Failing Education Calls for Analytical Resurrection

In Ethiopia, my country of birth, the papers people carry too often define a person’s worth. It does not matter how smart someone is, or gifted or talented. Easily earned certificates of “accomplishment” dictate advancement in life. A prospective employer is more likely to be wowed by a job candidate’s “Certificate in Business Administration” or a diploma from some shady correspondence course, than the fact that they possess the variety of skills required to excel in their respective employment positions.

But with tens of thousands of university graduates in Ethiopia joining the job market each year, even as the level of unemployment continues to increase, “paper smarts” will not cut it forever. Being able to think critically and ask questions in the process will soon be what sets young graduates apart.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s secondary education system is failing to prepare young people for this new reality. As a product of the Ethiopian secondary education system who has successfully transitioned to postsecondary studies, I often find myself lamenting that so few of my fellow citizens have joined me in the pursuit of knowledge.

In elementary and high school, where the thirst for lifelong studies is born, learning was primarily measured by how much material we were able to reproduce on the test day, rather than the level of understanding and insight we gained from reading and discussion. Our education focused on the memorisation of facts and did not demand us to analyse information. Nor did it challenge us to think critically or to apply our knowledge in meaningful ways.

When I enrolled at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), I met other Ethiopian students who had also completed their secondary education in Addis Abeba. We quickly realised that the education system at NYUAD required the basic recollection of facts and figures, but also demanded more diverse and critical thinking skills. Although we were keeping up with the concepts in our classes at NYUAD, our understanding of much of the content was only scratching the surface.

In line with shifts in education and the changing landscape of the job market in recent years, many of our peers educated elsewhere were encouraged from a young age to develop marketable, essential skills such as analytical thinking, critical reading, writing and research. We also discovered that certain attributes, including creativity and innovation, are highly valued and rewarded in this new model of higher education.

After completing our second year at NYUAD, my friends and I decided to return to Ethiopia and try to address this gap in the education system. In April 2013, we established a student association called Qine Association for Promoting Education Quality (QAPEQ). Our goal was to activate the untapped potential of Ethiopian students in promoting and enhancing the quality of education in Ethiopia.

QAPEQ envisions top quality education that equips students with the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to make significant contributions to Ethiopia’s economic and social development. We understand the challenges that we are facing, and believe that such a shift in the approach to education can only be achieved through a concerted, collaborative effort.

Through QAPEQ, we have begun to foster open dialogue between key stakeholders within the Ethiopian education sector. In the summers of 2013 and 2014, this initiative brought policy makers from the Ministry of Education and the Addis Ababa Education Bureau together with students and teachers from different government, private, and international schools from across the city. Through roundtable discussions, students outlined major issues that they believe impact the quality of learning and provided feedback to policymakers about what can be done to better the quality and breadth of education that students receive.

One of the central issues identified by students at QAPEQ’s inaugural forum was the lack of a real world approach to education in their schools. Students are called upon to memorise textbooks rather than think critically, and classes rarely encourage active dialogue and engagement. In addition, laboratory space is scarce and rarely utilized, and libraries are stocked with resources that do not meet student needs. All participants expressed a desire for an education system that allows students to test and apply their theoretical learning in the practical world, and one that helps students acquire essential skills and embrace creativity and innovation.

QAPEQ has now designed a yearlong academic competition Qine Practical Education Challenge (QPEC) to tackle these challenges. The first competition saw more than 200 students from 10 Addis Abeba high schools participate. QAPEQ also administers the Qine School Club Network, a collection of independent student run clubs at various high schools in the city. Through the Qine Clubs the association delivers skill building workshops, motivational talks and other capacity building activities to interested students. In the near future, we hope that this network expands to include many schools within and outside of Addis Abeba, which will allow students to effectively advocate for a higher standard of secondary education.

Although youth unemployment is a global issue not unique to Ethiopia, QAPEQ’s work demonstrates that youth can take a leadership role, and create positive, lasting change within the education system. Through collaborative projects like QAPEQ, we Ethiopians can work together to bring much needed reforms to our education system.