Cognitive dissonance

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  • The conflict between academics and functional skills

Finalists in Citi Fm 2022 literacy competition

Key phrases tend to enjoy moments of fame. Some, though, get far more fame than they deserve: their trajectories stretch over longer periods of time before finally hollowing out into cliches. A case in point is the phrase “academic excellence” which has adorned the mission statements of a great many schools, and still do.

Today, worldly educators concern themselves with innovations through artificial intelligence, prototyping, digital pursuits, entrepreneurial quests – all creative efforts for advancing human potential into accomplishments.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with the much-touted “academic excellence”, but there is everything wrong with it if that’s the primal focus of a developing nation’s public universities hosting thousands of agile, fertile, impressionable young minds.

So, in considering the kind of education Ghana truly needs today, it’s apparent that the functional skills to solve basic pressing problems must feature front and center across board.

Graduate unemployment frustrations

A few years back, a group of young graduates at a leading public university, invited me to speak on “Education for 21st century skills”. After the self-introductions, I asked what they could do – so far – with the certificates in their hands. The silence, after that modest question, was deafening.

Actually, what had happened to those robust but disillusioned youngsters was that having gotten their various first degrees, they were to encounter the real world. It was then they realized the gulf between the academic degrees they had received in good faith and the skills the world of work demanded of them. Imagine the anxiety and discomfort! They had chosen to now do a master’s degree with the wishful thought of employment thereafter.

At the crux of that matter was the painful clash between beliefs, expectations – on one hand, and the brutish reality that jolts attitude and behavior – on the other. We are now in the territory of cognitive dissonance.

After that encounter, I cautioned in a column that public universities obsessed with the academics were injuring the youngsters by driving them into poverty and frustration. In a nutshell, all is not well!

It was disappointing recalling a vice-chancellor of a large public university once saying that “the role of the universities was not to train the youth for jobs, and that the nation’s concern in that regard was merely a populist agitation.” Yet another was to say that “whether we like it or not, the traditional universities are academic universities.” With such oddities what was one to think when it’s so clear that an environment so seeped in academics hampered the nation’s economic progress!

Cognitive dissonance

To do well with thinking, a certain correlation is needed. There ought to be a link between the rational way of perceiving reality and the ability to abide by it and thrive. Cognitive dissonance is the conflict that occurs within a person when their values or beliefs are drowned in the confused social construct.  

In other words, we tend to desire high values from the students in our care, but those expectations atrophy when the modeling expected from the adult side is absent.

What do you do when there’s a conflict between what you must value and the bottlenecks that constrict you persistently? We experience such anomalies when we are inwardly aware there’s an inconsistency between our beliefs and our behavior. 

For example, imagine students asked to not throw thrash about on school compounds but the adults that introduced the mandate neglect to offer bins, and worse when the adults themselves commit the same offences. What are the youths supposed to think and do?

Citi Fm Literacy challenge

In this year’s (2022) Citi Fm “Literacy Challenge” competition, junior high school students were to submit an essay on the topic, “You have been appointed as an advisor to the minister of Communications and Digitalization. In not less than 600 words write to advise the minister on how Ghana can deploy technology for poverty reduction and national development.”

The final top 10 contestants will compete in a quiz competition for grand prize of GH₵10,000. Serving as the chief examiner, and selecting the initial fifty competitors, I was most impressed with the essays of the students.

The digital and technological recommendations cut across the following: mobile banking to help the poor in distant places access banking; the use of drones in precision agriculture to spray crops in inaccessible areas; E-commerce for the bargaining for best products and prices in trading.

Others supported the ease in healthcare through drones delivering medication to inaccessible areas; remote patient monitoring and electronic health records; access to information at cheap cost; solar powered computers, tablets with wifis to replace expensive textbooks on the education front; the use of technology to improve administrative performance; database to control licensing of drivers and vehicles, and cameras to track driving offences in transportation.

The need for sustainable energy and robotics for avoiding dangerous or repetitive work were added in the mix including advanced security systems, and digital money as opposed to currency.

With teenagers advocating such high technological digital referrals, the education system ought to support the concept narratives to solve today’s problems. Unfortunately, a caveat reels out its full length considering that the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters were being taught by analogue teachers in this digital age. It is enigmatic and creates an uncomfortably conflicting state of mind for teenagers.

It’s a relief that STEM education is being introduced for the first time in Ghana.

Email: anishaffar@gmail.com

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