By Henry Mutebe

A few days ago, I was invited to present or offer some insight to educationists on “why children are not learning”. The gathering was concerned about the poor learning outcomes in primary schools.

When it was my turn to present, I invited the people present to refine their problem. I felt the framing of the problem is very important if one is to arrive at a good answer. Wrong diagnosis or problem identification leads to a poor prescription or solution.

I engaged them in a simple exercise in which many maintained the question, “why are children not learning?”. I advised them that before they try to seek to understand why children are not learning, it was important for them to first know if they understand “how children learn”.

Instead of asking “why are children not learning?”, have you asked yourselves if you are learning “how children learn?” Do we know how children learn? Are we learning how they learn? How do know that we are learning?

In my view, many children may not be learning partly because we are focussing on why they are not learning instead of first understanding how they learn.

Each child has their own growth circle, learning style, areas of interest and inbuilt talents and abilities. However, in our classrooms, we mostly assume that all children have the same brain, same interests, same abilities, and must therefore be assessed and judged using the same metrics.

For example, I know from experience that there are children who become sharper or present better learning outcomes as they specialise and concentrate on those particular subjects they love or have high interest in. There are children who learn better in certain environments and contexts than others. It must therefore be an ongoing concern for educationsts to understand the child’s best learning environment.

I also know that there are children who love practical subjects while others love theory and thinking more than the doing part of the subjects. There are children who are too quick at learning that leaving them in the same classroom with others renders them insufficiently challenged …so they become redundant and problematic.

There are children who were not very good with certain subjects in class but are now some of the most successful businessmen and women we know of. These very students even failed business subjects in class. Yet today, they are walking tall in the field.

There are children who loved nothing but music and dance. Their brains worked best when their bodies moved. They felt creative with their bodies and through movements, they felt alive and thinking.

The ghetto kids of the Eddy Kenzo fame are a good example of how wrong it may be to judge children from merely an academic point of view. I do not mean they are not good at academics but see how much would be the missed oppprtunity if that area of their life was not left to thrive. As a matter of fact, we must encourage other talents and abilities to nurture them. We can never tell how a child will survive in the world to come.

There are children who loved reading. Others learnt through discussion groups. Others loved learning by listening to the teacher. Others loved learning by engaging in practice. They were all learning anyway. Some children learn by apprenticeship.

Others loved physics and mathematics. Others hated it with a passion…but they were extremely good in Literature.Others excelled in all subjects. Children have different abilities and interests.

In my former school, there was a boy who was very good in sciences yet so poor in history and English so much so that teachers feared he would score an F 9 in both or one of those two subjects yet they were compulsory at ‘O’ level.

To this young man, science was his world. He loved every inch of it. If you judged him using history, you would declare him dense or stupid. He was a fish being told to climb a tree while a monkey was being told to swim. We must know the intellectual habbitat of our learners. We must strive to understand where their genius comes alive.

Our schools have sadly maintained the idea that all children have the same interests, must be good at all subjects and that failure in one subject, sat once in seven years, should be the final judgement of a child.

In other progressive societies, systems are re-thinking the implications of judging children using the same yardstick. They are discussing how to identify what children are interested in and maximise on that at an early stage. by focussing on how children learn best, they are finding it easier to teach even the traditionally worst done subjects.

While children are usually blank slates who we should expose to and interest in all sorts of subjects, we should be careful to ensure our metrics of judgement do not kill the blue zones in which these children operate at their highest abilities.

Children are capable of learning alot of things and we must interest them in all manner of areas but we must not load them with burdens they can not bear.

I have observed throughout my life, that some children become better as they grow. To judge them at early stage, we risk discouraging them and forming a negative opinion of themselves.

Examinations or assessments are a means to an end.They should not be an end in themselves. An exam or test should support the learner to identify areas of strength, knowledge gaps and perhaps what areas need more time.

We may benefit from further exploring how to identify what children want to learn, and synchronise it with our teaching plans. Learning should be a nice experience and not a scary expedition in which the teacher pits a label in form of a mark on the life and identity of a human being whose contribution to the world may never be determined by the figure or grade on a piece of paper.

We must learn how children learn if we are to understand why they are not learning.This way, we can then try to address those impediments to learning. Why children are not learning is a tail end question, how children learn is a more logical and first cause question that supports a better problem analysis process.

In my view, it utterly wrong, and terribly dangerous to judge children in pre and lower primary. Most of these children are merely playing and socialising and understanding the basics of things. If you tell a nursery kid that you were the last in class, or a primary one kid that they were the last, you are destroying their mind and this should be illegal.

The assessment must have a purpose. If we understand the purpose, we may be surprised at how many ways we can achieve it without discouraging the young mind or destroying their image and identity.

We may need to re-engage our pre and primary teachers to support them learn more about how children learn than focussing on why children are failing. Failing is a product of a process. We may also need to explore ways we can help children learn having understood how they learn. I think why they are not learning can be addressed by first understanding how they learn.

We know that the classrooms are poor, the learning aids are inadequate, the teachers are ill equiped but if we understand a little more in how a child learns, we may be surprised how much self drive a child may engage if they are stimulated enough to learn. You can not stimulate one to learn unless you understand how they learn.