One of the keynote speakers at our first educational leadership conference in Africa in Accra, Ghana in February 2018 was Dr Patrick Awuah, founder and president of Ashesi University in Accra. In 2017, he was presented with the WISE Prize for Education at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, recognising his commitment to supporting education in Ghana and across Africa. Here are a few of his thoughts on leading, teaching and learning.
What current education trends do you consider most promising?
The message that I hear a lot more than I used to, which I think is very important, is that quality is also front and center alongside access to education. Quality is about whether people are actually getting educated or not when they go to school. That was missing from the conversation for too long. But it’s here now, and I’m optimistic it’s going to result in a positive outcome for many, many countries.
If you could instantly make one change to improve the education systems of Africa, what would it be?
I would switch from learning by rote to teaching critical thinking.
Why is teaching students to think critically so important?
Critical thinking is about being able to look at issues from different perspectives. It’s about being committed to evidence and the truth, being committed to really trying to understand and synthesizing information, trying to figure out what information is relevant and what is irrelevant to the question or problem at hand. It seems to me you need to have that ability in order to be a problem solver.
What role do ethics play in education?
You need to start to form a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Most people start to form it very young, when they’re in kindergarten, primary, secondary school, at home. But it is also quite easy for people to start to negate good behaviors and justify bad behaviors. For example, they say:“Well, everybody is doing this”, even though they know it’s not right. So you need to start to work with students to make sure their ethical compass remains pointing north and that they have the courage to do so. They have to practice ethical behavior. The more they practice, the more it becomes part of them and the more they’re not going to tolerate things that are wrong. You need to figure out how to make it a norm in the environment the students are in. That is why we encouraged Ashesi students to come up with an honor system of their own. We said: “We think you can implement the good society here. You can have that debate among yourselves and come up with a social compact and you can live that social compact. And see what a difference it makes to your sense of accomplishment and just how you feel about it”. If they do it for four years through their college years, it becomes part of who they are. When they go out into the real world, hopefully, they remain ethical in the workplace.
All students at Ashesi University join a four-year leadership seminar that concludes with a service-learning component. Why is service-learning important?
Service-learning enables three things. First of all, it’s a really good way of developing empathy when people go out and work for the public good and on behalf of others. Second, I think of it as a laboratory for the humanities. It’s one thing to have conversations about the good society, and it’s another to go out and see what the society looks like and start to engage in some of its problems. And finally, as with any experiential learning, there is a confidence that is developed when students engage in a hands-on way and accomplish something.
In a world where students see some people, including people in leadership positions, quickly dismissing the views of others, how can schools teach students to thoughtfully examine others’ views?
I think that what you do is create an environment in the classroom that is moderated by an adult that draws out different ideas and different perspectives and moderates respectful dialogue in the classroom, but also moderates allowing people to take risks in what they say. There need to be spaces where people can have penalty-free conversations, provided that there’s an agreement that we’re all going to learn from each other and that people are not going to get stuck on their particular position or take offense too easily at another position and that people are not going to close their minds to hearing other perspectives. If we can do it in the classroom in a controlled way, then over time we build this instinct and this respect that people have for different viewpoints and for different people.
The world is changing rapidly in ways that were not foreseen just a few years ago. How can schools and teachers help prepare students to deal with this swift evolution?
In a way, it almost comes back to these basic ideas and concepts of encouraging students to explore and not stifling curiosity. By giving students challenging problems to solve and having them engaged in a way that they accomplish things, they can see that they are equipped to actually be a part of defining what the future looks like. You put them in the driver’s seat of what happens in the future. This is very important. Also super important is teaching students to learn for their lifetime because when there is so much change, the simple reality is they will have to keep retooling and keep learning to keep up with the changes that are coming. So if you teach students how to learn and to love learning in structured and unstructured ways, then you are preparing them for dealing with change that is inevitable and constant.