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Should Africa prioritise maths and science education over arts?

Posted on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 10:19

YES. Africa’s march towards the much-touted “Continent of the 21st Century” pre-supposes, among other actions, putting in place mechanisms for sustained growth and harnessing of its human capital. But is this the case? Evidence on the ground points to the contrary: STEM uptake, a key indicator, is far from adequate. The continent requires robust policies and strategies for effective and efficient STEM implementation that promotes the production of high-end professionals required to manage our resources and add value to our products and services. We are importing “technical assistance expertise” whose interest may not necessarily serve the interest of the African continent. Conflict and instability in some of our rich natural resource countries make it difficult to improve our production market in the continent. Low volume of patents emanating from the continent point to the dearth of available innovators and inventors. We need to promote scientific innovation in our education and research institutions, more trained, qualified and competent STEM teachers and trainers and better equipped research laboratories. Curriculum reform must embrace competency-based teaching and learning that stimulates STEM exploration beyond the classroom. There is poor financing of research and development; African governments must increase the funding allocation for STEM research and development from the current 0.6% of national GDP to 1% as agreed by the Heads of State in 2007. Africa must increase the number of centers of excellence promoting STEM, encourage more women into STEM education and provide incentives to enhance “brain gain”. Oley Dibba-Wadda, Executive Secretary, Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEF), AfDB

YES. Science and Technology is intrinsically connected to everything in our society and it is important for Africa to recognize the fundamental role of STEM in its’ future. While I recognize the significance and complementary role of the arts in contributing to the well-roundedness of the overall quality education, students who study STEM subjects develop a variety of skills that are essential for our continent’s future: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation and collaboration, to name a few. These are the skills needed to solve Africa’s most complex and pressing challenges today – from healthcare to agriculture to urban revitalization, infrastructure to global warming. A key way to meet these emerging challenges for the 21st century is to grow the STEM skills base of young Africans. As an engine of growth, the potential of STEM is endless. We have seen the tremendous benefits STEM has brought to Africa, especially through wireless technologies, which have transformed our businesses into mobile and global enterprises. We now have faster, real-time access to information about infectious diseases, global markets, and customer perceptions; and the ability to place our local products and services in a more competitive global market has opened new opportunities on the continent. STEM skills will help to accelerate Africa’s economic development by providing us the know-how to harness and exploit our abundant natural resources to the fullest. Rather than export raw materials such as crude oil, iron ore, precious stones or even agricultural products, and then import them back as processed goods, Africa can only own its manufacturing sector by developing STEM skills for its youth. Finally, STEM research is what will fuel Africa’s contribution to new technologies in areas such as green energy or new healthcare treatment therapies, and that is what will put Africa on the forefront of development, drive sustainable economic growth and shape the future of the entire world. All in all, the benefits of strengthening STEM education at this time in Africa’s journey has far-reaching implications that will enable us leapfrog into the future and participate in the global knowledge economy. While I agree that the conversation should be more about how both sides already complement each other, and can continue to better educational outcomes, I strongly believe that if Africans are to solve problems and to lead social and economic development in their own countries– it is imperative that we make STEM education a top priority. Dr. Unoma Okorafor, Founder & CEO, Working to Advance African Women (WAAW) Foundation

NO. In a word, No! Wherever education becomes utilitarian rather than an opportunity for fuller realisation of our humanity, the whole community loses and so does the individual. The drive for education to be more focused on STEM is maybe understandable because it seems to serve the needs of the economy and because poverty is bad; the logic follows that wealth is good so everything must focus on the creation of that wealth above all else. The trouble with this logic is that when money is the driving focus, we lose sight of other values and we lose sight of community. We even start justifying all sorts of inhuman behaviour in the name of defeating poverty. When the only poverty we defeat is our own individual poverty though, we end up passing it on to someone else. In order to genuinely defeat poverty we have to have a ‘we’ not ‘me’ focus. The Arts are a humanising force when well taught. Literature: the opening of new horizons, fuelling empathy, developing creativity and imagination. History: the opportunity to learn from peoples and civilisations gone before, to learn so we can avoid the mistakes of the past etc. etc. However, more important than a battle between STEM and the Arts would be a genuine pursuit of education to make the world a better place. The greatest scientists knew that they needed the arts to make their science human and creative. Nobody could call themselves truly educated with no scientific understanding. Let’s avoid the divide and pursue a truly humanising education for Africa as for everywhere else in the world! Miriam Mason-Sesay, Country Director, EducAid, Sierra Leone

NO. Prioritising STEM education is very important, but it should definitely not be done at the expense of the arts. If we consider the general shortage of engineering and technical skills in many African countries and the flood of news on the growth of the knowledge economy, we can easily justify the need for more energy and attention on training STEM subjects. Some may even argue that the need is so urgent that we should prioritise STEM subjects even if budget and time constraints require this to happen at the expense of the arts. But this reaction would be short-sighted, because mastery of the STEM subjects is not enough to remain globally competitive. A recent report by the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting stressed that while technical subjects and foundational knowledge are very important, so is teaching our future generations the skills needed to thrive in a complex future. The report, titled New Vision for Education, highlights the need to develop learners’ competencies – or ways of approaching complex problems – and character qualities – or the skills you need to cope in a changing environment. These include skills such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and social and cultural awareness. A great body of research supports the link between arts education and building competencies and character qualities. I would therefore argue that arts education should not be seen in competition with STEM subjects, but should be seen as complementary in the process of equipping our children to be ready for a challenging future. Louise van Rhyn, CEO & Founder, Symphonia for South Africa

NO. When I hear statements that call for STEM education to be prioritised over the arts or humanities I cannot help but feel alarmed. To define education so narrowly as a certain set of subjects or specialist areas is to cut ourselves short as individuals, as a nation and as a continent. Education should be broader and as a result designed to do more. Understanding how humans work, through music, art, literature and the social sciences may not directly contribute to job creation or economic success. But what it does do is help us understand ourselves, our habit of thought and how we understand and perceive others. It contributes towards the psychological and spiritual development of a society. This is what Africa needs now more than economic prosperity. Therefore, education should not only contribute to progressing people and societies but also to making them live diligently. In that way, we can ensure that technological developments are used to create solutions that provide equity and dignified care for all. My support of STEM education and recognition of its importance will only be through its contribution towards vocational advancement, economic advantage and global competitiveness. Africa is crying out for skilled young people and youth unemployment is high. The mismatch between their current skills and what the companies need is growing wider. For this to happen more and more employers will need to have job openings that require basic STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) literacy, and more people will need advanced STEAM knowledge. Unless the government is ready to review its policies and invest in STEAM education many of our homes will not have fathers and mothers and our young people will be out of jobs. Tendai Lewa Mtana, Education Secretary, County Government of Mombasa, Kenya

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