Education reform: Minister Dokora not completely mad!

RECENT pronouncements from Education Minister Lazarus Dokora have elicited spirited debate among Zimbabweans. Whilst some of his proposals, like internship or what he calls life skills for O level students, border on the lunatic fringe, some of his suggestions make sense and must be taken seriously in the long overdue agenda of transforming the Zimbabwe education system for the 21st century.
Whilst some of the languages he intends to introduce like Portuguese and Swahili don’t make sense, Chinese and French must be considered seriously as well as his proposal for abolishing Integrated Science and replacing it with pure Sciences (Biology, Chemistry and Physics). A missing link is probably failure to make Computer Science compulsory from primary level.
Dokora’s proposal to abolish Integrated Science for pure Sciences is a brilliant proposal that must be supported by all Zimbabweans. If the next generation of Zimbabwe’s young people are to compete globally, then STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are the skills they desperately need. These skills are in short supply not only in Zimbabwe but globally including in Europe, USA and China.
The story of the 21st century is not being written in state houses, palaces or parliaments. It’s being written by young people in areas like Silicon Valley in the USA and Bangalore in India. The people who are changing the world are the likes of Tim Cook of Apple, Elon Musk of Space X, Tesla and Solar City, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and WhatsApp  and Larry Page of Google to mention but a few.
The common characteristic of these technology hubs is that they are hungry for people with STEM skills. With technology shrinking the world in temporal and spatial terms, this is the time to make Science sexy again. Integrated Science served its purpose and must be binned. The excuse that was being given for Integrated Science was that there was a lack of laboratories in most schools especially those in rural areas. But you don’t need a laboratory for students at O level to learn the Periodic Table or to write chemical equations.
Of course many pessimists will argue that there is no longer enough Science and Maths teachers in Zimbabwe since many have left for greener pastures. However, there are lots of innovations that are free and on the market like the Khan Academy that is teaching brilliant Maths and Science for free. Schools without enough Maths and Science teachers can leverage on such mobile apps. With the high levels of mobile penetration in Zimbabwe at the moment, this is quite possible. Even for the remotest schools, we don’t need much; we could buy cheap Rasberry Pi Computers that cost less than 20 dollars per school and have people do the Khan Academy curriculum that has taken the world by storm.Advertisement

Many countries in the region like South Africa and Namibia are becoming hungrier for education. The 1980 to 2015 generation in Zimbabwe benefited because the giant that is South Africa was still to release its first batch of post-apartheid graduates. But the calculus and pendulum is going to swing very soon as the first born-free South Africans start to graduate from College.
Therefore the much revered educational system of Zimbabwe which had a competitive advantage over South Africa that enabled professionals of the 1980 to 2015 generation to easily get skilled jobs in South Africa will become an entry point since South African graduates are increasing with the same level of skills.
To maintain that competitive edge or to create a comparative advantage, we need to start churning out graduates with STEM skills since not much is being done in that area in South Africa or other regional countries. This will ensure that the post 2015 generation will maintain a competitive edge in the region and therefore remain in demand.
The other important innovation from Dokora is the suggestion that students must learn languages. People should put emotions aside when debating this suggestion. Let’s face the hard facts. We have to face the world as it is not as it should be. Many commentators derided this proposal on the basis that we have not done enough in promoting the learning of all indigenous languages. Whilst this is true, in a globalised world, indigenous languages are a luxury. Beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, all our indigenous languages lose relevance and in a globalised world, you have to learn languages that are important and have utility in the new global economy.
Of course, the Chinese experience in Africa has not been overtly positive. In many cases there is a deep resentment against the Chinese in Africa and Zimbabwe especially due to their opaque labour practices. There is also a view that they are new colonialists. But let’s face it. The 21st century is a Chinese century. China is now the most powerful nation economically and militarily and an analysis of global geopolitics will show that its influence is going to increase exponentially in the coming years.
If anything, the formation of such institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Bank (which has all the major nations of the world from Europe to Asia falling on each other to join save for the USA and Japan) and other institutions like the BRICS Bank that are all being created to challenge US hegemony over institutions like the IMF and World Bank shows China’s increasing global clout. Very soon, the Chinese Juan is going to eat the greenback; what with the creation of a new Chinese global payment system and even the global positioning system that will challenge USA hegemony soon.
With its population of billions of people, China’s emergence as the global manufacturing hub, its hunger for natural resources from Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia, the Chinese dragon has risen and is slowly swallowing the world. Therefore Minister Dokora is right to position Zimbabwean students to learn Chinese which will be the leading global Franca lingua in the coming 20 years. Zimbabwe must have a head start and launch the subject as a matter of urgency.
The Indians in the 80s recognized the utility of Computer Science and introduced Computer Science before many nations. Now even the developed world like USA and Europe are now subcontracting most technology jobs to the Indians. If our children have a head start in Chinese and since the reality that China is going to dominate the 21st century is as true as the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow, making Chinese compulsory from Primary to University Level will position our children in the same way mass Computer Science education positioned Indians. If we do this now, Zimbabwe will then become a global hub for translation services, call centers, Chinese teaching and many other areas.
Of course the question that comes out is whether the government has enough resources to roll out such a programme. I think it’s not only the responsibility of the government; it must include School Development Boards, parents, the private sector and NGOs. But the government can take advantage of the warm relations with China for a mass Chinese Teacher transfer under development assistance the same way the UK did to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.
In addition, we can also leverage mobile technology. There are many free mobile language teaching applications. Therefore with innovation and imagination, mass Chinese language education from Grade 1 can even start in Zimbabwean classrooms from 2016. French is also important since it’s one of the most spoken languages after English. Knowing more languages is a competitive advantage in this increasingly global economy. The more international languages our children know, the better their job prospects in the 21th century.
Finally, Minister Dokora did not say much about Computer Science. Of course there has been some rollout of computers to school including under the presidential scheme. At the launch, the scheme was derided because of power outages and the lack of qualified teachers. However, these have been overcome in my view. There are now much cheaper solar innovations from Econet and even Tesla. Parents can mobilize a few dollars to have solar installed at schools even in the most remote areas. We can buy raspberry pi for the most poorest and remote schools.
Already we are seeing in South Africa, like in Gauteng, where a lot is being done to create smart schools and give kids tablets. What is lacking in South Africa and Zimbabwe is defining the right Computer Science curriculum. That’s where we can innovate and beat countries like South Africa because Computer Science is not about smart schools per se but the right curricula. We need to have a curriculum from primary school where the focus is not on learning how to use software like Office but to build software (coding). We need to train the next great hackers of the 21st century. So we can leverage on such curricula as the one created by the Silicon Valley endorsed tech education platform, The platform is free and mobile.
To conclude, while all these suggestions might end up being too much for pupils, the best way may be to create a two tier system where those good in Maths concentrate on the STEM track and those not very good in Maths concentrate on the Languages track.
Garikai Chimuka writes from the Netherlands. He can be reached at