A recent report by Uwezo, a civil society group that monitors educational achievement, revealed that although access to education has expanded, the quality of learning has stagnated.
A majority of students will complete primary school without being able to read or write or add. The Uwezo report found that more than two out of every three pupils who have completed two years of primary school fail to pass basic tests in English, Swahili or Math.
Stakeholders in the education sector have raised questions about the state of teaching and learning from kindergarten to university. Taxpayers and parents are concerned about the value and returns to public investment in education.
Employers are asking whether graduates of our education system have the necessary skills and creativity to ensure competiveness in globalized knowledge economy. The minders of Kenya’s vision 2030 must worry. Its attainment is predicated on the abundance of creative imagination and innovation, especially among the youth.
There are fundamental systemic problems with Kenya’s education system. We can enumerate ad lib the foibles of the 8-4-4-education system. At the school level, the curriculum is unwieldy. There are unspeakable problems with the quality of teachers. Failure to invest in high quality public schools and universities has encouraged a ruthless exam-centric culture, which has stripped learning from schools and undermined the cardinal goal of education.
Owing to pressure to attain and maintain high grades, teachers teach to the test and mandate extra classes under the pretext of completing an ungainly syllabus. Today most public high schools have boarding facilities, ostensibly to sequester and drill out creative imagination and playful discovery from our children.
Immoderate emphasis on standardized national testing has led to grade or test score inflation and numerous exam-cheating scandals. Precious resources are diverted to preparatory testing and learning time is lost as students spend weeks preparing for the tests, and preparing tests and scoring them consume valuable teaching time. It gets 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.
Thirty-six years ago, an American sociologist, Donald Campbell, made an intuitive observation that became known as Campbell’s Law. The basic idea of Campbell’s Law is that the more you base major social decisions on a singular outcome or criteria, the more likely it is that people will either cheat or try to game the system.
High scores in Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) determine the kind 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 gain admission to the highly coveted so-called national schools. An inordinate proportion of students from these national schools get admission into prestigious undergraduate programs in science, engineering, medicine, law and business in public universities.
But high-test scores are not equivalent to enhanced individual capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning. Many students, a majority with super high test scores, come to college poorly prepared – thanks to the drill and exam-centric approach of primary and secondary school – for the demanding academic demands of university education.
My experience while teaching 3rd year undergraduate engineering students at a leading public 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. Sadly, our undergraduate programs are not developing the capacity for writing, critical thinking, complex reasoning and problem solving.
Teachers and professors are in agreement that teaching students to think critically and intuitively and ensuring that graduates at all level of the education system are capable of independent, analytical and logical thinking must be the ultimate mission of our education system. There is consensus that the exam-centric education system has created a citizenry more adept at imitation and mindless execution than creative thinking and innovation.
A radical change in Kenya’s education is needed to enable learning and build the human capital necessary for socio-economic and technological transformation imagined in Vision 2030. I offer some ideas for education reform:
· Introduce student-centred and problem-based approach to teaching and learning to encourage, inquiry- and-discovery-based learning to support retention and application knowledge.
· Eliminate standardized national testing in primary and high school and introduce a seamless kindergarten to high school system.
· Assess learning through multiple measures, including formative assessments and student portfolios. Portfolios enable teachers and students to share the responsibility for setting individual learning goals and evaluating progress.
· Eliminate joint admission to undergraduate programs and empower universities to design and administer admissions.
Ultimately, the key to education reform is high quality teachers and a curriculum that allows children to be children, while challenging them to play, experiment, discover, reflect and doubt.