By Haftu Hindeya Gebremeskel
From my social-media engagements and experience as a teacher, I have learned that many people prefer to read short to long notes, and complain about a lengthy content. If one writes just a phrase that catches attention, one is likely to get many likes and shares. On the contrary, a well-crafted and serious content will attract little attention. Many people don’t seem to be interested in serious deliberations and critical reflections. Serious learning has made way for shallowness.
How has this culture of shallowness evolved? There are probably a lot of reasons but it cannot be denied that the siege on Tigray that has lasted for more than two years has had an aggravating role. People were limited to reading screenshots that were too short, with no details, and in most cases useless. What was relatively useful as a last resort might have now developed into a habit, but there is a more fundamental reason as to why as we shall see below.
The argument is not that written content must always be long and that readers should prefer long content to a short one. The length of a content should be determined by its purpose. The argument is that people’s general apathy towards lengthy content should be a worrying state of affairs. One might argue that social-media platforms are by design for short contents. Maybe there is some element of truth to that, but that doesn’t fully explain why our people do not engage with serious written material.
For concreteness, I kindly ask you to reflect on the following questions.
How many of you finished reading Save Adnia’s (Dr. Goitom’s) posts and argued with him based on your readings of what he wrote? How many of you tried to understand Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie’s meticulous efforts to integrate a new way of writing Tigrigna and supported or rejected his thesis based on your understanding of his work? How many of you finished Memhir Muluwork Kidanemariam’s long and exquisite stories and commented based on your readings of what he wrote? How many of you read Yemane Nagish’s long posts, not always of course, and reflected your views on that? How many of you read and finished Tesfakiros Arefe’s historical chronicles? These are my queries for you to answer for yourself. Internal reflection, i.e., inside-out reflection, is the basis for the development of higher-order thinking skills.
I argue here that the obsession with short notes is perpetuating anti-intellectualism in disguise. It is in disguise because many of us are not even aware of it and it is gradually engulfing our way of thinking skills and ways of life. One of the root causes for this, I believe, is the curriculum and instruction provisions and administration in our universities, colleges, and preparatory schools.
I am not labelling everyone with a broad brush. My claim does not refer to all universities, schools, or graduates. I am saying the new normal of obsession with judging people without ample evidence, taking hearsay and rumours for granted, sharing unverified news and information, labelling good quality people based on their trimmed video interviews, insulting your elders or friends without feeling any guilt to the public, and looking for superficial or summarised updates from others are some of the issues that I have observed on social media community, if not in most of our elites.
I recall a story about a medical doctor who is also active on social media asking his Facebook friends to help him locate activists or YouTube links that summarized the daily updates or directly send him those updates as he couldn’t catch up with all the information overloads due to his job. This is true and acceptable. But, what if you are sitting almost the whole day online and looking for people to serve you? In so doing, you have missed the process of intellectual development in your effort to get the information you needed. The human brain is not a published manuscript that consists of edited paragraphs within it after all. It has the potential to process information and it is from this process that we are building our cognitive and affective capacity.
I argue that these are partly the results of the curriculum and instruction approaches enacted in all our levels of education in the past decades. I am referring to the people who have at least completed a university degree. Not to mention those grade ten drop-outs who have become decisive activists in our future.
So, why has such anti-intellectualism become pervasive? Why are we not having thorough readers and writers as needed? Why are we failing to engage in serious inquiry and deliberation of ideas? Why are we exhibiting all those above-mentioned destructive and very often uncivilised attitudes in public?
My answer is that we need to look into the experiences of how we were administering curriculum and instruction, and how the process of learning has evolved in our universities and the other levels of education in our society.
In the past quarter of a century, particularly after the education training policy of 1994 came into effect, we have achieved remarkable success in access, equality, and equity in education as a nation as stipulated in the Federal Ministry of Education’s 2015 and 2021 Education Sector Development Programs. No education expert will deny this. Reading reports of credible institutions may suffice to see the remarkable progress (e.g., see https://open.unicef.org/sites/transparency/files/2020-06/Ethiopia-TP4-2018.pdf). But, in the mentioned period, the most negatively affected dimensions were quality and relevance. Particularly, the quality of education has deteriorated.
In universities, it is a must practice to give students reading assignments, commonly called references. This may include books, textbooks, handbooks, published manuscripts, or reports of government or non-government institutions. Particularly, for me as an education student, reports of development partners were also helpful. These references are the basic ingredients that make you who you are in your future professional life.
In my time at the university, we used to complain that there was too much to read. Such a symptom of defiance to more readings was later encouraged, with the shift from books to short reading materials such as modules, handouts, and PPT printouts.
Maligning the teachers who are known for their professional skills and academic rigor has become a common practice. If you are a professor serious about helping your students read and load students with assignments for that purpose, you will get a negative evaluation on your semester performance evaluations. Whilst the teachers who appease and joke about students’ learning get positive assessments, you may not get a passing performance mark, and probably get a warning from your department head for doing your best for students.
With the exponential increase in the number of students and the lucrative income teachers get from “teaching” a large number of students, modules — I call them ‘big handouts’ — have become the fashion of the day. You will find almost no one who refers to books in the library in the heyday of modules and handouts (‘in the era of short notes’). Encyclopedias have to leave their shelves for modules. Later, as these modules are easily amendable, teachers have to shorten them even further into short chapters. The main task of teachers has become shortening those modules into handouts to please their students.
After the culture of modules and handouts has taken root, students start asking teachers for PowerPoint slide printouts because the handouts were too long to read. Then, teachers have to obey the order of their muscular bosses, students, as it has become the modus operandi for the reasons I mentioned above.
Then, what happened now?
In curriculum, we have an important concept called ‘hidden curriculum’. It is an informal one that you develop because of your exposure to the formal curriculum, instruction, teachers, peers, or the general environment. Some refer to it as the side effects of the formal curriculum because its effects are unknown to anyone. For instance, if you have had a history teacher who pressured you to cram due to her assessment techniques, you will likely develop a cramming behaviour. If there are two or three teachers who manifest such type of assessment in the program you are studying, you will end up becoming a cramming teacher if you are, for instance, in a teacher training program. This unintended consequence is unknown either to the professor, to students, or to the curriculum expert, who on the media proudly declares ‘We are doing all our best to develop a problem-solver citizen’. I remember in my high school days when experienced history teachers were staring at the roof of the classrooms rather than maintaining eye contact with their students to avoid disruptions in their memories.
The hidden curriculum could also have a positive effect. For instance, if you attended a chemistry program with teachers that like to pressure you to write excess lab reports and assignments and stay a long time in the labs, you will likely develop a strong work habit of writing the best lab reports or you may also be an award-winning professional for loving your labs. The same goes for other academic and social developments. In the issue we are discussing, if you are part of a program that uses handouts and PPT printouts as references, then you will be a social media activist or a ‘professional’ who just writes a line and ridicules others for their strong ideas and deliberations, and or an officer who proudly jokes on his/her customers without displaying any civic responsibility. I argue that we are seeing the side effects of the curriculum and instruction administration this time.
It is thus my firm belief that, unless we are ready to openly deliberate on those issues and come to a consensus that we have to work on changing or at least reforming our curriculum and instructional provisions, it is unlikely we will move even an inch from where we are.
In the current context we are in, those same elites that analysed the need for war yesterday and the need for peace today are the results of such hodgepodge of a curriculum. If we want to produce serious intellectuals we’ll have to reform our curriculum. Otherwise, we will learn that the mantra “curriculum makes or breaks a nation” is not a mere cliche in the hardest way now or tomorrow.
What can be done?
I propose the following reforms.
- Need for a re-conceptualisation of teacher training practices
In the current practice, the least performing students are joining the teaching profession. This has to fundamentally change. In one of the teacher training colleges I visited some years ago for my research, I learned about a sad reality while discussing with the dean of the college. The teacher candidates who joined the college were all low-performing students. All have scored below 2 points in the 4-points grade scale. Then, those who had relatively better results compared to the rest of their peers chose mathematics and English subjects as their last choice fearing that those subjects were difficult. The college administration was forced to forcefully assign those with the lowest scores to mathematics and English. These trainees are expected to teach children those critical subjects at the critical primary school ages of our children. This case fully represents the experiences nationwide. This needs change.
- Focus on teaching higher-order thinking skills
In schools or universities, teachers’ plans are focusing on the lower-level objectives of thinking. In the levels of thinking, commonly called Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking, objectives of the lower-level thinking (simple remembering, understanding, and applying) are more common than those higher-order thinking objectives (analysing, evaluating, and creating) in teachers’ lesson plans and course outlines. Doing so will help to make the classroom more engaging for students, and limit the development of their higher-order thinking skills. This needs to change to focusing on inquiry learning and exposing students to real-life situations. This can be done by making our teaching plans to support students’ engagement and supporting our instructions with low-cost lab materials.
- Choose core subjects on which students invest more time
This needs structural change in the scheduling and organization of subjects or course credits. This is particularly timely with the situation we are in. Children of Tigray were out of school for three years in a row. The need for adjusting our curriculum such as limiting the number of subjects and focusing on core subjects, adding and reducing course credits, and using a broad field design approach (that is integrating subjects and contents into one) in organising our curriculum could help much.
4. Avoid or at least lessen the use of modules, handouts and PPT printouts, and guide students to read books, articles, and long stories as references to the subjects or courses they learn
This must be particularly a major task for universities and schools. In our digital time, there are ways to access better reference materials online. Moreover, we have to work to use our students’ social media engagement to enhance their learning. Studies show that social media apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, etc enhance students’ higher-order thinking skills and interaction. Rather than pushing against students’ use of social media applications, we have to deliberate on how to use such engagement to enforce their learning.
5. Need for the revitalization of assessment practices
Lessening those assessment techniques that ask for rudimentary or lower-order thinking (remembering, understanding, and applying) and maximizing the benefits of assessing students’ higher-order thinking (analyzing, evaluating, and creating) is essential.
6. Integrate students’ classroom learning practices with societal problems
Integration of students learning with societal challenges will enhance the relevance of our curriculum. Thus, we need to bring societal problems into the classrooms so that students can transfer what they have learned to solve real-world problems.
Haftu Hindeya Gebremeskel is an Associate Professor in the Pedagogical Sciences (department of Teacher Education) at Mekelle University’s and LMEU coordinator.