Sprucing up Average Joe and Plain Jane: Malawi Cannot Keep Up its Song on Literacy


Katende and Mutesi in practice: From Queen of Katwe by Disney Studios

Those that have watched Disney’s Queen of Katwe will recall that most captivating moment where Uganda’s 14-year-old Phiona Mutesi predicts the future of the game of Chess by seeing 8 moves ahead (see if the feature picture here nudges your memory). Her coach excitedly acknowledges that only the finest players of the game have such an ability. Indeed, not many of us in the professional or academic sphere are able to tell what will likely happen in the next hour as a result of our actions now…as a result of reading this article even.


This week, we premise our discussion on this phenomenal logical ability of young Phiona – who became a world-acclaimed Chess champion, by the way – to cast some light on the state of education in Malawi and why it is critical to make changes now. In some cases, some changes will only need enforcement of the right standards. We just have to will it to happen.


We start with the unapologetic assertion that there is a major disconnect between the instruction delivered in our primary and secondary school education and the expectations that tertiary education has on students. A University (of Malawi) Entrance Examination (UEE) has three parts to it that must be passed in order for the successful student to gain themselves the right to college: numerical skills, language skills and reasoning skills. In spite of our qualitative limitations in preparing our primary and secondary school pupils, we have a better chance at coaching in numerical and linguistic skills than we are at stimulating logical reasoning. This is mainly the reason many of our bright children will continue to fail UEEs because they lack the right curricular environment to impart such skills on them.


In a major way, our constraint is structural. Literacy in Malawi is defined within the boundaries of the ability to read, write and count. A child leaving primary school is deemed capable on account of mastering these skills and the country expects them to launch themselves in this complex world to navigate independently and survive. Even worse, the country’s expectation is that this “literate” person will be responsible for bringing up their children in a world that will demand anything but more from them. Yet, these remain the parameters against which our country reports on its obligations to meeting international standards for literacy year-on-year. And in spite of these rudimentary measures, slightly more than 1.5 million people in Malawi have attended tertiary education while only 62.1% of the population is considered literate, according to 2015 UNESCO data.


Clearly, such measurement of literacy is wanting in today’s world. While even our development partners will give us a huge nod and pat us on the back that we are making a dent on national literacy, it’s no myth that our literate child is far from able to perform adequately beyond being a day laborer. They cannot compare with a child of the same age and/or education in middle and higher-income countries.


There is something unmistakable that sets us apart. There is something these countries are doing to make their Average Joe and Plain Jane better than ours. The answer lies in the fact that education systems of more advanced countries valorize more than just the basic offerings that education in the developing world provides the student. Indeed, the definition of basic education has evolved into something larger than the teaching of numeracy, language and literature, science and social studies. Basic education will normalize and inculcate reasoning-enhancing enrichment which inter alia includes games like Chess, crossword puzzles, technology, coding, philosophy, current affairs, video and radio production, and music. Not even many of our highly acclaimed, expensive private schools have it in their ethos to offer our kids the slightest exposure to any of these. Instead, they carry on the conservative agenda of stuffing way too much math and science into kids’ temples, even when many may not be cut for the sciences.


A 21st Century Malawi must depart from this traditional definition of literacy. The ability to read, write and count was relevant as we moved towards the personal computer age. When computing and technology took off in the early 1990s, Malawi should have started thinking about adjusting its curricula at that time. But we were caught up in thinking our needs remained basic and reacted with a similarly half-baked approach to education. We were soon to be outpaced by the revolutionary advancement of software engineering, the internet and the interdependence between nature and machine through artificial intelligence and now virtual reality – concepts that create confusion even among many of our readers.


This brings us back to our article of 6 November 2017 on teaching adaptability to our youngsters as a means to enabling them to cope with today’s fast-paced world of work. Reasoning skills are a life-long possession that will always be useful for everyone, including those learners who will advance further in the academic field. We need to start encouraging the slow but sure pace towards a portfolio of lessons in our primary and secondary schools that encourages logic to not only enhance adaptability of our youngsters to dynamic industries but to amplify their abilities to be pragmatic in a fast-changing world and to unleash their creativity to rely less on the mercy of hiring companies.


Phiona was lucky. She was embraced by a family that would support her tuition, which assisted in pulling her other academic skills up. It is undeniable that this complemented her global success in Chess beyond being a super-talented logician who otherwise would have doubled up as dumb in everything else. However, many of our 5 million primary school pupils today will not have such luck.


It means the government will have to look out for them, including those in private schools. We mention private schools because they may be the first hope for change while government puts its house in order to revert to providing education that is suitable for this era. With enforceable standards for private schools in place, we may be able to accelerate the production of human capital capable of pulling the rest forward.

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