Why the tradition of imparting critical thinking is waning

Why does critical thinking appear to be missing from universities in Sub-Saharan Africa, leaving a terrain of chalk and talk teaching practices that have contributed to rote learning, repetition and the reproduction of generic material for sit-down examinations – often recited from old notes?

That was the question that researchers raised as they tried to find out in the study ‘Enablers of pedagogical change within universities: Evidence from Kenya, Ghana and Botswana’.

Highlighting the problem, the study noted that, despite the region witnessing some of the highest student enrolment growth rates in the world, the quality of education in universities in Sub-Saharan Africa had been of concern since the 1980s, as a result of a persistent severe funding crisis.

The study observed that, in most countries in the region, the expansion of university education learning systems has outpaced the number of PhD programmes, meaning that most universities are struggling to train and to recruit sufficient numbers of qualified staff.

Following those shortcomings, questions had been arising, and too often putting into doubt, the quality of university graduates taught by lecturers without doctoral qualifications.

“Furthermore, there has been media panic about employability, with graduates seen to be ill-equipped for the realities of the labour market,” stated Tristan McCowan of the Institute of Education, University College London, the first author of the study that was published earlier in 2022 in an issue of the International Journal of Educational Development.

His associates included Dr Mary Omingo, a Nairobi-based higher education consultant, Rebecca Schendel, an associate professor of education leadership at the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, Christine Adu-Yeboah, an associate professor of teacher education at Ghana’s University of Cape Coast and Richard Tabulawa, an associate professor of education at the University of Botswana.

But, above all, most universities in Sub-Saharan Africa are perceived to have lost the tradition of imparting critical thinking and scholarly understanding of issues, as overburdened academics use teaching methods that deny students the opportunities to develop analytical academic skills.

Too few staff development issues?

Even against this backdrop, there had been efforts in the region to revitalise university education through curriculum reforms, staff development initiatives and improving pedagogy techniques.

For instance, there had been some efforts to transform conventional classroom pedagogy through establishment of institutional centres of excellence in teaching and learning that included promotion of accredited teaching qualifications for tertiary level.

To evaluate the ongoing pedagogical debate, the five researchers focused on eight universities in Botswana, Ghana and Kenya, under a project, ‘Pedagogies for Critical Thinking: Innovation and outcomes in African higher education’ a three-year research study funded by the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council.

According to the study, the researchers encountered an uneven landscape with some universities embracing change, while others are still struggling and facing challenges, as most of the factors that would influence change are not well understood.

Notably, whereas academic staff development initiatives can be conducive to improving students’ learning experiences, such programmes are too few in the region.

The researchers argued that academic development programming is often hampered by lack of explicit regulations at national level, a small pool of facilitators, heavy teaching loads for faculty leaving little time for professional development, and limited funding.

The researchers explained that heavy emphasis on teaching and drilling through a fixed curriculum in order to meet students’ needs to pass examinations has set rote learning as a quality in the region but, at the same time, has diminished chances of attaining critical thinking.

Even in situations whereby student evaluations of teaching are often collected, Professor Ibrahim Ogachi Oanda, a senior programme officer at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, was quoted in the study as having expressed concerns that feedback tends to be generic and uncritical.

He stated that there have been very few channels through which lecturers can share their teaching experiences such as conferences and other networks on higher education.

Reporting of their findings in the eight universities, the researchers noted that most of the teaching approaches were mainly teacher-centred and examinations-driven and were geared towards enhancing lecturers’ reputation as scholars who understood their disciplines too well.

“Lecturers’ learning on how to teach in most universities was disregarded in the assumption being that excellent academic qualifications resulted in effective teaching,” stated the study.

But pedagogical reform in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa is not a new buzzword in the region as there had been institutional and individual attempts to adopt more learner-centred, reflective and professional approaches to teaching, according to the researchers.

At the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, an academic staff development modular programme, leading to a masters degree in teaching in higher education has been designed, while similar postgraduate programmes are available at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Drawing experiences from the eight universities in Botswana, Ghana and Kenya, the researchers noted that tertiary institutions and educational systems in Sub-Saharan Africa are littered with well-meaning teaching policies, initiatives and approaches that never reach the classroom.

But, according to the group of researchers, the main issue was why enablers of pedagogical change in Sub-Saharan Africa were making little headway.

Is a national policy necessary?

In their quest to find out, the researchers conducted 74 interviews with academic staff and established that, in all three countries, there had been no national policy requiring universities to adopt particular pedagogical approaches.

However, each of the universities in their missions, broadly spelled out the need for uptake of learning and teaching interventions, but such policies lacked the support of some lecturers.

The issue is that, while it makes good sense to have a written strategy of an institutional teaching and learning document, in most instances, its existence does not guarantee that it will be implemented.

In Botswana, one lecturer told the researchers: “What I have found out in this university is people don’t share, people are afraid to be critiqued and they feel … that you are undermining them and if you ask questions, they also think that maybe you are trying to show off.”

The researchers also noted that students, themselves, can be a formidable barrier to change, especially in situations in which their voices count towards lecturers’ promotions. In this regard, students tend to evaluate better lecturers that teach to examinations and not those that spend time developing critical thinking through learner-centred teaching techniques.

Given that background, researchers stressed that many universities in Sub-Saharan Africa had found it challenging to reorient the pedagogical work of the staff.

Hence, one of the interviewed lecturers in Kenya was almost philosophical when asked whether he would be willing to promote critical reflection among his students by adopting student-centred methods of teaching. He retorted: “You cannot have a student think critically if you have not been taught how to think.”

Moonlighting, the practice of holding multiple jobs at the same time, which has become a common source of additional income to underpaid academic staff in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was found to be limiting dedication to teaching in Kenya and Ghana, given the constraints on speaking with students outside class and spending adequate time in preparation.

Large class sizes, which have become a common feature of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in public universities, were cited in the study to be a major drawback towards the introduction of innovative teaching practices.

There were also indicators that limited learning resources such as personal computers and laptops, inadequate institutional internet platforms and the lack of support staff to develop e-learning capacities were cutting down on the ability to introduce pedagogical reforms.

Although, on account of ethical requirements, the anonymity of the eight universities was adhered to in the study, the main issue appears not to be with those institutions or where they are located. What the study highlights is that what is on trial is the traditional academic lecture method that could be blowing away critical thinking from African universities where it is the chief method of instruction.