruinous Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) severely retarded economic development.
Still, many will argue Zimbabwe should have done better than is the case now.
This episode in our series on science, language and economic development interrogates the quality of education that has translated to 92 percent literacy rate for Zimbabwe.
Admittedly, the ability to read and write is a primary indicator of being educated but not a sufficient condition upon which to judge the quality of education.
In Zimbabwe, as indeed may be the case in other African jurisdictions, education equates to book knowledge.
As an external examiner for some university programmes as well as having served as a chief examiner for Ordinary Level Science under both Cambridge and ZIMSEC examination boards, I have a full appreciation of the importance of books in our education system.
In the end, candidates with good memories do well in the examinations as most questions require recalling of information within the textbook covers.
Seized with the realisation that education must prepare learners for the world outside the classroom, I have spent considerable time advising those who set examinations to set questions that test candidates’ awareness and appreciation of the functional purpose of what they have learnt.
Knowledge of the applications of various scientific principles would make science worth learning.
Even more importantly, gaining practical knowhow on specific processes and operations is of paramount importance.
If one learns how to bake a cake in a Food and Nutrition lesson or how to grow tomatoes in a Horticulture lesson, one has acquired a life skill.
These are the kind of skills that learners can exploit to earn a living.
Such practical skills enable learners to contribute to the creation of wealth.
Those with practical skills can contribute to the production of goods and services.
Such goods and services can earn money and, on a larger scale, generate exportable value to earn the much needed foreign currency.
So, the call is for functional education that imparts practical skills.
However, if we look at Zimbabwe’s education system all the way from primary to degree level, it is dominated by bookish learning.
Teachers spend time drilling their pupils in various subjects. Often, all learning is substituted by rote learning based on past examination papers.
The ministries publish statistics that reflect the percentage of candidates who pass with a Grade ‘C’ or better in each subject. If we look at the set papers, we find little by way of testing practical application.
Still less can we find questions testing students’ ability to think.
Practical skills and capacity to think are not given due weighting in the examination process, but it is practical action and clear thinking in all spheres of human endeavour that generates goods and services as well as solutions to all problems.
We come to the painful conclusion that those learners who have little or no capacity for carrying out practical problem-solving activities contribute little or nothing to economic development.
When the comrades came from the liberation struggle, they preached and practised ‘education with production’.
Hard experience in the bush had taught our fighting forces and the refugees that formal education must be amply complemented with practical production of goods and services.
The abandonment of the principles and practice of ‘education with production’ was probably the point when Zimbabwe’s education came off the rails.
From then, books and libraries and now ‘googling’ on internet replaced all useful practical learning.
We shall draw examples of the consequences of bookish learning from the field of agriculture.
The good Lord ordained that man shall eat of his sweat.
In Shona the saying translates: “Uchadya cheziya.”
After abandonment of ‘education with production’ we saw hunger and starvation stalking even mission schools which had agricultural farms.
Neither the authorities nor the students knew how to grow food in the form of crops and livestock.
So it becomes: ‘No sweat, no food!’
Despite the wide availability of arable land, we have seen school graduates, even those with degrees in agriculture, walking the streets hungry and looking for jobs.
When offered to go and work on a farm, the hungry job-seeker looks away disappointed.
He probably wants an office job, but how will the agricultural education he learnt become useful to him or to the nation while he sits in an office?
A few days back, I met a colleague who remarked: “How do we expect the educated to lift agriculture in this country?”
National cereal yields still average below one metric tonne per hectare even with varieties of seed having a minimum genetic yield potential of six metric tonnes per hectare.
Yes, even with all inputs supplied under the Government’s input support schemes like Presidential Inputs and Command Agriculture, yields are still so low.
We expect the agricultural graduates with certificates, diplomas and degrees to teach farmers, to provide technical and advisory services so as to increase productivity.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has already issued the call for institutions of higher learning to engage with the farmers and private sector actors to boost agricultural production.
Are universities and agricultural colleges up to the task?
We go back to my colleague’s disturbing question: “How do academics who have no practical experience of small, medium or large scale agricultural practice impart the skills and knowledge to lift productivity?”

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