Twenty years ago, I walked into my tutor’s office with high expectations for my first feedback session. To assess my skills, I’d been tasked to write an essay showing the effects of inflation or unemployment on an economy, to provide a reference point for self-development as I started my academic journey. I left that meeting feeling dejected, but my tutor would most likely describe a different experience. He seemed satisfied that he’d motivated me to feel good about myself as a young learner from Africa attending a top-ranked UK university.
What happened in that meeting and why does it matter?
Professor Xavier (not his real name) commended me for writing a good essay. He was surprised I had a good command of the English language, despite the fact that I’m from Nigeria. He found it impressive that I applied critical thinking and considered an alternative viewpoint. I was slowly getting the picture: he had very little expectation of me.
Professor Xavier made his final point when he applauded my bravery in providing an illustration of my country. The vivid description of a land ravaged by war, hungry citizens, and a broken economic system was the perfect play book for hyperinflation. Except it wasn’t.
I never mentioned Nigeria; the example was purely hypothetical. I was hit with the painful realization that my tutor had a fixed world view and even with the best intention, his smile of encouragement would never challenge me to do more.
Professor Xavier couldn’t undermine my self-worth. Attending university wasn’t a major achievement in my family as I was a third-generation scholar. However, this isn’t the reality for others who face their own Professor Xaviers as first-generation students. Such students may not understand that everyone is capable of great things, regardless of where they come from or what opportunities they may or may not have.
I’ve always believed educators need to understand the impact of their personal bias and influence for change to occur on a wide scale. Recently, this belief was reawakened when I read Hans Rosling's book on Factfulness. My epiphany was realizing that change can only be effective when gatekeepers hold themselves accountable and resist transferring their misconceptions of the world.
Let’s try a typical question from Hans Rosling's Gapminder test. How many girls from low-income countries finish primary school? Sixty percent, 20 percent, or 7 percent? The correct answer is 60 percent. If you got it wrong, you’re in good company. Over 80 percent of respondents guess inaccurately because most of us tend to view the world as worse than it really is.
This explains why we often fail to change things.
I once heard a professor at an African university say that tackling high unemployment in the face of a youth bulge is like trying to milk a lion. Both Professor Xavier and the African professor shared one thing in common, a defeatist attitude that isn't fact based.
As educators, we need to see ourselves beyond the role of occasional advisers to that of mind-shifters, leader-makers, and world-changers. If a girl or boy in our classroom is a refugee from a war-torn country, it shouldn’t stop us from having high expectations and challenging them to do more. Their experiences are not a handicap but an asset in a world that needs leadership diversity.
Getting stuck with the idea of a divided world (high-income vs. low-income) with the majority stuck in misery and deprivation, would make any educator incapable of inspiring talent. If we don’t challenge our own views, we will never be advocates for change. Remember, the capacity to create value as an entrepreneur or an employee starts with self-confidence, and we as parents and teachers have the power to shift the guard rails that will effectively make or break the next change-maker.
As a Vitae ambassador, I know that great outcomes come from having the best people own the processes that lead to results. It’s why I advocate for educators to be mindful of how little it can take to negatively impact a student’s life. Be less grim about the enormity of the challenge that a student faces and less inclined to describe problems through frameworks of disparity.
The Yoruba proverb “Ara k’i wuwo k’alara ma le gbe” translates to “No matter how heavy the body is the owner will still be able to carry it.” This means, despite obstacles, each of us has the capability to play our part.
I challenge all educators to take the Gapminder Worldview Misconception test and Vitae's Employability Challenge. We have conversations with hundreds of students over our careers. What are the chances you’re having the right conversation with the next change-maker in your classroom?
Mofope Israel-Adegboye, a Nigerian by birth, is the Education and Employability Specialist for Vitae in South Africa.