Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Community Funds of Knowledge

A recent article from the Tanzania Daily News about pushing agriculture education in schools as employment opportunities in other sectors continue to dwindle has got me thinking about how incredibly obvious this curriculum should be in Tanzania and perhaps all over the African continentIn a place where agricultural initiatives take precedence over other forms of commerce, it is clear that knowing your jembe from your panga and everything in between is infinitely more important to daily survival than conjugating English verbs or finding a common denominatorI know this kind of flies in the face of my near-rabid insistence that everyone on the planet learn at least basic English language communication skills, but a girl has the right to revise her opinions, right?  It's not that I no longer believe English language is HUGELY important, it's just that practically speaking if you only have access to a very limited education, it might be in your best interest, in rural Kilimanjaro, to focus on getting the knowledge you'll need for survival as opposed to say, keeping up with Oprah's Book Club. 

Funnily enough, there's a name for this sociocultural approach to education.  It's called "community funds of knowledge" and it originates from the research of Luis Moll out of the University of Arizona.  Working with Mexican-American students and their families in the barrio schools of Tucson, Professor Moll contends that "existing classroom practices underestimate and constrain what Latino and other children are able to display intellectually."  He believes the secret to literacy instruction is for schools to investigate and tap into the "hidden" home and community resources of their students.

Similarly, my Toa Nafasi colleague, Angi Stone-MacDonald, used the community funds of knowledge approach as well in her work at the Irente Rainbow School for mentally challenged and autistic children in Lushoto, Tanzania in 2009.

Angi says: "In unique locations, like rural Tanzania, it is essential to focus on the needs of the local community.  All children, including children with disabilities around the world learn first from their families and their environments.  A culturally and socially relevant curriculum provides individuals with the knowledge relevant to living in their local community and the skills necessary for success in that community.

At the Irente Rainbow School, the teachers utilized and augmented the 'funds of knowledge' the students gain from family and the community.  Gonzalez et al. (2005) define 'funds of knowledge' as 'historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.'  At the school, funds of knowledge inform teaching practices to provide locally and culturally relevant lessons. 
Reading and literacy is neither essential nor critical for daily life as subsistence farmersOver 80% of Tanzanian households rely on agriculture for their primary source of economic activity (World Bank, 2012)Most farmers (over 70%) are farming by hand hoe and 85% of farmers are producing food for their families and communities (Ministry of Agriculture, 2011)."
Angi's findings from working with special needs children and their families in 2009 are indeed consistent with with the following article about students in general in 2012.  Check it out....


A newly released report on education by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) paints a gloomy picture on the future of the youth in Tanzania and the entire African continent. 
According to the report, one fifth of the youth in Tanzania do not complete primary school.  Further, two million boys and girls who finish primary school every year have no job skills.  The report also shows among other things that students finish primary school without the strong foundation they need to take them to a second level of education.

The outcome is that many of the youth find themselves trapped in jobs that keep them under the poverty line.  While the report is essentially about the lack of adequate education and skills which in the end translates into unemployment and consequently poverty, it also advises that relevant education is essential from the very first day a child enters the class.

Poor education background and lack of skills have triggered urban migration.  Thousands of unskilled youth flock to towns and cities hoping to earn a living whether decent or otherwise.  Some of the young, energetic men are hawkers in the cities like Dar es Salaam selling petty items, including bubble gum targeting motorists caught in traffic jams.

Those who fail absolutely to earn a living turn to criminal acts including robbery and drugs.  All this is happening in a country of plenty arable land, river and lake waters ideal for farming and irrigation.

While UNESCO positively advises that children need to know their goals right from their first day in school, it is up to decision-makers and educational experts to carefully assess the challenges.  Is it viable for example, to teach children that they are attending school today so that they have a job tomorrow?  Would it make a lot of sense if they were gradually oriented into farming which is the country's economic mainstay?  Such an option does not suggest that all the youth will have to turn to agriculture where education has failed to provide opportunities.  Other areas like fisheries and livestock keeping may also be part of the learning process in schools.

However, in the long run, our emphasis is on agriculture as other areas have limited opportunities.  We trust that farming, whether large scale or subsistence, has not depleted all fertile land and plenty of it is lying idle.  While we recommend orientation of agriculture in schools, we also predict many challenges as children may see things differently.

There is the urge to get quick money, coupled with the inclination to the fast world of information and technology.  Nonetheless, it is not bad to have multiple choice in life.

It is only sad to see young, energetic men loitering in the streets while they could be engaged in meaningful income-generating activitiesThe current situation is that thousands miss opportunities because they lack skills, and even those who finally graduate from school cannot secure decent jobs because in a world of stiff competition, primary and secondary school levels are not sufficient to guarantee them employment.

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