The room’s discomfort echoed loudly within the chilling silence. The hand on the black board seemed to move in slow motion as the desperate raised hands simultaneously inched back to their parking position. The room felt unnatural, like someone had pressed a button that changed everything including the energy that was oozing like an acrid reeking smell. It snaked its way through the room filling each of the girls with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. You could feel it as one by one the girls left the room leaving their bodies in a still motion pretending to be present as the woman in-front of them spoke. All it had taken was one sentence and they knew their fate had changed. There was nothing for them in that room anymore.
One of my favourite classes turned sour in my last year of high school. I literally moved from ‘I love this class’ to ‘what on earth is happening’ in what felt like a single breathe. At first I was excited about the class. I had never had the chance to talk openly about euthanasia or abortion and other controversial topics. Seeing them in by text book as part of the curriculum felt like special gift wrapped with love. I realised that my expectations and the reality of the situation were not even remotely connected. “Kagirl, do not let yourself be immoral“ those words slithered through my teachers lips following a students opinion on euthanasia. At that point I realised we were not about to engage critically on those ‘controversial’ topics, we were going to be told what is right and wrong and the ‘immoral’ ideas we had would be put to rest. There was no discourse, no hearing of opinions, and definitely no challenging opportunities. It was the teacher’s way or the ‘shame on you’ way. As someone who had been shamed one too many times in my teens I chose to play it safe and silenced my curiosity. Maybe one day I’d find my answers.
In my case, this wouldn’t take long, I had the privilege of going to university where I studies philosophy and religion. I was also lucky that my professor believed in building critical thinking and this challenged me to deconstructing a lot of beliefs that had been shoved down my throat through earlier education. I experienced what I had yearned for earnestly. A chance to actually engage with content and form my own opinions about the matters that matters most to me. While basking in the beauty of charting my own identity, I realised that many of my classmates struggled to get to that point. Like me they too had been indoctrinated into certain beliefs and changing them was difficult or impossible. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks! Trying to convince people in their twenties to start thinking critically is a tedious journey with low positive outcome. I was lucky to be a naturally curious mind but what if my critical thinking had been engaged earlier by all my teachers? What if curiosity in women was applauded rather than punished?
Curiosity and critical thinking are at the core of learning. They are powerful motivators for one to pursue, engage and conceptualise content delivered in education. Unfortunately, these are some skills that are not cultivated nor applauded in students. The situation is worse for African children more so African girls. We grow up being warned of those two powerful weapons because curiosity killed the girl and girls with questions never get the man. Right from the start girls are dis-empowered from the true source of success in education. As they grow older, they question less and become more complacent about life including their own oppression. Professionally, the lack of a critical and curious mind leads to women being mediocre and unable to rise up the ranks as they are not well equipped to handle complex matters efficiently.
The situation is more dire when it comes to social issues being taught in schools. Students are rarely exposed to critical thinking to critique and consequently fully understand the source of their beliefs. Instead they are indoctrinated into certain point of views. This has resulted in adults who do not have a clear stance on social issues and decision makers who make decisions without truly understanding the rationale behind their reasoning.
In practice there are two pedagogical techniques that would allow students especially female students to be better critical thinkers and to embrace their curiosity. One of them is in creative save and brave spaces within learning institutions. A safe space in education is a learning environment that ensures mutual respects and overall safety of learners regardless of who they are. It is a way to ensure that marginalised voices are heard without negative repercussions on the speaker. Similar to this, a brave space which promotes student participation, mutual respect and encourages discourse with the aim of progress. Including these two in academic spaces gives students the opportunity to be curious without fear or shame. This will create space for more dialogue and progressive discourse among learners. Consequently, learners become more critical as they synthesise the information from their instructors and peers.
A second tool to building critical thinking and curiosity is through objective questioning by the educators. Instead of telling students what to believe, what to do and what to say which risks bias on content educators should learn how to ask students the right questions which will not only fulfil their curiosity but it will give students a chance to be critical in answering questions such as the why, when, where, what, and who of different topics. Through this students will also learn how to question and this will lead to a more critical society.
There is a lot of emphasis on the next generation of leaders coming from Africa and the future being female. There is need to invest more in these key players of this ‘future’ that is sought by many. Critical thinkers and curious minds are vital in propelling us to this dystonia future that currently exists only as a dream. Therefore we should feel compelled to build a world where curious mind, critical thinkers are encouraged and consequently make the decisions on the fate of humanity.