In the world of construction, the role of good foundations in ensuring the stability of buildings and other structures has never been over-emphasized. Many buildings have collapsed because of foundations that could not bear the load placed on them. This article is not about engineering construction. Rather, it highlights a problem bedevilling the Nigerian educational system—building on shallow foundations.

Recently, I was contacted to teach mathematics at a holiday programme in a certain orphanage somewhere in Nigeria’s north. Since the NYSC scheme had brought me up north, I saw no reason why I could not use a bit of the long vacation to teach something as simple as mathematics. “Surely, it cannot be tasking”, I thought.

On the first day, the orphanage’s director briefed all the volunteer instructors. He outlined the expectations of the orphanage from the holiday lessons. Turning to the two maths instructors, he explained that many of his wards performed poorly in maths because they were scared of the subject. He then shared his own experience, and told us how he overcame his fear of maths, and began to develop an affinity for the much-feared subject. It was up to us to get the wards to see maths as the simple subjects that it is.

Having chosen to handle those in the senior secondary cadre, I decided to start with indices, a topic usually taught in the first week of the SS1 class. “Does anyone have any problem with indices”? “No sir”, they exclaimed. I did not believe them because experience had taught me that many students find it hard to own up to their deficiencies. I decided to test them with three straightforward exercises from the New General Mathematics Textbook (SS1).

After about five minutes, it was clear that the confidence they exuded earlier was a ruse. Only one person attempted the first question; the rest stopped at copying the questions into their notebooks. Although the lone chap was wrong, I gave him kudos for attempting the question. I then proceeded to solve the exercises on the board.

While guiding them through the solutions, with lots of extraneous steps put in for the sake of clarity, I realized that these students did not know the laws of indices, basic rules for solving all problems in indices and logarithms. I informed them that I would teach them the requisite laws. The more loquacious of them quickly retorted that they knew the laws. With my brief experience with them, I disbelieved them. While explaining the laws and their uses, I identified the real reason for their dismal performance in mathematics—they lacked a stable foundation.

In order to test my theory, I asked a SS2 student to recite the multiplication table for the number four. He could not recite it. Two other students could barely make it to “four times twelve”. That settled any doubts I may have had. These students did not perform well in maths because they feared maths. They feared maths because they lacked a good foundation. A house whose foundation is dug in rock does not fear a windstorm.

Mathematics, like all other subjects, depends on knowledge gained stepwise. A Primary 5 pupil is supposed to be able to recite the multiplication table up to at least the number 12. When a senior secondary school student cannot do what a primary school student ought to do, how can he face the challenges of his level?

The problem with the Nigerian education system is a sad tale of poor foundations. At the nursery and primary school levels, the basics are not properly grasped. Many schools are filled with under-qualified, ill-equipped and poorly motivated teachers. All they do is to create a problem for teachers in higher levels, reinforcing a defeatist mentality in the students. Parents who do not allow their children to repeat classes also contribute to this problem—pushing a child into the next class when his results show that he has not exhibited mastery of the minimum set standard. This deprives such child of the opportunity to strengthen his foundation.

The problem of poor foundations is an issue that would have to be tackled by all stakeholders in the system—government, schools, teachers, parents and students. If we do not want to continue seeing the collapse of magnificent looking castles—under qualified graduates—we must work to shore up the foundations. As for those students in the orphanage, I have given them a primary school assignment—memorization of the multiplication table. That is their ticket into our next class.