Adopt teaching hospital model to deliver education

In 1994-1995, the government of president fast-tracked the introduction of free primary school. 

The goal was to catch up with neighbouring countries where free and universal primary education had virtually left nobody behind in terms of language reading and mathematical literacy.

Almost all post-primary school-going age citizens of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania had completed primary education. They were able to read, write and do basic calculations.

As far as basic education attainment was concerned, Malawi was at the tail end in the region. Politicians and education experts argued then that Malawi was in its lagging position because education was elitist. The rich (meaning those who could pay K4.50 per or $1-2 per  year) sent their children to school while those who could not afford or spare the K4.50 did not. Another accusation was the demand by education authorities that all pupils, as they were then known, had to wear uniform daily except, in some schools, Wednesday.

Wednesday was spared to allow parents to wash their children’s uniforms.

In its wisdom, the government abolished primary school fees and declared the uniform an unnecessary apparel.

School enrolments surged. Teachers got overwhelmed.  Teaching materials and space became a challenge. Open air classes started. Teaching aids had to be improvised. Subjects that required hands-on learning, namely art and craft, even agriculture, were removed from the primary school programme.

Teaching became verbal and hollow. Nothing tangible to prove one was learning; where learning shall mean acquiring new skills and knowledge. Skills are applications of knowledge (theory).  Many pupils dropped out by Standard Eight. They had acquired knowledge but virtually no skills.

They had learned about millipedes, grasshoppers, and mosquitoes but they did not understand why such knowledge about these beings was being stuffed unto their heads. 

Those who had been lucky enough to progress into secondary school got their junior certificates and some got their MSCEs.  Even these got knowledgeable but went home without any skills.  To bridge the gap, the likes of Teveta were introduced.

Research has consistently demonstrated that the majority of the people that went to school from the mid-1990s to 2020s came out very knowledgeable but unskilled.

Those that did not go beyond primary school can hardly read, even in their local languages. They can’t do basic arithmetic calculations. They don’t understand or read English. They cannot even write their own names. They cannot sign their names either.

Those who go around villages and peri-urban areas handing out money and items for one reason or another will testify that there are overwhelming numbers of Malawians, especially in rural areas, who have to thumbprint instead of signing documents. Yet, most of these are beneficiaries of free primary education that this country investing huge sums of money into. Most of the free primary graduates are functionally uneducated. Money wasted. Energy wasted. Sam Mpasu must be angry wherever he is in the nebulae yonder. He sacrificed his integrity; took a shortcut to acquire materials for free primary and got jailed for Field York.  But the people he fought for got nothing.

Today, they are all over asking why they were forced in primary  to memorise the parts of a grasshopper, dragonfly, millipede, bird, monkey, and crocodile.  That knowledge should have been accompanied by cases of applications. Millipedes, for example, gave birth to the locomotive train. The bird to the aeroplane. The crocodile to the peg for hanging clothes. The dragonfly to the helicopter.

The lessons from this are many. Teaching is more than knowledge or fact dishing out. It is the combination of knowledge delivery, and student engagement in practical work. This is what the teaching hospital model instruction intends does deliver. Practice alone, without theory or knowledge, is as empty as theory with knowledge without practice.

The second lesson is that what schools—from nursery to university— teach should be considered foundational. It is up to the imbibers of knowledge and practice to apply what they get from school to create new things. Such creators are called innovators. Innovation can only be encouraged, but is never taught.  

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