Critical Theory in an African Educational Context

“Learning never ends until you’ve got soil in your ears.”


The First Grader (Chadwick, 2010) was inspired by the true story of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who became the Guinness World Record holder for the oldest man to enroll in primary school — and he still holds that record! Click here to read more about it. Maruge’s attempts to return to school were met with community and administrative hostility and dismay. Why would an 84-year old man want to go to primary school? When asked this question by Jane Obinchu, the first-grade teacher, Maruge’s response was simple: “I want to learn to read.” Throughout this powerful story, Maruge shows his determination to achieve this goal. See and hear from the real-life Maruge, who inspired this film, in the clip below.

This essay argues that critical theory is an appropriate framework for designing a learning experience for Maruge because his story challenges norms about the typical student. A learning experience for Maruge based on this framework would center on creating a democratic classroom and drawing from his 84 years of real-life experience and indigenous knowledge. Finally, I will discuss what additional materials and knowledge could be helpful in this course.

Critical Theory

Critical theory is concerned with challenging norms and inequalities in society (Kilgore, 2001; Sandlin, 2005), while also “challenging ‘truth’ that is advanced by dominant groups, and seeking emancipation” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 214). Following this definition, then, critical adult education is concerned with equal access to education for all members of society (Kovach & Montgomery, 2010). If this is true, then critical theory is an appropriate framework by which to frame an adult learning experience for Maruge.

Maruge’s attempt to begin primary school at 84-years old challenges the societal expectation of a student and especially that of a primary school student. One night, other members of the community gather at Maruge’s home and shout that “School is no place for an old man!” However, Maruge does not let the community’s reaction deter him from his efforts. Kilgore (2001) reminds us that the purpose of learning, according to critical theory, is to challenge what we know and how we know it. Education is not solely about change in the individual, but rather about the change of social conditions as well (Heaney, 1996, p. 29, as cited in Sandlin, 2005, p. 29). Maruge’s journey challenges what his community ‘knows.’

“The best time to plant a tree is years ago; the second best time is now.”

A major contribution of critical theory is a newfound recognition of the diversity of learners in today’s world (Kilgore, 2001). Maruge is one example of such learners, but he is not the only one. Below are two quotes from a social media site where adult learners shared their experiences with going back to school later in life.

While Maruge may have set the record, it is easy to see from these quotes and the original thread that there are many adult learners like him. Given the diversity of learners today, critical theory plays an important role in how we conceptualize adult learning.

Designing a Learning Experience for Maruge

An effective learning experience for a student like Maruge should be characterized by a democratic classroom and acknowledgment and valuation his experiences and indigenous knowledge, while being mindful of issues of power within the learning context.

The Democratic Classroom

The democratic classroom is one in which learners have authority, participate in decision-making, and practice democratic behavior during class activities (Merriam &Bierema, 2014). Particularly, students should have the freedom to speak and feel heard. By creating a democratic classroom, the goal is for teachers and students to achieve a more equal level of power, as the teacher is no longer in total control of what should be learned or how it should be assessed. However, the teacher will still retain somewhat more power given the nature of education (Drennon, 2003; Tan, 2011).

In her TED Talk, Rita Pierson expands on this concept. She quotes a colleague who stated that she did not care if students liked her or not (TED, 2013). Pierson’s response was, “You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” She elaborates that teachers should seek first to understand rather than to be understood and that creation of relationships in the classroom is incredibly important.

Maruge flourished when Jane taught him and treated him with respect, even when she had to show him how to hold a pencil. This is because she did it with kindness and non-judgment, helping to create a democratic classroom.

The Value of Experiences and Indigenous Knowledge

Most adults bring with them into the classroom a large textbook full of rich life experiences, and the African learner also brings along indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge refers to the “local or community knowledge that is commonly generated and transmitted over a period of time in geographic space” (Fasokun, Katahoire, & Oduaran, 2005, p. 61, as cited in Merriam et al., 2007). However, “very often, the richness of their previous experiences and cultural learning approaches are downplayed or even disregarded” (Tan, 2011, p. 128).

Rather than downplay or disregard experiences, education should try to include such experiences and indigenous knowledge in order to pass one’s culture, customs, and traditions on to future generations (Semali, 2009). This can be done in oral forms, such as storytelling or myths (Merriam et al., 2007). So, even though Maruge is still learning to read and write, his learning experience should involve opportunities to pass his knowledge on to the younger students.

Incorporating such orality into his educational experiences is worthwhile (Semali, 2009), because if Maruge’s experiences were not passed on, the students would miss out on his knowledge of the history of Nairobi and his experiences in the war.

Finally, according to Confucianism, Maruge has the potential to be a role model for the children when they do not know how to act in a situation (Merriam et al., 2007). In the above video clip, we see Maruge’s impact on the children when he begins to bond with them in the school yard by sharing the history of the war and begins to chant ‘freedom!’ with them. Incorporating such opportunities for Maruge to share his knowledge and experiences would benefit his learning experience.

By valuing and honoring Maruge’s experiences, indigenous knowledge, and culture’s oral history, rather than harping on illiteracy, Maruge should feel empowered (Semali, 2009). Prior to his educational experiences, Maruge’s power was limited by the government by limiting his access to education. In other words, by limiting his potential to gain knowledge, they essentially repressed his power (Kilgore, 2001). Thus, acknowledging the importance of indigenous knowledge is empowering in and of itself (Semali, 2009). After all, “the children have a lot they can learn from the old” (Chadwick, 2010).

So, What’s Missing?

This class has covered a wide variety of topics, and the movies and book used for assignments helped to solidify these concepts. However, learning more about the psychological aspects of adult learners and their learning experience would complement the existing materials. Particularly, in regard to formal learning activities, what fears or anxieties might they have about going back to school?

For example, this social media user shares concerns about returning to school after an 8-year leave. According to Merriam and colleagues (2007), “We must also acknowledge that the more stories we have available to us, the richer are our resources” (p. 221). Knowing if there are common anxieties and fears might help us as adult educators to help assuage those fears for adult learners.

Finally, it would be interesting to examine accounts from the point of view of the adult educator. For instance, one assignment could focus on analyzing a movie or book from the educator’s perspective and looking at how they successfully created (or did not) an effective learning environment. It would be helpful to see how adult educators successfully integrated things like technology and critical pedagogy (Kovach & Montgomery, 2010) or how adult educators have successfully helped non-Western students adapt to Western learning styles when needed (Kennedy, 2002). This would round out the information we have learned throughout the semester and give perspective to both sides of the adult learning experience.


This essay argued that critical theory is an appropriate framework for framing Maruge’s learning experience. In particular, his experience should be characterized by the creation of a democratic classroom and valuation of his experiences and indigenous knowledge. There are several interesting implications of this analysis. First, it seems as though a democratic classroom is helpful in both Western and non-Western adult learning environments. As such, we as adult educators must keep this concept at the forefront of our minds when constructing classes. Further, we must continue to value our learners’ prior experiences and create multiple ways to assess and allow learners to share their knowledge, including orality. Finally, we must continue to seek new ways to incorporate a variety of perspectives into our courses so as to not privilege any one perspective over another. [1496]


ActionAid International. (2011). The First Grader — what happened next: Mr. Kimani in New York [Video file]. Retrieved from

Chadwick, J. (Director). (2010). The First Grader [Motion picture]. USA, United Kingdom, Kenya: BBC Films, UK Film Council, Videovision Entertainment, Lipsync Productions, Arte France, Sixth Sense Productions, Origin Pictures, & Big Boy Films.

Drennon, C. (2003). Naming the power dynamics in staff development. Focus on Basics: Connecting Research & Practice, 6(B), 20–23.

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NatGeoMovies. (2011, Mar 31). The first grader clip 2: Maruge and the children [Video file]. Retrieved from

TED. (2013, May 3). Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion [Video file]. Retrieved from

Sandlin, J. A. (2005). Andragogy and its discontents: An analysis of andragogy from three critical perspectives. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 14, 25–42.

Semali, L. (2009). Cultural perspectives in African adult education: Indigenous ways of knowing in lifelong learning. In A. A. Abdi & D. Kapoor (Eds.), Global perspectives on adult education (p. 35–51). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tan, P. (2011). Towards a culturally sensitive and deeper understanding of “Rote Learning” and memorization of adult learners. Journal of Studies in International Education, 15(2), 124- 145.