Hands or Brains?

This House believes that Africa needs more vocational training than academic education.

It was a lively debate and an exciting end to the eLearning Africa 2015 conference in Addis Ababa. A panel of African and international dignitaries – most of them holding PhD’s – debated back and forth over whether or not the greatest need for the African continent was for formal academic education or for practical vocational training. The audience – teachers, government representatives, professors – followed the argument actively, with laughter, applause and a very lively Twitter stream.

As I listened and participated, I reflected on my own education and that of my daughter. What was most valuable for me? What will do her the most good? Sure, there are specific needs here in Africa, but in general what is the best aim of education? Perhaps this debate should be about what the world needs, not just Africa.

It’s not an either/or situation: nobody was seriously advocating that we should only have one or the other. The question at hand was which one would contribute the greatest value to African societies.

I’m an academic. I’ve got a couple of degrees (no PhD for me yet) & I’ve spent my whole career teaching and leading schools. Books are my friends and favorite purchases. Thinking comes more naturally to me than acting or doing.

And yet, my beliefs about this issue have changed over the years. I’ve come to realize that there is great value in practical, non-academic work and study. I definitely believe that what will benefit Africa & Africans (and people around the world) the most is vocational training and not pure academics. (While still believing we need both and that academics is more valuable and important for some people!)

boy-667804_640This ties in to the current educational trend of making and tinkering. Papert’s constructionist take on education resonates today with many teachers and many schools. Students learn through inquiry and practical tasks – designing, building, adjusting, adapting. There’s a whole new edge with modern tech: 3D printers, programmable fabrics, conductive threads and tapes, robotics, hackable Arduino boards, etc. But it’s still a valuable experience for kids to work with Legos, wooden blocks, etc. Children learn by doing. And practical, hands-on doing is often more valuable than reading or watching.

I’ve also learned that there is far more value in practical work than society often gives it credit for. My own experiences in fixing broken appliances, building things for my home, and repairing ailing computers have shown me that there is great value and joy in such practical tasks. When I finish a project, I have such satisfaction – it is greatly rewarding personally, and if I have done the task for someone else I feel like I have contributed to someone else’s life. Building computer programs have given me similar rewarding experiences, with more mental than physical work.

There is also great mental work in such tasks. Matthew Crawford earned a PhD but runs a motorcycle repair shop. In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, he states that “there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.” He argues that there is great value in manual craft work, and that such work (excluding factory assembly-line work) requires much analysis, thinking and serious decision making. I concur and know that when I’ve worked with tools on a project I have to seriously concentrate and think about what I’m doing.

When I think about my daughter’s educational future, I fear the long academic slog. I shudder at the thought of the heavy load of work the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program inflicts on teenagers …and don’t get me started at the ridiculously onerous and painful process of final exams! She might be suited for such a process (I was), but I have my doubts. And to what end? If she goes through that, succeeds, and proceeds to university, etc. what will be her lot in life and reward? Working in an office? Becoming a teacher? (It is a great job!) Lecturing at university?

construction-659898_640The alternative might be that she learns a trade. Perhaps she becomes a plumber or construction worker. Learned friends may sneer and boast of their children’s careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers or…

But I don’t think that those other careers are necessarily better. As computers get smarter and algorithms get more finely tweaked, there’s a good chance that lawyers, bankers, and other “brain workers” will be replaced by computer programs. And many of these high-profile careers (doctors, notoriously) require long hours and involve a great deal of stress.

People need choices. Some people are driven to be doctors. Some people are suited to academic research and study. Some people are not. Our educational systems need to value all types of students. Our societies need to recognize that a plumber is just as important and valuable as a doctor.

I was glad to hear that the conference attendees voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposal. Africa – and the world – needs to value vocational training more. Carpenters, plumbers (and entrepreneurs and computer programmers) make huge contributions to society.

I hope my daughter has choices. I’m happy for her to pursue whatever career gives her pleasure and satisfaction. As for me, I’m going to stop writing and go get my tools. I have a lamp that has a broken switch that is crying out for repair.