Talent development and learning approaches are the focus of our discussion today. This  discussion in the context of enhancing a responsive talent value chain (talent identification, nurturing and distribution) for children and young persons cannot be over-stressed. I take the metaphor of a sponge and a sieve to highlight two types of learning approaches which are distinct in their philosophy, application as well as results. These two approaches are commonly applied in learning processes and they implicate talent development outcomes for children and young persons. I can identify these approaches within our own learning systems in Kenya and Africa.

A sponge and a sieve

To begin with, let us picture the basic function of a sponge. Very simply its main role is to absorb liquids and when wrung out it produces the same absorbed liquid. The wrung out liquid mainly does not alter in composition. What about a sieve?  Its basic function is to filter out. Liquids pass through a sieve and any particles, or materials remain on the sieve. However, the liquid changes in its composition because materials have been filtered out and most important after sieving we either remain with the useful liquid or the useful materials for the user.

Sponge learners

Let’s apply this to the learning context; I suggest that a sponge learner is a learner whose learning process involves absorption of knowledge(s) often from a teacher or an authority without much question. The learner is expected to reproduce the same knowledge during assessments or tests. Some assumptions underlie the sponge learning approach. One, it is assumed that the learner is tabula rassa and the role of the teacher is to inscribe onto their empty templates, knowledge that is deemed useful. Knowledge flow is often one way, that is teacher – learner and rarely the other way student – teacher.

This top down hierarchical approach reduces learners to recipients and not co-producers or co- creators of knowledge that is relevant in their social cultural, linguistic, technological or generational contexts. Teachers are positioned as sole sources and custodians of knowledge and learners are not encouraged to question information from this source.  I suggest that this approach stifles the learners’ cognitive, social, emotional and physical abilities. Reason being the creativity, the adaptability and transferability of knowledge into the different scenarios a child or young person is exposed to becomes limited. This approach identifies particular knowledges and prescribes them to learners as the only true knowledge. As such learners are exposed to selected information hence making it an exclusionary approach. I propose that this approach is not entirely problematic because sometimes some basic ideas need to be absorbed however it becomes concerning when it becomes main technique used to engage with learners, as it is often witnessed in most learning processes. In a nutshell sponge learners remain passive partakers of knowledge and transfer this passivity to other information they come across like media. Learners become uncritical absorbers of any and every information that comes their way.

Sieve learners

What about a sieve learner, this a learner whose learning process involves acquisition of knowledge but unlike the sponge learner, engages with this knowledge, rips it apart to understand how it was produced, why, and the different ways it can be (re)understood. This allows the learner to make a decision on what is really useful, relevant and applicable to their lived experiences. I argue that this approach assumes the teacher is not the sole producer of knowledge but the learners are also co- creators of the knowledges through their experiences, ideas and critiques. Knowledge often flows vertical, horizontal and traversal. The learner is positioned as a legitimate knowledge co-producer whose ideas can also be subject to discussion, critique and reproduction. This makes it complex, exciting, subjective and full of possibility. This approach to learning is not often encouraged in most learning processes particularly because of the universalized nature of what is considered legitimate knowledge and what is not legitimized as useful knowledge. I argue this approach is more emancipatory and motivating to the learner on top of being more inclusive thus continually expanding learners knowledge boundaries. Learners become social actors who meaningfully co-create knowledge and apply this approach to all aspects of their lives.

Link between the two learning approaches and talent development:

Talent development for children and young persons is a growing area of interest for most educators and young persons today. The realities of our time have fore grounded this critical aspect of learning which has often been relegated to the lower end of the learning hierarchy. However, in spite of this realization, learning approaches are still more in favor of sponge learning approaches which legitimize particular singular knowledge hence determine what makes it to the curriculum and what does not. Few institutions particularly in Africa have talent development aspect an integral part of the curriculum, or complementary to the curriculum or in other institutions is completely absent in most cases. In the latter situation, learners are left to access talent development programs outside their institutions.

The programs are often more private than state led. They are often fragmented in their approach; at times local or external donor funded, they have one off as opposed to process guided approaches; save for a few, most lack key quality markers or transitory aspects which hinder acquisition of higher level competences; they are inaccessible to most because they come with a high cost implication for most parents/ care givers. Above all most talent development programs still employ the sponge approaches of learning whereby children and young persons are reduced to passive beneficiaries of talent nurturing programs. Creativity and critical thinking are not often encouraged or embedded into the programs yet these spaces provide the opportunity to tap into these unchartered aspects of learning.

I conclude by proposing that talent development in Kenya and Africa would benefit from rethinking the learning approaches used to engage with learners. Innovative and high level talent development may need to be more transformative, stimulate the holistic components of a child, is sustainable and rewarding. For this to happen I put forward that we need to embrace more sieve learning approaches where learners are constantly challenged to co-create knowledge, lift boundaries and maximize their ultimate potential. That way we are likely to groom more little sieves than little sponges.

 Boresha Talanta Mentorship Program for 3 – 24 year olds. Check facebook page Boresha Talanta Mentorship Program.

The program documents talent development processes aimed at expanding the talent development knowledge space in Kenya and beyond. The program is also piloting a talent development approach that utilizes the talent value chain (Essential Life skills package, Talent identification processes, talent nurturing processes and talent distribution processes) using talent mentors.