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Disruptive Innovation Can Fix Failing Ethiopian Education (Part III)

Adafne has made Ethiopia the land of chatterboxes — first by suppressing truth,  second by suppressing education and knowledge, third by closing down all means by which truth is propagated, fourth by hiring silver-tongued spinners of lies and fifth by closing all avenues for the publication and dissemination of ideas and knowledge. Professor Mesfin Woldemariam in his book “Adafne.

Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam

Author’s Note: While this commentary stands on its own merits, I strongly recommend reading Part I, “Message to Ethiopian Intellectuals: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste!” and Part II, “Message to (Diaspora) Ethiopian Intellectuals: Save/Support Ethiopian Youth/Education!”

“When going gets tough, the tough get going!”

Today, education in Ethiopia is in a tough spot.

Only 3.3% of students (out of 985,354) who took the 2022-23 high school leaving exam passed to qualify for university admission.

Ethiopian Education Minister Dr. Berhanu Nega announcing the shocking results last week lamented, “In education, we have failed as a country.”

“We” includes everybody!

Legend has it that NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz during the Apollo 13 moon landing mission defiantly proclaimed, “We’ve never lost an American in space; we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”

But is failure such a bad thing, especially if it leads to innovation?

Elon Musk, the great innovator of our age and co-founder and CEO/Chief Engineer of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and The Boring Company offers an unorthodox view on failure.

Musk enthusiastically embraces failure. He says, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” The best data for success is found in the analysis of failure. That is the simple secret of Elon Musk.

In 2023, we “lost” 97 percent of our students as they failed to pass the national school leaving exam.

That  is terribly distressing.

I don’t want to make excuses for lack of student preparation or want to appear as though I am defending willful indolence. But I wonder how many students performed poorly on the national exam because of “examophobia,” stress/fear of exams or test anxiety.

Nonetheless, Minister Berhanu in his press briefing appeared to defiantly declare in the face of catastrophic failure, “I am sure as hell are not going to lose another 97% on my watch.”

But the million-dollar question is whether Ethiopian education is failing because we are not innovating enough.

Should Ethiopians fall into the abyss of despair over such dismal failure on the national exam?


“When the going gets tough, tough people get going!”

Better yet, when faced with failure, the failed innovate.

Ethiopians are tough people, and we need to realize tough times never last but tough people do.

We all need to roll up our sleeves, put our noses to the grindstone and shoulders to the wheel and innovate the hell out of our badly broken educational system.

Innovation is a huge part of the solution to Ethiopia’s problem of education 

First, innovation is necessary because doing the same thing over and over again (failing) and expecting different results is sheer insanity!

Truth be told, 2023 is not the first time 97% of Ethiopian students have failed the national school leaving exam. They have been failing over and over again during the Benighted Era of the TPLF regime. But that truth was a closely guarded state secret.

Innovation means different things to different people.

There are breakthrough innovations and incremental ones.

There are also disruptive innovations.

In education, “disruptive innovations challenge established norms and use proactive approaches to changing school systems in positive ways that include all students in the learning process.”

Great innovators teach difficult problems require innovative difficult-to-find solutions.

In other words, extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions.

Extraordinary solutions in turn require disruptive innovations.

Innovation to me is first and foremost an attitudinal/mind issue.

Innovations cannot emanate from the closed or idle mind.

The idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

That is probably the reason most of us in the Ethiopian diaspora waste our time spinning tales of ethnic hatred unable to transform the “jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” and education.

Indeed, the idle mind is a factory of negative thinking, defeatism, pessimism, cynicism, determinism, fatalism, herd mentality and groupthink.

The wages of an idle mind is intellectual bankruptcy.

Closed minds never open new doors of creativity, only serve as crucibles of brutality and cruelty.

The famous slogan is, “A mind is a terrible thing to lose.”

I would argue a closed mind is actually a very good thing to lose.

Innovation is birthed in crucible of  the open mind.

Innovation can be positive or negative.

To innovate, one must know what one wants.

Innovation then becomes action driven by deep and critical thinking and evidence gathering.

Passion comes when one works on the innovation relentlessly and with obsessive focus.

We should always seek innovation that promotes human progress, human rights, conservation of the environment, peace, tolerance, understanding and enlightenment.

Second, disruptive innovations to rectify educational failure in Ethiopia would require root cause analysis. That is to say, it is necessary to do systematic multidimensional investigations on the causes, breadth, scope, intensity and severity of educational problems. The 97% failure rate is the fallout in a chain reaction, that is the ultimate result of a series of events, each caused by the previous one. Such analysis requires considerable data gathering.

There are many approaches to root cause analysis.

I believe “failure mode and effects analysis” may prove to be useful in identifying the fission of critical failures in the educational system.

Speculating from afar, I would hypothesize the root causes of educational failure are likely to be found at several levels in the educational system.

The first level may be failure in student-teacher interaction and student performance and assessment measures.

A second level may be programmatic failures including poor curriculum, incoherent instructional processes and lack of teacher competency training.

A third level may be systemic causes involving educational leadership, organizational structure,  policies, practices and resource.

A fourth level of failure could involve external factors such as parental involvement, youth culture, media, family income and so on.

Third, innovations in Ethiopian education would be most effective if they are undertaken by a core group of dedicated and competent people with a creative mindset absolutely determined to change the world, at least public education in Ethiopia. Innovation requires a “clash of ideas,” and generation of the best and most practical ideas that could improve student outcomes in the shortest possible time.

To innovate in Ethiopian education, it is necessary to assemble competent and open-minded people from diverse sectors of society with unwavering commitment to structural educational reform. An open mind operates best working in team settings, exchanging and testing ideas.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I would modify Mead’s observation by adding, “passionately committed citizens.”

Fifty-five passionately committed revolutionary Americans attended a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and by sheer dint of political will created the United States of America, changed themselves and the world.

The Framers of the American Constitution were first-class intellectuals steeped in the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, as enlightened as they were, many of the Framers were also benighted on the issues of slavery and women’s rights.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership (SCLC), 175 years after the ratification of the US Constitution stood in the nation’s capital and announced:

So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.

Dr. King and the SCLC changed America and the world.

A small group of passionately committed Bolsheviks launched a revolution in Russia and changed the world.

Above all, Jesus and his Twelve passionately committed Apostles changed the world as did Muhammed and his passionately committed followers in Mecca.

Fourth, my concept of innovation thrives on materializing a dream into reality.

I consider myself a dreamer.

I often talk about my dream of Ethiopia at peace and her enemies in pieces.

That should not come as a surprise for it is written “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Dreams are aspirations, ambition and ideals that could drive innovation and show the path out of misery.

George Bernard Shaw heartbroken by the poverty and malaise in Europe following WW I, in Act I of his play “Back To Methuselah”, poses the question to end all questions: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”

Heartbroken by the failure of 97% of Ethiopian students on the school leaving exam, I dream of the day when only 3% fail; and those who have failed through diligence achieve success.

For I believe in no Ethiopian child left behind in the dust of 97% academic failure.

I dream of big things for Ethiopia’s youth, the Cheetah Generation.

I dream of the day when a young Ethiopian astrophysicist makes a breakthrough discovery in the understanding of “dark energy” and “dark matter.”

Why not?

I dream of a young Ethiopian molecular biologist finding the gene responsible for uncontrolled cell division and disable it forever removing the curse of cancer from humanity.

Why not?

I dream of the next Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk coming from Ethiopia.

If South Africa can produce Elon Musk, Ethiopia can also produce its own and create its own Silicon Valley of Africa.

Why not?

These are no pipedreams.

When Elon Musk decided to revolutionize space flight and reduce its cost by 90%, everyone including himself, thought he was insane. He was not insane but a disruptive innovator.

The odds of me coming into the rocket business, not knowing anything about rockets, not having ever built anything, I mean, I would have to be insane if I thought the odds were in my favor. When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.

Boeing, the old, tired god of flight, which received twice as much money from NASA to develop cheaper space flight vehicles, turned into a dodo bird as Musk shuttled his reusable rockets to space carrying thousands of tons of payload  (61 successful launches in 2022).

Fifth, innovation in education in Ethiopia requires imagination.

Einstein is credited with the observation, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

He reputedly also said crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Ethiopia needs young people who cannot only dream but also imagine and imagineer (engineer) the future.

Imagination is about thinking, envisioning and figuring out ways of doing things differently and better. It is the ability to think about how to do the traditional and conventional in a better way using available technology and scientific discoveries. It is about making the impossible possible.

In my view, most Ethiopian intellectuals suffer from lack of creative imagination and often live in figments of their imagination. The world and Ethiopia have changed but most of us are stuck in the past or suffering from arrested intellectual development.

An imaginative person will not ask why 97% of Ethiopian students failed the school leaving exam. That person would drill down and discover  how the 3% passed and what could be learned from the 3% to help the failing 97%.

For Apple’s Steve Jobs:

Imagination is the ability to envision something that does not yet exist, the ability to form a mental image of something not yet perceived by the five senses. Put another way, someone with imagination is open-minded and believes it is possible to achieve something thought by many to be impossible.

As impossible as it seems, it is possible to create a pass rate of 97%.

Apple’s most successful advertising slogan was “Think different.” To remedy educational failure in Ethiopia, it is necessary to think and act  different!

Sixth, innovation is a culture unto itself. In my view, a culture of disruptive innovation is the most effective mechanism in dealing with the fallout of failure. As part of a culture of innovation, we must champion the principle, “Ethiopian educational innovations for Ethiopian educational problems.” Educational innovation must be guided by core Ethiopian values. Ethiopians have some beautiful and enduring cultural and traditional qualities. The Ethiopian moral character is carved out of respect for each other, common national identity and pride in our history of independence from colonial rule.

Anyone who doubts the existence of Ethiopian values should ask only one question: When all of Africa came under white colonial rule, how did Ethiopia remain independent and indeed defeat one of the great European powers (Italy), not once but twice?

Though innovative ideas have no race, ethnicity or nationality, in education reform, we should strive for homegrown innovations and heed Paulo Freire counsel in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”:

One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding. The starting point for organizing the program content of education or political action must be the present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the people.

Wholesale and uncritical importation of Western educational innovations and models could be like pushing a square peg in a round hole. Educational innovation in Ethiopia should take into consideration the present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the Ethiopian people.

We Have Met the Enemy! Now, what do we do?

Many years ago, there used to be a comic strip called “Pogo” which appeared regularly in American newspapers.

The funny animal characters in Pogo lived in a swamp community, which figuratively represented the diversity of American society and issues facing it.

That community began to disintegrate because its residents were incapable of communicating with each other to deal with the most important and urgent issues facing them.

They wasted valuable time on non-issues.

One day, Pogo saw the swamp they lived in filled with debris and litter.

In reflective frustration he sighed, “We have met the enemy. He is us!”

We too have met the enemy in the swamp of educational failure.

He is us, all of us — students, parents, teachers, school administrators, local and national officials, faith leaders, civil society and business leaders.

We are the enemy who let down Ethiopia’s youth and wasted at least two generations because of our ignorance, apathy, indifference, lack of concern, disinterest, negligence and miscalculation.

We are the enemy who allowed 97% of our youth to suffer catastrophic failure.

Disruptive innovation in the Ethiopian education sector

When Education Minster Dr. Berhanu Nega made his tectonic announcement about the national school leaving exam, I instantly knew he had passionately committed himself to transforming the Ethiopian education sector with disruptive innovations.

To proclaim without evasion, equivocation and sugarcoating that 97% of Ethiopian students had failed the national school leaving exam takes guts, chutzpah, extreme self-confidence and audacity.

That is because his announcement is a historic indictment of all involved in education.

With that announcement, Dr. Berhanu not only named and shamed everybody but more importantly disrupted our national mindset and shocked us to the core of our consciences. He also committed himself to an irreversible course of fundamental educational reform.

That disruptive announcement caused many like me embarrassment. Others were outraged into finger wagging and condemnation of the government for what it coulda and shoulda done. Many so-called Ethiopian  intellectuals scattered to seek cover.

None of that matters. The truth genie is out of the bottle and no one can put it back. The only option is to deal with the truth, however bitter, painful and shameful.

I met Dr. Berhanu for the first time in the fall of 2007.

I chaired an ad hoc committee designated by various diaspora activist groups in the US to arrange a visit for Kinijit leaders who had been imprisoned following the 2005 parliamentary election.

The Kinijit delegation arrived in Washington DC on September 9, 2007. The delegation was led by Weyzerit Birtukan Midekssa, Dr. Berhanu Nega, Dr. Hailu Araya, Ato Gizachew Shiferraw and Ato Brook Kebede.

I have documented their extraordinary US visit in my October 30, 2007 commentary, “A Farewell to Champions” and October 12, 2007 commentary, “Truth Fest In L.A.”

I have followed Dr. Berhanu’s testimony before Congress and other European forums.

I had opportunities to interact with Dr. Berhanu when he asked me to head the ESAT advisory Group in May 2010.

The establishment of ESAT was an extraordinarily innovative act in providing an alternative voice to those opposed to the TPLF regime. It gave hope and expression to suppressed voices and viewpoints.

I have been a long time supporter of ESAT even as it faced organizational turbulence.

It is regrettable ESAT ultimately could not maintain its organizational unity.

I believe Dr. Berhanu will prove to be disruptive innovator in the Ethiopian education sector.

But I say that with a sense of dread and trepidation.

In his earthshaking announcement, Dr. Berhanu has effectively declared, if not war, his determination to sweep up and clean up an entire national industry and market of education corruption.

He has disrupted the profitable operations of corrupt teachers and administrators who have been selling exams, passing failing students for a fee and giving out undeserved grades, school administrators who admitted unqualified students; organized cheating gangs who steal and sell  exams and take over testing sites; misguided students who post exam questions online and share them by email and text; and lazy and corrupt bureaucrats who would rather sit on their duffs and push paper than get their hands dirty improving educational quality.

I cannot imagine the dogs of educational corruption taking it lying down as Dr. Berhanu implements his innovation.

I guess the gangs of corruptoids in the bureaucracy and the nattering nabobs of negativism will have their long knives out ready to chop up and bury any innovation he may introduce to improve education.

I am already hearing some trash talk on social media about Dr. Berhanu’s statements and analysis of catastrophic educational failure. For me, trash talk is a matter of mind over matter. I don’t mind and trash talkers don’t matter.

It is what it is. “Full speed ahead. Damn the torpedoes!”

The bottom line is we must fully support Dr. Berhanu’s reform efforts with ideas, and to the extent possible, with resources as he undertakes implementation of innovative educational solutions.

Dr. Berhanu does not impress me as a pushover. I think he will fight tooth and nail to the end in his efforts to reform education in Ethiopia.

The singular most important fact about innovators is that they are not afraid to break with the norm, break eggs to make omelet and dispense with business as usual, push past conventional wisdom and get the job done regardless of how hard it may be.

Dr. Berhanu has pledged a complete overhaul of the educational system.

I do not doubt his intentions. I can only imagine how resource intensive it must have been to overhaul an examination system riddled with corruption.

Completely overhauling a decayed and decrepit educational system could entail astronomical cost and substantial time.

Those operating and benefitting from the decayed system will resist change, obstruct and frustrate policy implementation and block innovation.

The old saying is true, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Well, we can see the price of ignorance in broad daylight!

No price is too high to pay to save the future of Ethiopia’s youth.

In my view, there are six critical aspects of innovation Dr. Berhanu should consider (not to suggest he has not considered them).

The first is innovation cannot come without risk-taking. From my limited observations talking to old school-style officials and their younger clones, I have noticed a distinct proclivity to risk aversion. When I have asked such officials why something that appears reasonable or different is not done, the answer I usually get is either a categorical, “no it cannot be done,” or “doing it in a way other than how it has always been done is risky and will expose them to retributive accountability.” In other words, if they took a risk by taking the initiative to do something new or do it differently and it fails, they could be severely reprimanded or lose their jobs.

Of course, I am talking about taking managed, calculated and intelligent risk and not being afraid to take initiatives and make choices including ones with complex solutions.

When failure is so complete that 97% of students fail the national school leaving exam, when the education system is so damaged, dysfunctional and discredited, there are no safe, no-risk choices. Therefore, the failure to take intelligent risk and swift remedial action is tantamount to criminal negligence of duty.

There comes a time when one must bite the bullet and take the bull by the horn come what may.

The second is innovation in education must itself be a learning experience. What went catastrophically wrong for an educational system to produce a failure rate of 97%? It is now official that the Ethiopian educational system that is on life-support, and the best prognosis without immediate remedial intervention is that it will remain comatose.  It is time to undertake the equivalent of a medical triage on the educational Ethiopian educational system. In other words, there is an urgent need to assess the scope and severity of casualties from the 97% failure rate and set up emergency treatment in the form of quickly deliverable educational enhancement programs. Dr. Berhanu’s one-year intensive enhancement program in specific subjects for failing students within the universities is a fair and practical one

Third, innovation must be undertaken with the view of institutionalizing innovation in the entire educational system. That means those implementing education innovation must evangelize in the cause of developing a culture of educational excellence through innovation. Today, our young people are drowning in a morass of educational corruption. To succeed, a culture of innovation must drive every aspect of educational reforms.

Fourth, innovation cannot happen without leadership that has sound business sense. As I see it from afar, the Ethiopian educational bureaucracy appears to follow the old school top-down, high-control and low-trust model of leadership.  Innovative leadership must necessarily invite and include a diversity of views and perspectives. It takes many different points of view to fully grasp the complexity of the educational challenges our young people face today. Education reform should not be left just to to academics and bureaucrats. It should also involve those from the business sector to aid in financial planning. Student leadership representation in discussions of  innovation is equally important as it is necessary to have the voice of students heard and their recommendations considered.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezo’s mantra is, “Good intentions never work; you need good mechanisms to make anything happen.” Innovative mechanisms and leaders must lead the way. It is not merely about working harder for longer hours with double down urgency and trying alternate things.

As I see it from afar, it could be a Sisyphean task to convince the old school-style educational leadership to do new things or old things differently. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. It is important to establish structures of accountability and transparency to ensure innovations implemented will not unravel and things return to the good old school ways.

Fifth, the roadmap for innovation should be understood by all stakeholders. By roadmap I mean how we get from one point to another with all the mile markers. It is not enough for stakeholders to know innovations will occur in student testing and integrity of the performance assessment system. Stakeholders should have a clear understanding of the strategic goals, initiatives, and structured activities of any planned innovations and be given an opportunity to comment and recommend. One cannot jump from a 97% failure rate to a 97% pass rate overnight. It will take years. The question is: “What is the roadmap for the time travel into our educational future?”

Sixth, disruptive innovation is the most effective way to rescue education from the jaws of failure in Ethiopia. In my view, Dr. Berhanu’s announcement of massive failure in the national exam is the launching pad for innovation.

I have heard Dr. Berhanu’s post-Apocalypse (97% failure) interview and media comments.

He struck the right chords with me.

I understood him to believe in setting up a  dynamic, highly productive and values-based organization with people who are passionate about their work, have clearly delineated responsibilities and performance standards (accountability) and free to take initiatives.

I like Elon Musk because he is a disruptive innovator.

With SpaceX, he disrupted the space travel and the communications and satellite internet industry. Does anyone seriously doubt Musk will put man on the moon long before the bloated NASA and its partners?

With Tesla, he disrupted the internal combustion engine and fossil fuel  industry and his electric cars and electricity generation with solar power is rapidly gaining market share. He disrupted the earth tunneling industry with amazing boring machines. Musk owns the foremost Artificial Intelligence company in the world.

Musk defines innovation as a “process of constantly thinking about how one could be doing things better and questioning oneself.”

His equation for innovation is simple.

T+M=I, or Time + Materials= Innovation capability. This equation avoids a lot of wild goose chasing.

If educational innovation is to succeed in Ethiopia, those involved in the educational sector must have the tools, resources, support and confidence to innovate. They must boldly challenge the status quo that has resulted in such catastrophic failure, push boundaries and achieve new heights.

It reminds me of Captain Kirk’s, the commander of the fictional USS Enterprise in the Star Trek television series, declaration of the mission of his Starship in space at the beginning of every episode of that show.

I should like to paraphrase it for Ethiopia. “Education: the final frontier. These are the innovations of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. Its  five-year mission: to increase pass rate in the national school leaving exam by 97%, to provide all Ethiopian students learning opportunities uncontaminated by educational corruption, to learn about new technologies and to explore strange new worlds through science… and to boldly go where no human has gone before.”

Sixth, collaboration is essential to innovation not only to  build and sustain proactive and innovative networks of people but also build the capability to think and act strategically (SWOT analysis) by identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I urge the diaspora  intellectual community with expertise to collaborate and work with Dr. Berhanu in auxiliary capacity to help design and implement educational innovations in Ethiopia. There is a great deal of wasted intellectual resources in the Ethiopian diaspora. Unfortunately, we have lost our way and rendered ourselves useless. A few dedicated, committed diaspora Ethiopian intellectuals can go a long way in helping get the job done.

The bottom line is that the broken educational system in Ethiopia can be fixed, renovated and rebuilt within a reasonable period of time. But not by one man, not by government and not by teachers alone.

Ethiopia’s broken educational system can be fixed if all the villagers get involved, put their shoulders to the wheel and noses to the grindstone and keep on pushing. FOR IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE AND EDCUATE A CHILD!

To be continued…

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