Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why Kenya’s Science Education Needs Reform

In 2005, I had the rare privilege speaking with nearly forty children in primary 5. These eleven-year-old boys and girls shared their career dreams with amazing clarity and conviction. They dreamed of becoming doctors, nurses, architects, pilots, engineers and professors.

But the poise and sense of purpose of one girl left me spellbound. Angela was a lot like other kids in her class except for one thing: she wanted to study medicine and find a cure for two diseases, HIV/AIDS, which left many of her friends orphaned and malaria, which cut short the lives of millions of children like her. Her belief in the power and promise of science was awe-inspiring. Angela embodied everything that a father could ever wish for in a daughter.

Angela sat her KCPE examinations in 2009 and was accepted in a provincial girl’s high school. This year she will be among hundreds of thousands students who will sit KSCE examinations.

But Angela will not be applying to join medical school to pursue the career of her childhood dreams. What became of Angela’s childhood dream to find a cure for HIV/AIDS and malaria?

The archetypal approach to science is to “learn about science”, rather than to “learn to be scientists”. Hence, high school science is arduous and excruciating. Science and math are presented as collection of fusty facts, formulae, or principles; things students must remember faithfully and regurgitate mindlessly to pass examination. But science is not about facts. Science is way of thinking, understanding and representing our world.

Moreover, there is a pervasive but grossly misguided notion that science is serious and creativity is antithetical to scientific rigor. Nothing could be more absurd. Creativity is the lifeblood of scientific innovation.

It is boredom, and not the rigor of science or math, that disengages and extinguishes students’ dreams. Angela is one of thousands of students whose dreams have been extinguished by the gust of “learning about science”.

While releasing KCSE results in 2009, the Minster for Education, Prof. Ongeri was dismayed by the deteriorating performance in math and science. Do our children have an inherent cognitive disability in science and math?

The real culprit is the curriculum and the teaching and learning of science and math. The first brood of a dysfunctional curriculum and flawed pedagogy is bad students. The second brood is bad teachers. Keep in mind that last educational institution science teachers attend before they enlist to exterminate Angela’s dream is the university.

That the university is responsible for training high school science teachers raises two questions: how effectively are undergraduate students prepared as high school science teachers?; how well are graduate students (or soon to become professors) in the sciences prepared to teach science at the university?

These questions raise a broader issue of national and strategic importance, that is, the extent to which existing approaches to pedagogy in our universities are capable of producing the caliber graduates needed to deploy STEM to address Kenya’s most urgent socio-economic and environmental challenges.

Undergraduate science courses in our universities are delivered predominantly by transfer-of-information in large lecture formats. The professor is the sage on the stage and students are merely passive receptacles of facts. Weekly cookie-cutter laboratory reports cannot cultivate the habit of discovery, train scientific writing or fostering scientific inquiry and analytical reasoning.

Reform in the teaching and learning of science must be founded on scientific teaching. The hallmarks of scientific teaching are approaches that stimulate students to construct new knowledge through active learning (dialogue and collaboration) and discovery through research. We must undo the ingrained mental models of science pedagogy in which the professor is the oracle.

Reform in the teaching and learning of science should ensure that students appreciate the power and beauty of science, are judicious consumers of science and technology products, posses the knowledge, skills and habits of mind necessary to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology.

The teaching and learning of science must become student centered. Curriculum must be driven by concepts as opposed to content or facts. Assessments must be based on measurable competences – knowledge, skills and attitudes – relevant to STEM. Greater attention must be focused on retention, transfer of knowledge and as opposed to learning by rote.

Professors will characterize these reforms as an untenable departure from convention and requiring extra resources that are unavailable. But such characterizations are as understandable as they are retrogressive.

Both public and private universities must get behind the reform movement. Effective incentives must be deployed to recognize faculty who are using new and successful methods of teaching and learning. Graduate science programs should integrate teaching and learning their programs.

Reforming science pedagogy is a vital perquisite for building creative capacity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Kenya’s Vision 2030 could be stymied by the failure of our science education.

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