Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Education in Mali - 2002

Recently the topic of the Malian education system was brought up and discussed. I thought you might be interested in what was discussed. It explains in many ways why Mali continues to be poor and not very forward-thinking. Perhaps it is a similar situation for other countries.

This information comes from Balla, a Malian professor (who thankfully speaks English) and a co-teacher of mine who is doing her Master's paper on the subject of Malian education.
Prior to the French colonial period, education of children was handled by the individual villages. Children were taught those things that were pertinent to the needs of the family and village. There was no reading and writing, since Bambara and other local languages were strictly oral languages.
The French arrived, eager to exploit whatever resources they could find in Mali and other West African countries. To aid in the clerical work and other civil servant positions (all of benefit to France, not the Malians), Malian students were needed. Balla recalled being gathered up with his siblings in his rural village. The French people guessed how old he and his siblings were by their height. The French didn't want children who were too old - they wanted ones that they could completely re-educate.
So, at age 6, Balla was whisked away from his family (required, or the parents faced jail) to be educated in the French system. At first the instructors were French people. Then, Malians who were trained in the French system became the teachers, indoctrinating the next group of children. Class sizes were large (60-70) and all instruction was done in French. You weren't even allowed to speak your native language. Doing so would result in beatings and humiliation. Students were taught to read and write French, in addition to other skills that the French felt necessary to assist in the exploitation of the country's resources. Students were not allowed to question or challenge or think creatively. Balla described the experience as "brainwashing."
Even when you returned to your family, things didn't get easier. You weren't allowed to speak your native language, except to your parents who wouldn't know French. Those educated in the French system felt like outsiders, unable to perform the tasks deemed necessary by the people of the village. After all, what good is reading French in a small village where knowing how to plant millet or hunt are the desired skills? Thus, the education system imposed upon the young Mailan children became viewed as irrelevant and mistrusted.
When the Mali received its independence in the mid 60's, things didn't change in the education system. Even today, children are taught in overcrowded schools with inadequately trained teachers, few or no supplies, in a language that's not their own. The Malian educational system is run by a large bureaucratic system who is out of touch with the realities and needs of the people. Instead of involving the villages and educators, the system has made a lofty set of unachievable goals which are supposedly to magically be achieved in 10 years. True, some of the ideas sound good pedagogically, but solutions to very real obstacles are ignored and not addressed.
For example, one of the goals is that students are to be taught in their native language for the first several years of schooling. Being an ethnically diverse country, does this mean that all students will receive instruction (including a teacher) who can teach them in their own language? Are there textbooks for each of these languages? In schools that can barely find chalk, how are they to come up with textbooks, much less those in the native languages?
Villages still have not been involved in any of the process. They still mistrust the education system and don't see how what is being taught will benefit their children. Balla suggested that even if the schools incorporated such things as first aid, some of those doubts would disappear. He said that more needs to be done to train students in vocations that would directly benefit the villages, such as improved agricultural practices. In addition, he wished that more creative thinking, discussion, and problem solving would be involved, such as in the American system. The French style did not work then and it won't work now. Balla wished that the input of educators and local people would be considered - without their help any system or goal will likely fail. People want to see a purpose and a direct benefit to their education. What good is it if you can't find a job or lack the skills required in your village?

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