Creative Commons

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Time is right for reform in our education system

Ambition is a universal feeling. To paraphrase French thinker Alex de Tocqueville, the idea of progress comes naturally into each man’s mind and the desire to rise burns in every heart. In a merit-based society, education and fair assessment and certification is by far the most credible means to achieve ones desire to rise.

The 2015 KCPE examinations results will be released this week. As always, it will be attended by a high fever of expectation by students, parents and schools. It will be about praise for students who score the highest marks. It will be a moment of supreme pride for the parents of the top students. It will be a supreme marketing moment for the schools that emerge in the top quartile. Examination results are serious business, literally and figuratively.

We could debate ad nauseam whether the last year’s KCPE and KCSE were a fair, unbiased, credible assessment. So much was said about the credibility of the 2015 national examinations. There is therefore little necessity at this point to write at length and critically about them.

I hold the view that examinations, to the extent that they demand regurgitation of content of the syllabus, are a shameful waste of pubic resources and an insult to the value of learning and knowledge application. Suffice it to say, Richard Siele, my headmaster at Maseno School always reminded us that examinations were a necessary evil.

Of the 1,463,269 students who took the national standardized tests in 2015, 937,467 students sat KCPE. A majority of these children are smart and ambitious. They dream of going into law, engineering, education, medicine and accounting. Some of them imagine building their own companies or going into politics or becoming religious leaders. These children imagined that the examinations were a fair, unbiased, right of passage through which their efforts would curve out their dreams in a merit-based, competitive society.

Yes, we must celebrate the amazing boys and girls who have done well. But the 2015 KCPE results must force a very different kind of conversation. This conversation must go beyond which student or school, public or private, is up or down and how many children will get into the so-called national schools and how many students will miss form one places. In my view we need a robust debate to help shape fundamentally, how we educate our children for a world that is radically different from what we inherited from our forebears.

I have said in this column many times, and I will say it again. In a competitive globalized knowledge economy, a high school education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child, not a privilege of the few. Hence a selective system for determining who proceeds into high school is both antiquated and unconscionable. All 937,467 who sate KCPE must enjoy the right to acquire a high school education.

KCPE should be abolished. The transition from primary to high school must not be through a national examination, it must be through ordinary grade progression just like moving from pre-school to primary school. Every child must have within their local neighborhood a public school with all the necessary resources, including teachers, to offer high quality education from pre-school to end of high school. We can argue on the margins about how they will be governed and so forth.

Our exam-centric education system, from pre-school to postgraduate level, produces unthinking; uncritical and robotic individuals unfit for the knowledge-based workplace. We are still educating for the Industrial Age.  What is the value of an education system predicated on a syllabus burdened with subject matter content and delivered through rote learning? We live in era where we have access to an entire universe of knowledge at our fingertips through cellphones, tablets and computers.

Moreover, the challenges we face in the 21st century demand a capacity for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, creativity and the ability to process and critically evaluate data and information. It is time to reform our education system, focusing on application of knowledge, mastery of relevant skills, while cultivating positive values, especially ethics and integrity.

Three factors converge to make fundamental reform in our education system feasible; a new Cabinet Secretary, progressive leadership at Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development and the demands of a competitive, globalized knowledge economy.  Our children deserve better.

I wish you good health and much happiness in 2016!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Involve youth in the fight against corruption

Kenya’s median age is estimated at 19 years. About 80 percent of Kenya’s population is below 35 years old. Hence, we are a very youthful society. The future of our country, and indeed its best years are in the years ahead and lie in the hands of our young men and women.

However, that future is not out there, to be designed, made and bestowed upon us. The future will be determined by how we bring up our children today. Fundamentally, the future will determined by how we educate our children; their values, ethics, what their understand to constitute success and the enterprise; how we nurture and harness their creative drive and orientation to innovation.

Besides the struggle for independence, the fight against corruption is perhaps the most consequential war of liberation of our time. This in my view is the definitive struggle to set free the body and soul of our country. Roaring corruption along with impunity and greed has held this country in bondage for over half a century. Corruption is pervasive and ruined our judicial system, the police, education, politics, business, public service and even churches.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has launched the most spirited and sustained campaign against corruption. While the focus on public servants and leaders of the private sector is both significant and necessary, the war against corruption must be broadened and deepened. We must take the anti-corruption crusade into our schools, colleges and universities. The youth of this country must be at the vanguard of this war.

The youth must be at the forefront of the anti-corruption effort because a survey commissioned by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University reveals a staggering deficit of integrity among Kenyan youth. For example, 50 percent believe it does not matter how one makes money as long as one does not go to jail. About 35 percent would take or give a bribe. Only 40 percent strongly believe it is important to pay taxes on earned income. Approximately half of the youth surveyed would vote for a candidate who paid them a bribe. More than 70 percent are afraid of standing up for what is right for fear of retribution.

Moreover, 48 percent are entrepreneurial and would like to own and run their own business, compared to only 26 percent who would settle for paid employment in the traditional professional fields of law medicine, teaching, accounting and engineering.

Furthermore, 77 percent of the youth believe Kenya will be richer materially, offering better access to quality education, healthcare, and more jobs for the youth. Another 67 percent believe our society will reward merit and hard work.

However, I find it hard to imagine that the entrepreneurial dreams of our children will flourish when they lack integrity, are willing to pay or receive a bribe, and will do anything to make money. I find it hard to believe that a future that is prosperous and offers more jobs, high quality education and improved access to health is even thinkable in a society drenched in impunity, greed and corruption.

The youth must support President Kenyatta in spearheading this novel effort. It is in the interest of the youth to join this fight because their dreams about a future that “offers better access to quality education, healthcare, and more jobs for the youth” will be undermined by a youthful population that gives or takes bribes, won’t pay taxes and is afraid to stand up for justice.

I believe that how we educate and mentor our children, from pre-school to university, must be a critical plank among other initiatives to: i) to prepare young people for the future, nurturing and channeling their creativity and innovation and supporting their desire to build and own their own enterprises; ii) inculcate the values of ethics and integrity, adherence to the rule of law and civic responsibility.

I believe there is a great opportunity now, as we think about education reforms to think creatively about how education can be vehicle for imparting sound moral and ethical values to the youth. But we must ensure that the issues of ethics and integrity, how to build and just and fair society are not just taught as subjects to be examined but are presented as imperatives for citizenship.

We must save this country for the future, its children. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Agreement to curb global warming historic but weak

Last week was intense. The atmosphere of hope over COP21 meetings in Paris, a couple of days in Mombasa working with a supremely creative local performance group on our Young Cities initiative, and then a former British colony celebrated 52 years since independence.

Like many Kenyans celebrated Kenya@52. And how I wish we could all truly love our country, denounce greed and corruption and jettison from narrow ethnic calculus. This country can be great but such greatness must be built on the backs of selfless individuals who ask not what they can reap, but what they must sow.

Energy is at the heart of the global climate crisis. What is needed is a robust and binding commitment by all countries to shift from the use of oil, coal and gas, which supplies 80 percent of global energy needs, to the use of renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydro. However, such a transition would require huge breakthroughs in technology and major investments in infrastructure. Moreover, the expectation of developing countries is that developed countries pay for their energy transition through direct spending or through inexpensive transfer of technology. 

COP21 started on a promising note. The United States and 19 other countries pledged to double their spending over five years to support clean energy research. Led by Bill Gates, 28 private investors, including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, pledged money to help build private businesses based on publicly funded clean energy research.

The promising, cooperative start of COP21was short lived. It was depressing to see hubris and ego of nations on display in the final days of the COP21 meeting in Paris. China led the so-called developing world in pressing for the continuation of the current two tier system where obligations to cut back carbon emissions or a shift to clean energy must be shouldered by the so-called developed countries.

On December 12, 2015, after 13 days of negotiations, diplomats issued a final draft of a climate change agreement in Paris. If adopted, the agreement would set an ambitious goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.

However, the agreement does not mandate how much each country must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But it establishes a bottom-up system in which each country sets its own goal, “intended nationally determined contributions”, (INDC) and communicates plans to achieve that objective. While it is commendable that many countries including Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania actually submitted their INDC before COP21, greater emission reduction pledges will be required hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

I think Article 4 paragraph 1 of the Paris Agreement is pretty tepid in mandating an end date to greenhouse emissions for developing countries, which include the world’s foremost polluters such as China and India. The agreement requires that “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties”. Such wording waters down, significantly, the stated goal to cut greenhouse emission and slow global warming. Moreover, it is hard to see how the requirement to update pledges made in nationally determined contributions every five years after 2020 will be enforced.

The scientific community is skeptical about how the Paris Agreement will achieve the goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research based in Britain believes that the Paris Agreement is not consistent with the science and is between dangerous and deadly for the most vulnerable nations of the world. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has described the agreement as a fraud.

It is shameful that world leaders have shown no interest in making hard choices to de-carbonize the global economy. The Paris Agreement was the easy thing to do because a legally binding agreement would pose international resistance from developing countries. Moreover a binding agreement would face stiff domestic political challenges in the United States.

Paris was a missed opportunity. The narrow imperatives of economic growth triumphed. As Naomi Klein said, the climate change movement has yet to find its moral voice on the world stage.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Perspectives of youth should inform urban development

Our transformation into an urban civilization is now more than halfway done, and irreversible. Globally, more than 3.5 billion people live in a city or a town. With an urban population of 26 percent Kenya is one of the least urbanized countries in the world.

However, we all feel the pulsating surge of urbanization. Our cities and towns are bursting at the seams. Mobility is strangulated by traffic gridlock. The squalor and indignity of slums rob a majority of our children of the joy of urban nativity. Life on the streets for pedestrians and all those who would seek leisure and in the outdoors is made improbable by a lack of decent pedestrian walkways and poisoned air. Moreover, our cities don’t work for children, senior citizens and the disabled. Pedestrian walkways are riddled with open storm pits, and its tough to get into a Matatu if you are little, elderly or disabled.

In the soaring and dense tenement neighborhoods of Eastleigh, Zimmerman, Huruma, Rongai, Umoja, Parklands, Kawangware, Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Zimmerman, our children are denied open spaces and city authorities turn a blind eye to a lack of public services. Provision of water and sanitation services is ephemeral. As Pope Francis warned urbanization can be fraught with dreadful injustice. Dreadful injustice because the elite anaesthetized by hubris, greed and power inflict misery upon the majority and then device solutions that amount indifference and mere containment.

Everyday, I wonder if anybody cares whether our cities are livable for the majority of Kenyans. Every so often I ask myself if anybody is in charge or answerable. I think about what the so-called privileged think every time they cause fellow citizens to run perilously across the streets because the automobile has right of way. What do the few who drive think when they empty the filthy waters of road puddles onto unsuspecting pedestrians?

Urbanism can be beautiful. Urbanism can joyful and hopeful. Urbanization must be just and equitable. Urbanism must be joyous, extending hope and opportunity and a right to equal opportunity for girls and women. Urbanism must fulfill, for the majority the unyielding desire of all of mankind – decent lodging and dignified work.  

Last Saturday, through its Youthful Cities initiative the East African Institute in collaboration with K–Youth Media, which works with youth from the urban slums of Nairobi and Aga Khan Academy Nairobi, organized an immensely uplifting digital photo exhibition.

The exhibition was an invitation to Nairobi’s youth to take and submit photographs that represent their urban experience; living, working and leisure. The pictures ranged from the built environment (streets and residential spaces), sports and recreation, the environment, art and culture, education and opportunity.

The sobering convergence of two factors, rapid, unprecedented urbanization, and the fact that about 80 percent of our population is aged below 35 years motivated the exhibition. It is seldom that two consequential forces converge at the same epoch and at the same place.

At the exhibition, these young, amateur photographers were invited to say what the pictures meant to them. The narratives were impassioned, brilliant, insightful and packed with resolve and agency. I have never been more hopeful about our future and the promise of urbanism.

The winning photograph, out of 22 submissions, was by Lewis Muruiki from K-Youth Media. In this picture, taken against the backdrop of Korogocho slums, a handful of girls are playing soccer, some barefoot. The field is bare earth, fortunately not yet grabbed. Lewis’ picture was motivated by young women unbowed by the circumstance of birth demonstrating teamwork, respectful competition, and willingness to play by the rules. These are qualities that are an anathema in public life, especially among the privileged few.

The second best photograph was by Michelle Kamunyo from Aga Khan Academy Nairobi. Michelle’s was a provoking image of unspeakable filth, which chokes one of the tributaries of Nairobi River in the so-called upmarket neighborhood of Riverside. For Michelle, it was not about what the government can do, but what young people like her must do; from boycotting polythene, to mobilizing a clean up and having a dialogue on responsible stewardship among riverine communities.

The views and perspectives of the youth must inform the governance, management, planning of urban development. The historic opportunity is unprecedented. We can and must build cities the serve the needs of the majority of urban residents – the youth.


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