The exam-centric education system we inherited from the British colonists has created a workforce more adept at imitation than innovation. A radical change in Kenya’s education culture is needed to foster the human capital necessary for innovation- led social and economic transformation.
High scores in Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) determine the quality of secondary school a student will be admitted to. Private primary schools are notoriously famous for these super-high scores. A majority of students who ace the KCPE examinations, most of who are from well-to-do urban families, gain admission to top-flight public high schools. An inordinate proportion of students from these high-test score secondary schools eventually get admission into engineering, law and medical schools in public universities.
Teachers in both primary and secondary schools, under pressure to maintain their schools’ scoring record, teach to the test and organize extra classes for exam drills. Most public high schools in Nairobi that were historically day have been converted to boarding schools, ostensibly to sequester and then drill any form of imagination and playful inquiry out of young learners.
Parents ferry children as young as primary six to school on the weekend for extra tuition. In most urban schools, and some rural primary schools too, classes begin at 7 am and end after dusk. In both public and private schools holiday tuition is mandatory. Amidst pressure from long school days and onerous homework, the Kenyan student’s most intellectually demanding work is memorizing mind–numbing facts for regurgitation.
And it gets even better. On a designated day, just before the start of the national exams, parents and teachers pack churches and school assembly halls with bended knees and beseeching hearts to pray for divine wisdom.
The product of this educational culture is deficient in the inquiry, investigation, and analytical skills needed for scientific and technological innovation. My experience while teaching 3rd year undergraduate engineering students at a local university was uninspiring. While their motivation and effort was impressively high, these “A” students were atrociously weak at seeing connections, synthesizing information, extrapolating ideas or generating hypotheses. This may suggest that the Kenyan education does not nurture problem-solving and analytical skills required for innovation.
The education system we inherited and nurtured faithfully over the last five decades was designed to give Africans basic education and not tools and skills that enable critical thinking and problem solving. The goal was to mass-produce literate but unthinking underlings to serve the colonial administration as manual labourers and career civil servants. And I think it has achieved it goal. My sense is that Kenyan students, graduates, and I dare say educators, are adept at absorbing existing knowledge and imitating existing technology.
It is not possible to deliver a critical mass of analytical minds and leaders of innovative solutions needed to realize the much-hyped vision 2030 through the current education system. A robust transformation of the educational culture must happen before homegrown Kenyan innovation, not imitation, can challenge scientific and technological dominance of the west and increasingly, of the east.
However, the larger tragedy of the failure of our education system plays out in research, both in universities and public research institutions. Kenyan¬–based scientists, without Western collaborators, seldom publish in high impact factor peer reviewed journals. But to be fair to Kenya, it is helpful to note that no African country (except South Africa) or Asian country is represented among the top 20 journals, ranked by the average number of citations in every published paper.
Kenya has for a long time recognized that a critical mass of entrepreneurial researchers is required to sustain research and encourage innovation. Since the famous “air-lifts” of the late 1950s and 1960s, Kenya has sent and continues to send some of the best students to North America and Europe for training in science and technology. Those who return, especially to public universities and research institutions, are seldom valued for their initiative and creativity. Instead they are sucked into the bureaucracy, often to managerial positions that demand nothing of their high education and specialized training.
Education reform needed nurture a new generation of characteristics and abilities among young learners. I believe students, at all levels, should be taught using problem-based and inquiry–based learning. This approach will develop their powers of investigation and critical thinking. Student grades should depend on active contribution during group-based learning and problem-solving sessions, to change the focus from competitive examination to collaborative learning.
The fundamental goal of radical transformation of the education culture must be to be to situate learning in the life of the student in a manner that enables critical thinking, promotes problem solving and deepens opportunity for innovation. Ultimately, the key to reform in education is a curriculum that emancipates the Kenyan children, liberates them to play, explore, experiment, discover, reflect and doubt. Hence, unleashing the full complement of human ingenuity and creative abilities of every sort, which must be the source of our collective resilience.