Monday, July 25, 2016

We must deal with the root causes of school unrest

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According to Education Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Fred Matiangi, 317 incidents of school fires have been reported since 2007. In 2015 98 school facilities were set ablaze. Since January 2016 nearly 70 school buildings in 28 counties have gone up in flames. 

What is implicit in the statistics and how long this has been going on is that orgies of violence and even arson are nothing new in Kenyan schools. Somehow this is the nature of our children and our society. As a society we resolve our differences in ways that include violent confrontation.

Examples of the use of violence to resolve differences abound. We see violence in the name of mob justice on our streets and battering of children and spouses in our homes. Outright rabid rage and aggressive verbal exchange on our roads is not uncommon. We saw politically motivated violence of catastrophic proportions in 1992 and 2007. We often see civil protests degenerate into sorties of violence between police and citizens, with fatal consequences.

Somehow in this country, authority or seniority is inextricably bound with being mean.  People in authority, such as the police, senior public officials and even teachers have a license to behave in ways that abuse, demean or harm fellow citizens. The only way we know you are important is if you are nasty and abrasive to others you deem less important or powerful than you are.  Like chimpanzees, we are knotted in an incessant duel to be the alpha party.

While the anarchy and arson in our schools is neither new nor unprecedented, the recent orgy of school burning across the country is barbaric and abominable. Such evil acts of deliberate arson by the student – our future, the hope of this nation – diminish all of us.

As always, following events of crisis proportion, a task force has been constituted and has less than 30 days complete thorough investigations.  As one newspaper editorial put it, “the task force should give preliminary reports early enough, preferably, within the next two weeks to help tame the chaos”.  We are bleeding and in dire need of a bandage.

We need to do more than stopping the bleeding. We need to grapple with the complex situational factors that create an enabling environment for student unrest. The situational factors include lack of adequate food, incitement by teachers, peer pressure, high-handed head teachers, school routine and pressure to deliver high mean scores, living conditions in boarding schools and lack of dialogue between students and teachers.

There can be no easy solutions to these issues, especially the regimental school routine, which runs from 4 am to 10:30 pm that is necessary to support rote learning and feed a national obsession with grades. We must also be mindful that we have raised our children in a culture where disdain for dialogue, tolerance for lawlessness and use of violence as a tool to resolve dispute or express grievances is acceptable.

Modifying the situational factors or eliminating them can have greater impact on reducing or eliminating undesirable student behavior. In my view remedial actions designed to discipline students and reign rogue teachers is like applying bandage.

While unrest in our schools is not new, the recent orgy of school burning across the country is barbaric and abominable. Such evil acts of deliberate arson by the youth – the future of this country – diminish all of us.

It is time to fix our education system. The school must not be a grade factory. Learning must be allowed to happen by stimulating and sustaining playful curiosity and discovery. School must be about communing with peers learning to live together, to share and to know that your friends will also have your back. Life in school must be about a journey in discovery of self and other. Only a small part of school must be about grades. If everything about education is passing standardized tests then we must draw attention to what is definitely a fundamental flaw in our collective understanding of teaching and learning in a complex and uncertain world.

And it is time to re-think boarding schools as a dominant model of schooling. I know this is controversial and many smart behavioral psychologists won’t even agree on the merits or de-merits of boarding schools. But sending young children to what in a majority of cases are squalid living conditions with little adult care is to say the least troubling. And to expect that education can even happen in those stifling prison like hovels we call public boarding schools is to ask for too much.

Again, where you sit on this boarding school debate must have a lot to do with how you think about education and how children learn, and most of all the how much school grades determine consequential life outcomes.

The orgy of violence and arson in our schools is merely a syndrome of a grave social condition. Ours is a culture of impunity and lawlessness. Ours is a culture that privileges violence as a mechanism for solving grievance. Spouses are battered in our homes. Suspects are lynched buy bloodthirsty mobs on our streets. Our politics is about ethnic mobilization for war, not a platform for competing models for building a great nation.

Why would we then expect our children who are bombarded with images of violence and the glamor of impunity to be civil about expressing their grievance? Do we expect students who live in squalid conditions and know that the head teacher steals both their fees and public funds from taxpayers? What about a punishing school schedule that starts at 4 am and ends at 10 pm, which only serves to demean and subjugate the student and boil out the joy and playfulness that learning is?

Only we, the citizens as parents and students can and must deal with the root causes of school unrest.

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