INTERVIEW: Children can understand 11 languages, says early childhood education specialist

Emem Opashi is the director of the Sage School, an early childhood development centre in Abuja. Emen who is an early childhood educator and trainer also consults for local and international organizations on early childhood education. In this interview with Chikezie Omeje, she speaks on early childhood education in Nigeria.

What kind of school do you operate here?

It is an early childhood centre.  We cater for children from six months to six years.

Why did you take it up to six years? Some children around the age of 4 are already in primary school

Primary school in Nigeria ideally is supposed to start at six years. If a child is leaving our setting, he or she will either be going to grade 1 in an American curriculum school or the original Nigerian school is supposed to be going to grade 1. If the child is going to a British curriculum school, it will be grade 2.

So, our five to six-year-old is actually a kindergarten, which is what the early childhood is supposed to be. But now some people feel they want their children to go to school much earlier, which is not meant to be the case.

What do you advise parents to do?

Because some people think their wards are brilliant, they think their kids should be in the university. Once they glimpse a certain level of maturity in the child, they tend to forget the child within. Actually, there is this emotional readiness that a child needs apart from the maturity they can glimpse.

So, it’s important that the child is ready to take the next step, not what the parents feel like, not because they want to reduce fees or show off to their neighbours or cousins. So it is important that a child is allowed to grow in terms of maturity and be ready to step into that higher class.

You talked about British and American curriculum schools, what exactly do you mean?

It’s actually from their approaches, and how some subjects are taught. The reason why we talk about them is that they happen to have an establishment in the early childhood education. But here in Nigeria, we are still working on ours. That is why many schools in Nigeria resort to the use of foreign curriculum or try to integrate what we have here in Nigeria with the British or American one.

The British curriculum is regularly updated and has learning objectives. It tells you what a child is supposed to be learning or what he or she should have learned at a particular age. It is one of the well-structured curricula for teachers to follow.

The American curriculum is very diverse. I think there are about 164 versions of American curriculum. It’s one of the richest curricula we have too. But we don’t have many schools using the American curriculum because we don’t have too many American version primary schools that the pupils will be going to. Their terminologies are a bit different because where we might say “Social Studies” they would have it as “Understanding the World”.

Do we have a Nigerian curriculum?

We have a teaching curriculum for teachers in Nigeria which is still being developed. Different states in Nigeria have different versions of early childhood curriculum.

So we don’t have a national curriculum?

I haven’t seen a national curriculum, but I have one which was compiled by the NERDC [Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council] because we work in a lot of many local communities.

Is it the one developed in collaboration with UNICEF?

Yes, that particular one was with UNICEF. But unfortunately, it wasn’t developed by people in the system.  It is a very abstract curriculum. It doesn’t have enough things on mathematical development but it has things like security education which is helpful but not the way that it was written. So it has things that are not relevant or current to what we need to be teaching our children now. It was actually written by people who were not in the system. Even if the curriculum is to be updated, they should be able to get the right people to do the update, not just do the update on their own as policymakers.

What exactly is missing in the Nigerian curriculum?

They need to infuse things like critical thinking and problem-solving in the curriculum. The way the curriculum is done, we don’t really have the expected learning objectives. There is no room for differentiation demonstrated for the kids. What that means is that if you have exceeded this particular exercise like if you are doing number 1-10 but I am able to go up to 1-50, what provision is meant for me. And if you are doing 1-10 and only know 1-2, what provision is meant for me if I am in the same class with my age mates. Other curriculums have provisions for you to differentiate.  Either you have exceeded what it is that you are teaching or can’t meet up and helping you to meet up. These are some of the things that need to go into the curriculum.

One challenge that’s often mentioned is that we don’t have enough qualified early childhood teachers

Yes, we are actually working on projects in five northern states, like Jigawa, Zamfara, Katsina, and Kaduna. We just realise that genuinely, we don’t have enough early childhood teachers who are qualified. We don’t yet have fully developed early childhood modules in the colleges of education.  What we have are people who are not qualified.  They are just nannies to take care of the children but the early childhood is one of the most important and crucial stages in anybody’s life. It is the highest rate of your brain development in your whole life. If you miss out these years, you are building on a shaky foundation when the children come to primary school. They can learn so much when you expose them to all the things they need to learn in the early years.

I went to a school in Jigawa State where we have 300 plus pupils in a class with one teacher. What they tell us in public schools is that the pupils come and they can turn them away. They keep coming to school and you keep receiving them. They are almost sitting on top of their heads inside the school in the name of going to school. But that is a major danger because if any infection comes up, everyone catches it. That is the problem of overcrowding. I asked that some of them have poultry farms but you don’t put your chickens like this, why do you put the children together in one place like this. You actually need to give them space. I know the government has good intention. It is not something we can achieve in six months or one year because people have to be trained.

The government has a policy stating that existing primary schools should have pre-school component. Do you think this policy has been implemented?

The ones I have been to, I noticed that they have a one-room space for 3-5-year-olds. At least they have taken the first step by providing a space. Some of the schools I have been to don’t have furniture. So they are sitting on mats.  They don’t have learning resources. At this stage in their growth, the kids need to link their learning to concrete objects unless it won’t make any sense to them. This is when you start telling them what a book or a table is, and when you don’t have a tangible example of these things, it becomes a little confusing. You can’t teach them about the parts of the body without an illustration. It’s really not effective. Now that they have taken the first step of providing a space, they need to work on providing resources and being able to monitor.

What creative strategies have you adopted in teaching the children?

We are doing a lot of collaborative learning. We are using a strategy we call the flip classroom. This connects real life to what they are learning in school. We also have free flow activities where the children seem to just be playing but they are actually learning. In the early years, when they are playing, they are learning. It may look like disrupted environment but the teacher is observing and assessing how each child learns. We merge different methods to create a good learning environment. We design the activities to help in their critical thinking and communication.

I think playing is vital in the process of learning. Their understanding actually is demonstrated when they play. We even have pets that the children play within the premises because it is when the child plays that you can monitor the child and try to put something together in terms of the child’s behaviour.

Do you have government officials coming to supervise your school?

They do come from the department of quality assurance, I think. They do come to look at your curriculum. They always come to look for a thing or the other.

Do the officials have any problem with you making use of the American or British curriculum?

We have found a way to integrate the curriculum. It is impossible for you to absolutely neglect the culture of the country where you operate within. What we do basically is that, where we find topics in the Nigerian curriculum that is beneficiary to the kids, we find ways to integrate them into the curriculum that we are using.

In some areas, we don’t take from the Nigerian curriculum. I don’t think there is ICT component yet in the Nigerian curriculum but ICT is actually very important because we are in the 21st century.  Most children are actually comfortable with technology.  So we try to introduce it gradually to them.

Once you are able to demonstrate to the government officials that you are using both curriculums, so far we have been fine.

Why are the kids not taught in their mother tongues?

The important thing is getting the message across. So the question is which one works for you. If the kids can understand English better or any other language, make use of that. The thing is at this stage, children are able to understand about 11 languages due to the dynamics of their brain. If you think the children have a good command of English Language, you can use that; otherwise, you can use their mother tongue and then gradually introduce the English language.

I think the policy should be dynamic, considering the fact that we have many indigenous languages.  I think we should have a mixture of both the mother tongue and English language. But one major hindrance is that we don’t have the adequate materials to teach in the local languages. Parents should also play a role by teaching their children the language they need to understand.

When a child is leaving here at the age of six, what are the things that are expected of the child cognitively?

We have excellent feedback from the school that they go to. By the time they are leaving here, 98% of the kids are able to read very fluently.

How long have you been running the school?



    We started informally with the afterschool about 14 years ago. The school formally under its current name is actually 4 years.  We have a consultancy groups, we manage other schools and consult with international agencies. We also do training both in the public and private sector.

    What do we need to do to get the Nigerian children to the same level as their counterparts in developed countries?

    I think the first thing we have to do is drop all excuses, decide what we want as a nation and realise that early childhood learning is vital for the children. College of education should train more teachers and we should bring back the dignity to what education is supposed to be. Basically, we should build up a dynamic model, work on our curriculum and follow the curriculum. I look forward to seeing when we say we are using the Nigerian curriculum.

    I think we have to do more than what have been doing.  No matter what we do in the private sector, we are merely scratching the surface. The public is where we have the numbers and that is where we have work to reach all the children. Everyone has to be a stakeholder. If you have no stake, you have nothing to lose. If you don’t have children or relatives in the public schools, then you might be inclined to overlook any necessary contribution that you can offer.

    Chikezie can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @KezieOmeje

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