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Learning, for anyone, should be exciting and inspiring, especially when there is new knowledge to be gained. For many children, however, learning is daunting. With pressures to ‘excel’ and benchmarks against peers that intimidate instead of motivate, children can be discouraged to continue.

In Lagos State alone, approximately 25% of children drop out at primary level and 60% do not complete secondary education – usually for fear of failure, amongst other challenges. Addressing this challenge is an urgent priority. A new approach to education needs to be embraced in order to change this narrative. Ensuring that all children have access to education has the potential to transform lives and is a vital component in building the human capacity that is central not just to the State, but the country’s future economic development.

To address this, the Five Cowries Arts Education Initiative project (Five Cowries) was founded in 2018 by muralist, artist, educator and children’s book author, Polly Alakija with co-founders Yemisi Mokuolu [Director, Hatch Ideas] and Damilola Emmanuel [Managing Director, Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA)] in partnership with Teach For Nigeria, LASWA, Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), Jackson, Etti & Edu (Legal & IP Advisors) and africapractice (Communications Advisors).

In partnership with Teach For Nigeria – the Initiative’s Delivery Partner- the programme trains approximately 50 teachers directly. The Five Cowries Initiative helps to build the capacity of teachers, in order to enhance the creative skills of their students. Arts literacy is proven to help children to develop design thinking, enhance creativity, improve collaboration and develop critical thinking. It also acts as a strong mechanism for improving attendance rates, as interactive and visual teaching methods increase children’s engagement levels and so, desire to participate.

Children are taught that learning is fun, and they can have their own voice, which is important for increased self-esteem and decision making. The Five Cowries Initiative supports 2,000 children each year, in collaboration with other dedicated partners locally and internationally, to deliver programmes that improve education and engage children with issues of social and global impact – from conservation, citizenship, and health, to migration, new technologies & pollution.

Since starting activities in 2017, the Initiative has delivered high-impact projects that are fun and engaging for both children and the Teach for Nigeria fellows, who also gain new teaching methods and learn to approach education differently, to get improved results. The long-term goal is to develop a platform to connect classrooms, educators and pupils; this will be done by offering a sustainable means of communication beyond each project and providing access to community leaders and educators in hard-to-reach places. Through its peer-to-peer mentoring programme, the initiative will connect local teachers with teachers around the world and facilitate participation with the Montessori Centre International.

In addition to building teacher capacity, Five Cowries has also established a range of opportunities for the work that the students produce to be showcased, both in Lagos and internationally. In 2019, the theme that the Initiative has adopted is ‘My Story of Water’, which will encourage the students to tell visual stories about water and sustainability in their environment. Through Teach For Nigeria, the Initiative will select 30 classes of students to produce artwork that gives the 1,800 participating pupils perspective on the importance of water in their daily lives. The theme follows from the Initiative’s pilot project in 2017 called “Flying floatilla”, in which students produced artwork on canoes; the installation spent a month on display on the South Bank in London and was seen by 1.5 million visitors. In 2018, this was followed by an installation of painted umbrellas telling stories that addressed various issues around rivers and our waterways.

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