A Vision for Creating a New Platform for Educational Development in Liberia

By: Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective

November 14, 2001

There is little or no substantial and credible evidence of a concerted effort to create a new platform for educational development in Liberia. This is the case today as it has been in the past. Educational development in Liberia has stalled on all fronts. Traces of failure can be found in the realms of practical policy and historic ideas. Similarly, the educational infrastructure is in complete disarray as the foundations of national economic life have long since evaporated. The national curriculum is inept and wholly inadequate for the aspirations of a modern society. In matters of practical policy and ideas, the lack of foresight has been particularly damaging. It has affected our actions and critical analyses in terms of creating a blue print for the future.

Thus, one must seek to offer a vision in terms of a road map for implementing radical changes for a better future. What is needed is a general theory of educational development that is at once historically concrete and specific. Such a general theory must seek to offer specific clues as to how best to revamp the educational infrastructure and underlying policy orientations. Such a general theory must also not only be limited to dwelling on the problems of the past and present, but it should seek to establish a framework for understanding much more intricate social and historical forces that will shape the future of our educational system.

Several proposals have been made with regards to how best to create an atmosphere that would probably be conducive to implementing best practices. Some of these proposals have been advanced by well meaning Liberians and paragons of professional expertise. Marcus Dahn, in a paper presented at a Town Hall meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, marking Liberia’s 154th independence celebrations proposed that the American Community College system might constitute a viable framework for solving Liberia’s educational crisis. This proposition is said to arrive from conclusions of the author’s doctoral research project. While the American Community College system seems to possess useful qualities that may be worth replicating in some educational systems around the world, it by no means presents a magic bullet for solving the most difficult types of problems that a developing country might face. Two-year associate degree granting institutions have long existed in Liberia such as at Cuttington University College, Tubman College of Technology, and other post-secondary commercial colleges in Monrovia. What has been absent among other things is the lack of proper coordination and linkages between various levels of the education system.

Thus, in most developing countries such as Liberia, there are often cultural, historical and cognitive dimensions of education that might not necessarily be adequately addressed through the mere adoption of a particular institutional arrangement (see Johnson, 2001). I believe this is what experience of educational practice in Liberia has demonstrated. And even in the United States, the Community College as an institutional framework has been designed to be of most help to only certain categories of students. As I believe I have already noted, these students include those who may be keener on post-school vocational training or others who may want to acquire basic skills in core subject areas.

Furthermore, the cost effectiveness of what a typical community college has to offer is by no means a universal phenomenon. In some instances, especially in cases of workplace training, it may prove more cost effective to train employees on site than referring them to community colleges. Providing onsite training for some employees may accentuate the essential problem solving nature of professional development. Thus, it may help to breach the gap between theory and practice, thereby alleviating hindrances to the transfer of knowledge, which tends to be one of the most critical issues in professional development. Perhaps this is while small and large companies across most industries are today more involved in the upgrading of the skills of their employees by investing heavily in workplace training and professional development programs. They see the comparative cost advantages and the quality of outcomes imbedded in such corporate endeavors.

In America, brighter and more able students tend to enroll in four-year colleges-most times elite colleges at that. The community colleges have been designed to serve the needs of students in their local communities, especially those who may require academic enhancements and remedial programs to bring their academic skills to levels comparable to those of their peers. The individualized and student-centered focus of some community colleges make them especially suited to fulfilling this function of remediation and intensive individualized tutoring.

Perhaps this is why more savvy school counselors would choose to advice their less academically able clients to enroll at community colleges as an initial first step before eventually matriculating to four-year colleges. This way they may be given the opportunity to improve their academic and learning skills before furthering their training at four-year colleges where the focus may not be so individualized.

So, in various ways going to a two-year college in America can be a matter of convenience for some. For other students, especially for the more vocationally oriented, it may be because they want to pursue a middle level vocational and professional training at a two-year community college. Still, for others it may be because of the proximity and setting of such institution relative to their homes. What all these accounts testify to is that the two-year community college as perceived for a particular purpose germane to American education may not necessarily be a panacea for solving the complex socio-economic and institutional crisis that have undermined the growth of literacy and professional education in Liberia. The solutions to the problem of academic underachievement in Liberia are far more profound than the mere transplantation of external institutional forms. Thus, the failure of educational policy in Liberia cannot be divorce from the enduring effects of the crisis of national leadership in the country. One of the most distinctive characters of this crisis is the lack of foresight on the part of successive national administrations in the country.

The lack of a strategic and developmental approach to educating Liberian citizens is an ample proof of the lack of foresight in formulating national policies for educational development. Even in market-oriented economies where national planning has been de-emphasized, efforts to develop human resources have always assumed a strategic posture. Most countries have in fact adhered to principles of planning in the realm of educational development, even if these principles were discouraged in other sectors of the economy. But in Liberia there have been no sustained and long-term commitment to develop education at all levels- from primary through tertiary and higher education. New patterns of curricular, technological capability, and basic infrastructure must emerge to sustain a farsighted approach that will anticipate progress in the educational sector. There must also be an effort that transcends mere institutional arrangement such as the duration of training at higher institutions of learning. Such effort must incorporate the value of experiential learning and the primary cultural knowledge of those participating in educational programs. In a previous article (Johnson, 2001), I proposed that an understanding of primary cultural differences in terms of the relationship between the traditional (informal) sectors of learning and modern patterns of educational provision is absolutely necessary in boosting educational achievement. This assertion could not be more emphasized (see also Ogbu, 1991).

The value of experiential orientations in the educational process cannot be overemphasized especially in the arena of adult learning. The poignancy of this proposition is exemplified in the core tenets of Roger’s theory of learning. Roger (1969) has argued that learning is most effective and facilitated when students participate completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction. Modern constructivist theories make reference to the vital role of cognitive structures in learning. What this essentially describes is how learners use cognitive structures by generating "rules" and "mental models" to make sense of their experience.

These theoretical premises are useful for understanding how students learn especially at the tertiary level. It is impossible to run a productive society in Liberia where more than 80% of the population are said to be illiterate. World Bank data shows that only 2.1% of the population currently participates in the labor force (World Bank, 2000). This figure must change through radical measures on the economic front if the country is to survive as a viable nation state in this new century. It must also change through an improvement in educational and training provisions to promote critical individual initiatives and entrepreneurship. There must be unity between a response to meet new economic challenges and general improvements in literacy and professional education.

In addition to high historical rates of illiteracy, there is today the alarming situation where most young adults, who because of their participation in the long years of war, missed out on the opportunity to acquire basic academic and learning skills in their early years. To provide adequate programs that accommodate the aspirations of this cohort would suggests a radical approach suited to experiential forms of teaching and learning (see Johnson, 2001 for more on this score). What this case clearly testifies to is the need for a complex approach to a complex problem, requiring new approaches to institution building and instructional processes.

One of these approaches is the concept of a learning society embracing diverse approaches such as lifelong learning and distance education. Distance education today is proving to be more cost effective than other instructional formats. More needs to be done through national policies and multilateral efforts to improve existing technical capacity for upgrading and expanding the opportunities for mass participation in distance education programs. Of crucial importance here could be the setting up of an information technology fund to foster the growth of learning communities and the application of information and expert systems to solve complex economic and developmental problems.

The general theory I have referred to should offer the epistemological foundations for not only a radical shift in policy orientations, but it must also offer the rationale for new and progressive forms of educational practice. It is suggested that these new forms of educational practice will have a lasting impact that will transform the educational landscape. These forms of educational practice would include the following features:

Introducing strong quality assurance measures to ensure the cost effectiveness of educational provision across the spectrum. This would include monitoring teacher quality, student achievement, enrollment statistics etc. Such measures would eventually help to reduce waste and administrative inefficiencies in the system. It would also signal a more ‘strategic’ approach to educational development.

Ensuring the diffusion of cooperative and experiential instructional methods at the tertiary level especially in adult education programs (see McCombs, 1991; Wlodkowski, 1991; Deci, 1991).

Encouraging strong linkages between the demands of the economy and the type of curricular provided for schools and training institutions.

And finally, developing the infrastructure for the widespread use of computer-based learning models to remove the knowledge gap between various students at schools and colleges. Resources mobilized through the information technology fund could be deployed to fulfill this task.

These are some features of the sort of best practices that must be encouraged for a new type of education to take hold. This new type of education in a nutshell calls for the combination of building new institutional organizations and progressive classroom methods. The ideas proposed in this article are by no means novel but they can be made historically pertinent to the realities of educational development in Liberia. For even if the current state of affairs in society is as such that education has been completely neglected, hopefully sooner or later the stage will be set for a new epoch of progressive development that will call on our sense of civic duty and vocation to uplift humanity.

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