Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sound Education, Key to Building Democratic and Inclusive Society



Our exam-centric education system has turned our school into grade factories. The only thing we value is a grade. In the mindless pursuit of grades we have murdered the soul of education, defiled the wondrous creative instincts of our children. Our schools have become graveyards of creativity and innovation.

Reading to the nation the names of top KCPE candidates does not teach modesty. It reinforces an attitude of preening and self-idolatry among adolescents. Moreover, holding aloft top students in celebration is in my view absurd. Granted, we must honor stellar achievers, but hoisting them in front of television cameras is national veneration of grades. As I listened to one of the so-called top KCPE candidates talk about the “secrets” of their success, I wondered what we had turned our children into. The hubris was horrifying.

Passing through Kenya’s public school curriculum is a gruesome process of protracted death to the creative self. The national curriculum offers too little of playful curiosity and creative discovery, which is the nature of our species. In my experience schools that offer the national curriculum are a strange organism – one-third penitentiary, one-third military camp and one-third monastery. 

The red-hot currency of our education is rote learning and regurgitation of facts. It does not matter whether the student can argue a position or express their ignorance or skepticism through precise questions. Teachers regard students and parents as clients or consumers who demand value for money. And that value, sadly, is high grades.

Rote learning has crowded out space for fostering curiosity, discovery and collaborative co-creation of knowledge. Students enter university without a capacity for critical thinking and problem solving. They enter university as combatants, ready to fight another battle for grades.

I longed to go to university, in the illusion that professors were committed to nurturing an intellectual culture and a life of the mind. But the self-importance and arrogance of the professors was hugely disempowering. Most of my professors, just like my primary and high school teachers, were imperious. Once a professor asked me why I was not taking the notes he was dictating to the class. I looked up at him and said that I was waiting for him say something that he had not copied from the course textbook. He was unamused.  Like Shylock, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the professor demanded his pound of flesh – his notes – in the end of semester examination.

A majority of students graduating from Kenyan schools and colleges have a horrifying deficit in complex reasoning, framing questions and problem solving. Moreover, our education system leads us to believe that the best child or student or employee or citizen is the one who does not question but parrots back “widely accepted or politically correct feedback”. Our graduates lack the Knowledge, skills and attitudes to fill and create jobs in the new globalized knowledge based economy. As young citizens, they lack a sense of community, civic duty and public ethics.

Our curricular and pedagogical practices offer uncanny insights into the Kenyan character, and especially our disdain for debate, lack of respect for others and impunity. How we are educated explains our winner take-it-all attitude and the belief that our competitors are enemies to be vanquished and humiliated. It explains the pettiness of our politics and the zero-sum ethnic calculus underlies the contemptible ethnic divisions, which determine allocation of national resources.

A democratic and prosperous society depends on honest, if discomfiting debate. Fleeing from our inconvenient history under the cowardly guise of “moving on” in the interest of peace and development is like noticing a bottomless crater in your backyard and covering it with a fig leaf, hoping that your children will not disappear into it.

A culture of debate and constructive questioning is vital to building a democratic and inclusive society. Our liberty does not depend on the largesse of political leaders and appointed acolytes. It is inherent in constitutional rights and obligations bestowed on a vigilant citizenry who question and speak truth to power. How we educate our children is critical to preserving our liberty, fostering prosperity and equality.

Ms. Lydia Nzomo, the director of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development has outlined plans to overhaul the school curriculum. We must seize this opportunity to develop adaptive curricula and pedagogical practices that foster in our children play, problem solving, creativity, innovation, debate, civic duty and ethics. 

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