Startup founder Hakeem Subair talks about tackling Africa’s poor education system

Hakeem Subair, founder/CEO, 1 Million Teachers Inc, is confident that challenges facing the Nigerian education system can be best tackled by prepared learners, effective teaching, learning focused inputs, skilled management and governance that pulls them all together. In this interview with KELECHI EWUZIE, he discusses his project which seeks to close the massive gap of qualified and motivated teachers across Africa. Excerpt:

Looking at the policy of education in Nigeria, do you think it is working? What is the way forward?

Obviously, it is not working. In fact, Nigeria has an education crisis, a learning crisis with one of the poorest learning outcomes in the world. We have one of the highest numbers of out of schools children in the world. Estimated at over 13 million, this is a disproportionately higher percentage compared to other countries.

We lack all the four-key school level ingredients for learning: prepared learners, effective teaching, learning focused inputs, and the skilled management and governance that pulls them all together.

The effect is that not only do we lack trained workers; we lack readily trainable workers, leading to low job quality, earnings, and labour mobility. Admittedly, there are pocket of excellence across the country, especially among the high-end private schools who represent less than 0.5% of students, but the majority are falling behind, and no society thrives where the majority are falling behind.

To get out of the crisis, we not only need to increase enrollment and access, but we need to go beyond schooling to prioritise learning because schooling is not the same as learning. Our education system should equip students with the skills they need to lead healthy, productive, and meaningful lives.

Our education system should equip students with foundational cognitive skills as well as higher order cognitive skills such as reasoning, creativity and problem-solving. Our education system should equip students with socio-emotional skills, sometimes called soft or non-cognitive skills such as conscientiousness, perseverance and the ability to work on teams that help them acquire and apply the foundational and other skills.

How best do you think the Nigerian education system need to be managed to achieve productivity and competitiveness?

We need to start by giving leaning the attention that it deserves making it the primary goal and evaluating how we measure up to this goal using the right metrics. This involves using well-designed student assessments to gauge the health of our various education systems at local and national levels and providing actionable information to stakeholders about what is going wrong in their schools and in the broader society, so they can craft contexts-appropriate responses to improve learning.

We need to align all stakeholders recognising that all the classroom innovation will have little impact, if, because of technical, cultural, political, and other barriers, the system does not support learning. By considering these barriers and mobilising everyone who has a stake in learning, we can support innovative educators on the front lines.

To be aligned, parts of the education system must be coherent with one another. Alignment implies that learning is the goal of the various actors or components in the system. Coherence means that the components reinforce one another in achieving whatever goals we have set. When systems achieve both alignment and coherence, they are much more likely to promote student learning. The need for coherence means we should craft homegrown, context-specific solutions rather than borrowing in whole, solutions from other countries.

Putting it another way, we need to: Make learning the goal and measure it. Building on what works, and scaling back what doesn’t; Build a coalition for learning that fosters innovation and experimentation; Innovate and test approaches that seem the most promising for the given context and focus on areas that promise the biggest improvements over current practice.

One of your targets with the 1 Million Teachers project is to support teachers to achieve professional excellence. How successful have you been in this regard, considering the challenges that public education system still grapple with in Nigeria?

Our approach was to start with the lowest hanging fruits and rapidly scale up from there in this case private schools and their teachers, who are more open to innovative ideas that enhance student learning. It is from this group that a critical mass of change makers (the first set of Black Belts or Master Teachers) who will eventually permeate the system is being built. So far, the signs have been positive there is a can-do spirit in the air, teachers are excited and full of hope, momentum is building. These are exciting times for education in Nigeria, and we are happy to be able to play a role in driving the needed change.

What are some of the strategies you think manager of Nigeria’s education system need to put in place to boost opportunities for teachers, students to achieve their full potential?

I would say that everything should be centred around teaching and learning. School inputs, management, and governance must be geared towards enhancing the leaner-teacher relationship if they are to improve learning. Now lets discuss the components, which I will place in three broad areas – students, teachers and school management: To prepare students for learning, we need to address learner preparation by: Setting children on high development trajectories through early childhood nutrition, stimulation, and care targeting mothers and their babies with health and nutrition interventions during the first 3 years to reduce malnutrition and foster physiological development.

Lowering the cost of schooling to get children into school, but then use other tools such as school feeding programmes and targeted cash transfers to boost motivation and effort; providing remediation, in school, before further education and training and after school by way of bridging courses in real-life settings, which allows learners with very low foundational skills to build these in the workplace.

We need to make teaching more effective. Effective teaching depends on teacher’s skills and motivation. Therefore, we need to: Attract strong candidates into teaching and to provide a solid foundation of subject or pedagogical knowledge before they start teaching so that they come into the classrooms with mastery of the content they are to teach. Further, in service professional development they receive needs to be consistent and practical rather than theoretical.

Put effective mechanisms in place to mentor, support, and motivate teachers this is because teachers’ skills do nothing for learning unless teachers choose to apply them in the classroom. For teacher training to be effective, it must be individually targeted and repeated, with follow-up coaching often around a specific pedagogical technique. In Nigeria, currently, teacher training is often too short to be effective and too low in quality to make a difference. Long-term coaching is best for achieving sizable learning gains.

Also, financial and non-financial incentives can be used to improve the motivation of teachers. Those who are performing well should be rewarded, and the poor performers should be penalized. For these incentives to improve outcomes, however, there must be clear actions that teachers can take to improve learning. For example, increasing attendance when absenteeism is the constraint.

Target teaching to the level of the student in order to keep learners from falling behind to the point where they cannot catch up. Strategies to target teaching to the level of the student include using community teachers (such as N-Power Teach) to provide remedial lessons to the lowest performers, reorganizing classes by ability, or using technology to adapt lessons to individual student needs.

Improve management and governance as these often undermine schooling quality. Although effective school leadership does not raise student learning directly, it does so indirectly by improving teaching quality and ensuring effective use of resources. Ineffective school leadership means school management is not actively involved in helping teachers solve problems, does not provide instructional advice, and does not set goals that prioritise learning. School governance particularly the decision-making autonomy of schools, along with the oversight provided by parents and communities serves as the framework for seeking local solutions and being accountable for them.

What is the 1 Million Teachers’ triple challenge concept all about?

Given the massive shortage of qualified and motivated teachers, how do we close the gap? Our triple challenge is how do we attract new teachers, train the untrained or unqualified (with focus on lifelong learning), and motivate them to improve performance thereby enhancing learning outcomes for students. Presently, the 1 Million Teachers foot-print has been registered in 15 African countries.

What are the plans for future expansion?

Beyond the pilots that we have in several countries currently, in the next 5 years, we are looking to expand to all the English and French speaking countries in Africa. Within the period, as well, we are looking at expanding to Asia.

What are some of the achievements you have recorded especially in your interactions with teachers who want to progress to the next level?

We have made significant progress since we started expanding our footprints to several African countries, securing key partnerships including with the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University in Canada. But out of all these, it is the high-quality and fun learning modules that are changing the hearts and minds of our trainees and the knowledge of their potential impact on the lives of the many kids that they teach that gives us the most joy. We are eagerly waiting for the day when we will present to the public, our first set of Black Belts.

It must be very tough traversing Nigeria and Canada selling this project. What are the major challenges you have encountered doing this task?

Its par for the course. Getting such a massive initiative off the ground is a herculean undertaking dealing with tight schedules during trips, fretting about money to keep things going, and of course safety. Personally, being away from family so many times is tough to deal with, but there are lots of joys in making new connections as well as having amazing team mates who make the load lighter and the teachers and students who make it all worthwhile.

What are the key drivers of the successes you have attained in this project you are involved in currently?

Passionate and talented team members and volunteers who see the challenge as an existential crisis and that must be defeated at all costs.

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Written by NaijaRoko

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