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Balancing between school grades and student potential

Opinion & Analysis
Tapiwa Gomo

Each year, parents in Africa spend huge amounts of money on their children’s education. This is because education in Africa is not funded by governments. Average income earners send their children to local expensive schools or overseas just to ensure they get the best education. In South Africa, for example, families spend between R1 400 000 and R3 400 000 for a school career for one child. Education is life, as the saying goes so the investment and sacrifice is also huge. 

The phrase “best education” means a lot more. For some, it means a school system that enables the child to attain the best marks so they can access or qualify for the best tertiary education available. For others, it means a child mixes and establishes relations with children who will become a network for opportunities once the school career is over. To some, this is one of the best investments.

However, for the industry and real life, while grades are a parameter for measuring performance, it is not a great indicator. Knowledge is. Knowledge is the student’s ability to comprehend acquired information at school and being able to apply it in real life. Learning is also an important factor which gauges the student’s ability to be more open to new information to add on to or challenge acquired knowledge.

Interestingly, it is the grading system that seems to determine success at most schools and for that reason grades have become the contours used to judge the success or failure of students and their schools.  Society has become dependent on the same to the extent that corporates award good jobs to students with good grades from the best universities. Good grades are not always an indicator of intelligence or innovativeness.  They are a measure of how a student performed in an examination.

Relying on grades alone is one of the reasons most African countries are faced with high unemployment rates. This is because schools and universities end up training students for the labour market instead of training to generate new economic opportunities. For the student, getting good grades becomes the ultimate goal in itself so they can get the best job on the market, instead of creating or exploring available opportunities in the economy.

You may recall the question: What do you want to do when you grow up? The question was intended to fix the student’s mind on certain job aspirations so they work towards getting the right grades for that job. That limited their horizon of imagination.

Obsession with good grades as a measure of success places a lot of pressure on students to memorise details they think will be necessary to pass an examination, which is wiped out once the test is over. This means that the important purpose of schooling such as knowledge, learning, innovation and addressing challenges are disregarded so does the essence of understanding the subject content.

While passing with good grades is an immediate achievement, the student’s true potential and personal development are undermined by the importance placed on grades. This is one of the reasons some societies create professionals who are experts in reciting company policies, procedures and theories because they are products of rote learning who depend on one skill — memorisation technique based on repetition.

Countries and institutions that have been successful over the past two decades have invested in the three facets of education namely; grades, knowledge acquisition and the ability to learn new things to adapt to the context. There are several examples of college dropouts that have transformed the world in the field of technology and have later been conferred honorary degrees by their former universities.

The decision to drop out was informed by a realisation that the content and the teaching processes being provided by the universities were not in tandem with how they envisaged their future world. One former senior vice-president of a technology company once opined that grades “are worthless as a criteria for hiring as they do not predict anything,” for an industry that thrives on innovation.

Education is about helping to produce a human being who will become a self-sustainable and productive adult in society. It is about identifying skills and talents in students and sharpening them so they can become the best they can be. It should not be limited to modelling labour for industry whose future is unpredictable. It is about enabling students to dream and shape the future. Grades remain vital but not at the expense of restricting innovation and creativity or undermining personal growth outside the realms of what the education system can offer.

In my previous instalment, I noted the important role played by the promotion of a reading culture and education in the economic success of the four Asian tigers namely; Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan in the accumulation of human capital.

Several studies focusing on these countries have shown that their economic development largely depended on an educated society capable of being more creative and innovative to exploit available economic opportunities instead of waiting for jobs to be created.

Notable common features in their education system include; building a well-qualified human power, placing human resource development at the centre of national development plans, early and primary education as the foundation for skills identification and development, and finally balancing between supplying labour to the markets and promoting individual skills into the entrepreneurial sector.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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