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Foggy Forest


The Relevance of Traditional African Pedagogies

in the Twenty-first Century

Idowu Biao


Since antiquity, two conceptions have been known to education, namely, an instrumental activity or a liberal endeavour. Isocrates (436-338 BCE), an ancient Greek rhetorician espoused and popularised the concept of education as an instrumental activity while Plato (428-348 BCE) another ancient Greek philosopher advanced the concept of education as a liberal pursuit (Hinchliffe, 2001). As an instrumental activity, Isocrates posits that education is and ought to be an instrument for the satisfaction of social, political and economic ends whereas Plato submits that education that ought not to be soiled by the pursuit of worldly matters, is and ought to remain an exercise in the quest of pristine truth (Hinchliffe, 2001).

In ancient literature, Isocrates’ and Isocratesian philosophers’ typology of education was commonly referred to as pedagogy while Plato’s and Platonic philosophers’ view of education was known as education (Hinchliffe, 2001). If these two concepts of education were kept this much apart in ancient times, beginning from the 20th century, there has been a great rapprochement of the two conceptions. It was Murray (1999) who through the discussion of the Latin and Greek etymological origins of both education (e.g. educare) and pedagogy (e.g. paidagogia) first alerted to the fact that the two terminologies are indeed closer than ancient literature would want us believe. According to Murray, educare and paidagogia all imply a process of leading out of some material or conceptual darkness. To this extent therefore, both educare and paidagogia ambition is to bring about enlightenment, information and/or skills all of which may be summed up to be education. 


However, it is in the deeper analysis and contrast of the Aristotelian concept of education with Oakeshott’s open practice by Hinchliffe (2001) that one perceives more clearly the extent to which both educare and paidagogia fuse or at least intersect. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) acknowledges two typologies of education (e.g. one that provides for the necessities of life and the other that is reflective) whereas Oakeshott recognizes only one typology of education (e.g. open practice ) that combines the qualities of Aristotle’s necessary education and reflective education (Hinchliffe, 2001, pp.35-43).

The aim of this article is to discuss the importance of driving all out-of-school teaching-learning endeavours carried out in Africa using African pedagogies that obey the combined characteristics of both pedagogy and education (open practice) espoused by Hinchliffe (2001).  

Out-of-school Learning in Sub-Saharan Africa

Within the context of post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, two traditions of learning are distinguishable, namely, school learning and out-of-school learning. Beginning from 1884, the year of the balkanization of Africa (Asiwaju, 1990), each of the colonial authorities (e.g. Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal) has struggled to school their colonies in their cultures and ways of life. Along with the development of the school system came the sophistication of measuring not only the rate of school achievement but also rates of enrolment and dropout. Both old and recent statistics have shown that school enrolments in sub-Saharan Africa have not only been consistently trailing those of the metropoles (coloniser-countries), they have equally been so abysmally low that more than half of school-age learners do not usually get places within the few available schools within the sub-continent.

For example, the best school enrolment in the sub-continent was facilitated by the UN 2000-15 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) project, wherein about 90% enrolment was attained.  Yet, about half of those enrolled learners could not reach the terminal class of the primary school in sub-Saharan Africa (United Nations 2015). Before the advent and after the MDGs only about one (1) out of every four (4) learners got a place within the primary school system in sub-Saharan Africa (Torres, 2004). The secondary school registered less than half of either of its potential clients and recorded about 40% success rate (UNICEF, 2020; The World Bank, 2020). Enrolment and success at the tertiary education level ran between 1% and 7% on average (Teferra, 2014). 

As a result of this poor performance of the school system, the out-of-school system currently serves as the most important system of learning employed by both the failures of the school system and those who never enrolled at school in Africa south of the Sahara.

Out-of-school Learning Programmes in Africa

A large number of out-of-school learning programmes are on offer in Africa. These include literacy education, vocational training, remedial education, basic education, population education, trade union education, prison education, citizenship education, environmental education and learning city programmes to cite but a few. 

The objective of this multitude of learning programmes is to fast-track Africa’s socio-economic development even in the face of the failure of the school. Consequently, most of these learning programmes are owned by African national governments and they are run through official institutions of government wherein the official language of instruction is usually the colonial language (e.g. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese as the case may be) and the teaching-learning methods are said to be modern. The rationale for proceeding this way is rooted in the reasoning that, if the ambition is to integrate Africa into a global social and economic developmental agenda dominated by the North, the tools for achieving this typology of development must be promoted using modern (Western) tools and processes.   

While this kind of reasoning may sound somewhat logical, the practical factors involved in the philosophy, content and process of teaching and learning within postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa would tend to suggest otherwise. For one thing, the potential clientele of most out-of-school programmes have never been socialised into the Global North’s mindset. Socialisation is a lengthy and systematic process of observation, modelling and imitation that ultimately leads to behaviour change (Mcleod, 2023). Behaviourist psychologists explain that socialisation takes place within the context of a lengthy social interaction and exchange that is usually driven by cognition and motivation to transform or change (Bandura, 1977). Consequently, in order for the potential African out-of-school learner to make a success of the out-of-school learning programmes that are modern learning programmes, s/he ought to have been prepared in understanding and penetrating the philosophy upon which these out-of-school learning programmes rest since s/he does not originate from the environment the learning programmes derive from. 

How then, could the potential African out-of-school learner have been prepared in regard to the philosophy of out-of-school learning programmes? Through benefitting from school education. The school system, having been designed to transmit modern (Western) values and codes of conduct, whoever benefits from it, would come into the knowledge of the Western mindset that originates the out-of-school learning programmes. Have potential African out-of-school learners been schooled enough in the philosophy of the Western mindset? Not at all! Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa remains untouched by that segment of modern education (e.g. Higher education) that produces higher-order thinkers and socio-economic development movers as only between   1% and 7% on the average of those qualified to access higher education currently benefit from this typology of education in the sub-continent (Teferra, 2014). Of even greater relevance to the current discussion is the fact that the population of out-of-school youths is at present on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa (UIS, 2022).

Yet, there is an assumption in official circles that the physical, mental and psychic transformation of post-colonial Africa has become so deep as to clearly differentiate the latter from pre-colonial Africa. In other words, the tendency has been and still is to believe that during the last one and a half centuries (between 1884, the year Africa was shared among Western powers) and the 21st century, post-colonial Africa has been so transformed through schooling (education), trade and commerce and other forms of interaction with the external world as to have become completely different from what it used to be during the pre-colonial days. 

However, the fact remains that the philosophy behind each of the subject matter usually taught and learned within the out-of-school space is not necessarily shared by most learners in sub-Saharan Africa precisely because most of them never went to school. For example, within Western philosophy, the final idea behind population education (e.g. family planning) is to ultimately keep family sizes small or manageable so that they may fit within economic realities of society and family units. While a number of African communities do practise traditional child birth spacing, the final aim of that traditional practice is not the human ability to limit the number of children to be had. The practice of traditional birth spacing in sub-Saharan Africa rests on the notion that the longer the gap (e.g. 2 to 3 years) allowed between two births, the more the mother’s and children’s physical and mental health is guaranteed and prolonged (Rossier and Hellen, 2014). Additionally, the ultimate aim of vocational training in pre-colonial Africa was not to guarantee personal income to the trainee or vocation practitioner, but to make available a skill within the community that may be used to promote the welfare of the whole community, even if the vocation practitioner is allowed to derive some personal rewards from his or her practice (Omolewa, 2007). Therefore, any sub-Saharan African who had not had the opportunity to be cultured and socialised in the ways of the West through schooling would tend to access post-colonial African out-of-school learning space, pregnant with traditional Africa’s worldview. This kind of condition can serve as a severe obstruction to learning and may even lead to withdrawing or ‘dropping out’ of the out-of-school learning programme. What then, in concrete terms, is the Western worldview that is transmitted through education and in what ways does it differ from the traditional African worldview? The Western worldview is characterised by three traits, namely, individualism, consumerism, and capitalism (Preece, 2009; Thompson, 1981; Lange, 2023; Walters, 2023; Nadeau, 2023). Traditional African worldview, on the other hand, posits that all life forms flow from one common source designated as ‘spiritual’ before taking on their multifaceted shapes within nature (Avoseh, 2012). To this extent, all that exists is interrelated and is first and foremost spiritual before being material. Within a mindset such as this, nothing (including the human being) can stand aloof or alone (individualism) in the midst of creation. The acceptance of the existence and inevitability of the chain of interconnectedness binding all that exists compels the acceptance of the practice of sharing which in turn naturally imposes moderation (not excessive consumerism) since nature’s resources like all material phenomena have their limits. Capitalism being a mindset that lays emphasis on matter through the primary agent of money becomes hardly attractive to the average African since this negates the foundation of his/her philosophy of life that is anchored on spirituality. These then are the main differences existing between Western and traditional African mindsets that need to be resolved if out-of-school learning programmes are to be successful in sub-Saharan Africa.  

The difference existing between Western and African mindsets is usually not taken into consideration when floating out-of-school learning programmes in Africa because it is assumed that since Africa and the West have been interacting over nearly two centuries, Africans must have both consciously and unconsciously imbibed the Western ways of life. The reality however, is that most Africans who enrol in out-of-school learning programmes are usually not socialised in the ways of the West and therefore encounter difficulties in learning. These difficulties do contribute their own quota to the rates of failure among learners. How then can the situation be ameliorated? The employment of traditional African pedagogies has the potential to bridge the gap between lack of socialisation in the ways of the West and improved success in out-of-school learning programmes within sub-Saharan Africa.

Traditional African pedagogies 

Traditional African Pedagogies

Traditional African pedagogy operates through a series of referents and activities including language, initiation, context, subject matter, learning method, and learning technique relevant to specific learning programmes. One factor that drives both the referents and activities is the language of communication employed during learning programmes. 


  • The place of language within traditional African pedagogy

As in all pedagogies, language is central to learning in sub-Saharan Africa. Language as a medium of expression of human thought serves as a means of communication in all teaching and learning enterprises. Since communication is usually designed to be an intelligible interaction between two or more people, the language meant for a pedagogy is usually selected in such a way as to facilitate seamless communication among all facilitators, learners, planners, and other support staff relevant to specific learning programmes. The usability of language is usually discussed at two general levels, namely, language proficiency and language competence (communicative competence). Language proficiency refers to a minimum mastery of a language with a view to carrying through basic activities and communication (Hull, 2014) while language competence refers to a more advanced mastery of language for the purpose of above average level of communication (Costa and Albergaria-Almeida, 2015). The greater communicative competence (mastery level) attained in a language, the more advanced and efficient is the quality of intelligible communication that can be carried out using such a language. The attainment of communicative competence in a language is contingent upon the intensity of use or study of the said language. A language can be intensely used or studied where it is used at home (e.g. mother tongue) or studied in a country where it serves as the official or primary language (Costa and Albergaria-Almeida, 2015; Probyn, 2014). All pedagogues prefer to employ the language in which both learners and facilitators enjoy communicative competence as both the quality and seamlessness of the teaching-learning enterprise is heightened and facilitated by it.  

In much of post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, out-of-school learning programmes are run in the English language. In the most mixed and westernised society (e.g. South Africa) within sub-Saharan Africa, only 7% of all formal school learners speak the English language at home (Probyn, 2014). The first implication is that less than 7% of the South African population use the English language as a means of communication at home, formal school learners being a negligible segment of the national population. The second implication of the very low percentage of persons using the English language at home in South Africa is that less than 7% of South Africans possess communicative competence in the English language. If less than 7% of South Africans are competent in the use of the English language, a far less percentage of sub-Saharan Africans are competent in the use of the English language since the most westernised country in sub-Saharan Africa counts just as only one out of 54 other countries.

Consequently, the most appropriate language to employ in the promotion of out-of-school learning programmes in sub-Saharan Africa is an indigenous language (e.g. mother tongue or a language in common use within a specified region). In this mother tongue or common language of the environment, competence would have been attained by most people of the environment and therefore learning can be facilitated seamlessly.

  • Initiation 

Initiation is a special form of language through which time-tested vistas are passed on to those who may have been found worthy of such knowledge. Specifically, initiations are dramatised pieces of knowledge that learners are expected to penetrate and understand through introspection. An initiation is designed to impact not only the mental aspect of the learner but also his or her psychic aspect.

  • The context 

The context is the background information regarding any learning activity. In other words, the purpose for which the teaching-learning activity is conducted. For example, where the learning concerns a literacy programme in either English or indigenous language, what is the purpose? Or what could be the justification for floating a learning city programme?

The importance of the context in regard to an out-of-school learning programme stems from the necessity to elucidate and focus the learner on the need to carry out a particular type of learning so as to enable him or her to judge the imperative of the programme within the context of the indigenous community (when it has to do with African traditional education) or his or her own circumstances (when it concerns modern out-of-school learning). In all circumstances, the discussion of the context does enhance the motivation to learn or not to learn.

  • Subject matter  

The subject matter refers to the actual discussion to be had. Even in traditional African pedagogy, this aspect of the pedagogy possesses a title, sections (parts of the body) of the presentation, and an end (conclusion). Within the traditional African pedagogy, there exists an unwritten curriculum from which subject matters are drawn in line with the purpose in view. Ocitti (1973) has broken down this curriculum into five areas of focus from which subject matters may be drawn. These include ‘preparationalism’, ‘functionalism’, ‘communalism’, ‘perennialism’ and ‘wholisticism’. 

Depending on whether the objective is to prepare a group of learners for specific immediate or future roles in society, or how to be deliberately functional, or how to advance the spirit of communalism, the traditional African pedagogy may carve out subject matters from each of the listed initial three sections of the curriculum. Where the objective is to demonstrate how education may be used to propagate the culture of a people or how learners may identify the core of a social or local engineering activity and then append all other relevant parts to the core activity, then, the last two areas of the curriculum come in handy.


  • Learning method 

Learning methods speak to the arrangement adopted in organising learners for learning. These arrangements may include tutorial, small group, medium-sized group, large group, or conference group arrangements.

Usually, learning methods are selected in accordance with their usefulness regarding the subject matter. Where the learning enterprise concerns the kind of knowledge that is to be had through traditional initiation, tutorials or small groups are employed. In case the learning enterprises address communalism or perennialism, large or conference groups are usually employed. 

  • Learning technique

Learning techniques are styles of communication. They are the styles deliberately chosen by facilitators in which they communicate their ideas and explanations. One primordial and common learning style employed in traditional African pedagogy is initiation. It is a process of communication made up of a combination of mouth-to-ear messages and demonstrations. Other styles of presentation include addresses specifically designed for small, medium size, and large gatherings.

Usefulness of Traditional African Pedagogies in Modern Times

As argued in the foregoing, the Northern hemisphere’s philosophy upon which the contents of modern education rest is unfamiliar to a multitude of sub-Saharan Africans partly because the school system is not robust enough within the sub-continent to socialise these Africans in the ways of the West. Additionally, the sheer dearth of a critical mass of sub-Saharan Africans capable of displaying competence in the languages of the coloniser that end up being used in instructional activities has come to serve as an obstacle in registering expected levels of success in out-of-school learning programmes in the sub-continent. Furthermore, it is to be noted that African ways of living are not immutable and unchanging. It is just that the change is not of a nature and magnitude usually overtly noticeable. For example, the miscegenation of both African and Western cultures has succeeded in creating new phenomena within the sub-continent (e.g. South African multi-racial society, Pidgin English language, and Broken French [mixture of French and indigenous languages] in West Africa, etc.). However, these new phenomena are hardly employed to advance learning within the out-of-school environment as they are considered neither prestigious nor learned enough.  

Yet, these three factors (lack of knowledge regarding Western philosophy, incompetence in Western languages, and the products of miscegenation) can be managed in a way to advance out-of-school learning on the sub-continent. By guiding learning through the out-of-school environment from the known to the unknown, the knowledge of these three factors and their dexterous handling can tremendously improve both the quantity and quality of out-of-school learning on the sub-continent. In other words, if out-of-school learning would take off from the knowledge already familiar to the out-of-school learner, then greater success would be registered within Africa’s educational system. For example, all out-of-school learning may be introduced through a general discussion of both African and Western worldviews. Additionally, where feasible, pidgin English or broken French could be used for instruction. Furthermore, where European languages are systematically learned, the attainment of proficiency level could be recognized for the purpose of utilitarianism and competence level for the purpose of academic pursuit. 

Indeed, the study of a number of modern subject matters may be introduced through the discussion of their traditional counterparts. Many so-called modern school subjects (infectious/transmissible diseases, family planning, computer science, agricultural sciences, etc.) do have their counterparts in traditional African learning curricula. For example, the use of condoms as a means of protection against transmissible diseases or as a strategy for family planning has been in practice among ancient Egyptians and other traditional Africans for millennia (Tolerton, 2023). Additionally, great similarity has been established between computer science and practice within Ifa Divination when eight basic concepts of computer science were demonstrated to be in use within Ifa Divination. Ifa Divination is an aspect of traditional African higher education. The eight basic concepts concern the binary digit, the representation of numeric values, modulo arithmetic, permutations, coding, Boolean algebra, and logic, the basic unit of data, and addressing and matrix (Longe, 1983). Traditional Africa’s agricultural practices remain to date, the most beneficial to the sustainability of the environment. Those beneficial agricultural practices include mixed cropping, intercropping, crop rotations, minimal tillage, and agroforestry (Gyasi, Amaning-Kwarteng and Oware-Gyekye, 1990).


Implications for the Training of Out-of-school Learning Facilitators

Those currently facilitating out-of-school learning on the sub-continent are either untrained in the art and science of teaching-teaching activities or when they are trained, they are trained in the conventional way of teaching. Apart from the fact that conventional teacher training lays emphasis on formal schooling and teaching, would-be facilitators graduate without being informed about traditional African pedagogies.

Yet, as has been discussed in this piece, the advantages of both knowing and applying these traditional African pedagogies are enormous in regard to the work of the facilitator, the learning undergone by the learner, and ultimately Africa’s socio-economic development. Consequently, in addition to other contents, the training of out-of-school learning facilitators should embody some amount of sensitisation towards existing traditional African pedagogy contents. As a result of the recent growing awakening of a section of the African academia (e.g. Ocitti, wa Nthiong’o, Omolewa, Avoseh, Adeyemi, Adeyinka, etc.) regarding the need to highlight the value of traditional African knowledge to modern day living, a number of traditional African pedagogy contents have been discussed in learned journals meant for the discussion of adult and lifelong learning.

Consequently, those looking to equip themselves with skills relevant to the holistic training of out-of-school facilitators within sub-Saharan Africa in the years to come may access the ideas and views of these African academics in extant learned journals.


Whereas traditional African pedagogies originate from pre-colonial Africa, they still remain relevant to life and living in post-colonial Africa. The reasons are not far-fetched. Education is needed not only to advance Africa’s socio-economic development but also to enable the integration of Africa into the global community. Formal education systems have so far performed poorly within post-colonial Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa has found the flexibility and resourcefulness of the out-of-school education system a useful alternative for promoting its own socio-economic development. 

One strategy that has been found useful in improving the performance of learning within the out-of-school environment is the deployment of traditional African pedagogies. Apart from being familiar to learners, traditional African pedagogies enable the transmission process of knowledge to proceed from the known to the unknown and thereby promote seamless learning. 

About the Author

Idowu Biao is a Professor of Lifelong learning who has just completed the implementation of a Global Challenges Research Fund project at the Université d’Abomey Calavi, Benin. Having gone through three types of training, one at the Teachers’ Training Institute of the University of Lagos, the other at the London School of Journalism, and the last at the University of Lagos, he has worked in Nigeria, Lesotho, and Botswana. His research interest is located within the exploration of the link that might exist between lifelong learning and Africa’s socio-economic development. His latest contribution (Towards a Theory of African Learning City) appears in the Journal of Adult and Continuing Education Email:


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