We need good social engineering to salvage our education system

Saturday February 18 2023
Pupils reciting a poem in Butiama, Tanzania.

Pupils reciting a poem in Butiama, Tanzania. Tanzania has been idling in the quicksand of a dysfunctional education system for decades. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Hear me out: Social engineering gets a bad rap as a term. And yet education systems are social engineering par excellence, so let’s talk about the ones that work just fine and the ones that are actually good.

Singapore and Finland are comparatively tiny, with populations of about 5.5 million each. Singapore has a GDP per capita of $70,000 per annum, and Finland $55,000.  A few years ago, Singapore decided to stop comparing students with one another. One of the best education systems in the world, it created such pressure on children that they started experiencing adverse mental health and child suicides. Chewing gum is illegal in Singapore and they ban books.

Finland is also highly regarded in terms of global education rankings, but they don’t really do exams. They eschew grades and ranking in favour of getting everyone through compulsory education until the age of 18. Finland is not in the habit of banning books and it allows people to chew gum.

Functional literacy

For scale, Tanzania has 66 million people and a GDP per capita of about $1,100. We can’t get our children in the public school system through a 100 percent functional literacy and numeracy rate. We can chew gum.

I chose Singapore and Finland because they treat children and schooling so radically differently. Their outcomes are similar: Fabulous economies and all the tech and modernity one could hope for. This is the dream. But these are economies and societies are built on a fundamental difference in how they view and treat the individual. That Singaporean children experienced educational distress they committed suicide says it all. That is bad social engineering.


Tanzania has been idling in the quicksand of a dysfunctional education system for decades, trying to figure out how to chart a path to the kind of outcomes the aforementioned countries enjoy. We have bad social engineering and we’re broke. We are stuck on the Singaporean model of excessive focus on standardised results. I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore. The Age of Information is maturing and industrial education models like the mechanical Tanzanian one are becoming obsolete, fast.


Skynet, another Trump Presidency, another pandemic, alien contact, space travel, trans-humanism... These are just some of the present and future realities that Tanzania cannot afford to be surprised by. But we will be, if we keep clinging to our Singapore-flavoured education system with a Tanzanian twist.

We need a much more benevolent approach to our social engineering via public education, one whose strength lies in enabling the individual to flourish, which has the cumulative effect of creating a society that is likely to do just fine with whatever comes their way.

There was a time when Tanzania was an outlier state — one that took wild chances and gambled everything on its vision of a thriving people-centred society. I think we could do it again, if we can get the relevant ministry to move beyond the hysteria of banning children’s books based on hear-say. As I chew gum and re-read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, let me share with you, next week, where we might find inspiration for a renewed attempt at getting education right.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]