Our education system is beholden to high stakes standardized national examinations, which demands unthinking regurgitation and diminishes critical thinking and analytical reasoning.
A majority of the students who excel in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya certificate of Secondary Education (KSCE) are skillful at what to think, not how to think. This is consistent with the dominant colonial logic of producing the ideal African minion, subservient to settler authority. Africans were to do as told, not to think.
Our education system does best what it is designed to do; produce huge numbers of unsophisticated literate citizens. However, what continues to baffle me is that the colonial desire to produce an unthinking, subservient underclass was not any different from what the African elite, the heirs to the colonists, imagined of the post-colonial society. Successive governments have demanded unquestioning allegiance, total dependence on the benevolence of the state and mindless convergence around a flawed vision of society as authored by the political class. This explains why this rather problematic way we educate our children has been very durable.
I have argued in this column many times that the high stakes national exams is based on a curriculum and approach of pedagogy that demands nothing of the capacity of our children to think or imagine or play or reason or create or innovate. From the first day they show up in school thinking is outlawed; our children are taught to accept everything, without question, on the authority of the teacher and the content of the curriculum.
Our schools have become grade factories. Tyrannized by parents and school head teachers who demand high mean grades, teachers have little time to stimulate and engage the boundless capacity of children to play, wonder and co-create knowledge.
The high stakes standardized national examinations have also served another purpose; a basis for allocating scarce resources of secondary and tertiary education. It is shameful that a majority of the best-resourced schools are the so-called national schools that were built by the colonial administration. It is unconscionable that over half a century after independence, our children still do not have equitable access to high quality secondary schools.
I am heartened that the debate on whether to abolish or keep high stakes national examinations is back on the table. In my view we must abolish KCPE over the next 2 -5 years, and with it, the colonial relic of elite national schools. We must level the playing field in education, ramp up investments in education and empower counties to manage education resources. The national government and the county governments must work out a model of conditional transfer of education grants, based on enrollment, retention, completion and student achievement. Moreover, we must define minimum standards for our schools – physical facilities, teacher-student ratio, and learning materials – that define a school anywhere in the republic of Kenya.
We teach our children too much stuff at the expense of developing critical capacity in key areas of knowledge, skills and attitudes. It is time to pare down the primary school curriculum and scrap KCPE. We must define a small set of core competences in reading, writing, math, teamwork, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, against which teachers, parents and students are held accountable to. Transition from primary to high school should be based on progressive, multiple and dynamic assessments on achievement on the core competences done at the school level, by students and teachers, and not a national examining body.
In a competitive globalized knowledge economy, a high school education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child. Every child must be guaranteed the inalienable right to high quality education in any school, public or private. We must define basic education as 12 years of school, from grade 1 to grade 12, in addition to pre-school years. Transition to high school must not be based on meaningless high stakes exams. Such a system only serves to exacerbate inequality and undermines shared economic progress.
Half a century of an education system that stifles thinking is enough. It is time to end the exam-centric system of education, which undervalues critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and knowledge application, but privileges mindless regurgitation of undigested facts.
Kenya needs not unthinking technicians and minions. To be relevant and competitive in the 21st century, Kenya needs to nurture a new generation of thoughtful, creative and innovative knowledge workers.