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Monday, November 17, 2014

Reform antiquated exam-centric education system

“Exams are a necessary evil”. These words were proclaimed by my high school headmaster annually, to calm terrified and nervous candidates. Back then, these words were incredibly sagacious. Today they sound hollow; a shameful acceptance of a failed education system.

A high-stakes exam-centric education has turned schools into grade factories. Our school buildings, in my view are mausoleums, housing the remains of education. We have murdered the soul of education and defiled the creative proclivity of our children.

The word education is derived from the Greek word educatio, which means bringing up, or raise. Education is about knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits through story telling, debate, learning, training and or research.  

The so-called education is delivered through passive 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.
Rote learning and didactic teaching is a linear product-oriented approach. The output is measured by achievement in standardized test scores. This grade oriented system is characterized by the absence of independent thinking and an abundance of subservience and a follow the leader mindset.

 Sadly, what happens in our schools is not education. Our schools are obsessed with examination grades. Parents demand high grades. Teachers crave high subject mean grades and headteachers want prestige to drive high enrollment and revenue. Parents and teachers want high grades from students by hook or by crook.

Evidence and examples abound, which demonstrate how the product-oriented education was used by the colonial government to institutionalize rote learning and unquestioning acceptance of facts, discouraging, critical thinking and perpetrating cultural and intellectual subjugation. Half a century after colonialism, the product-oriented, exam-centric education system is still alive. Clearly, the colonialist is no longer here. Whose interest is served by unthinking citizens?

How we are educated offers unsettling insights into the archetypal Kenyan, especially our unquestioning allegiance to ethnic head honchos, impunity and disdain for analytical reasoning and robust public debate. How we are educated explains our winner take-it-all attitude and the belief that our competitors are enemies to be humiliated. It explains the primordial and contemptible zero-sum ethnic calculus of our politics.  

The didactic, fact-based and exam-centric approach to education has its origins in the era of scarcity of facts and information. Books and other learning resources were rare, the Internet was not even imaginable.Today we are inundated with information and facts. Facts and information are a click away, on our mobile phones, tablets and computers. You do not need school or college to memorize facts or get information.

We must re-appropriate education to optimize curiosity, creativity and innovation. Our schools must foster playful exploration and emancipate education from rote learning and the tyranny of a didactic, fact-based and exam-centric approach. Education must be a recursive process of learning, sense-making, collaboration, application, discovery and re-learning.

Primary education must be the first rung on the ladder, where we learn how learn, to learn how to think, to learn how to ask questions, to learn how to play, how collaborate and to learn how to be moral, ethical citizens. Moreover, primary education must not be about how to take a meaningless test, which do not challenge their wonderful creative and inventive minds. It is time to abolish KCPE.
Transition to high school must be a birthright of every Kenyan child. We must abandon the colonial logic of artificial scarcity of high school education resources. Moreover, the colonialists wanted to create a small cadre of pliable and subservient educated elite, for obvious reasons.

A radical change in Kenya’s education is imperative, if we are to build a stable democracy and prepare skilled and employable citizens to drive the political, socio-economic and technological transformation imagined in Vision 2030.

I offer some ideas to motivate debate: i) replace current fact-laden curriculum with a problem-based approach to learning to encourage critical thinking, analytical reasoning, collaboration, innovation and discovery; ii) eliminate standardized national testing for primary school; iii) assess learning through multiple measures, including school-based formative assessments and student portfolios; iv) promote knowledge application and reflective practice at all levels through service learning because “tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember and involve me and I will understand”.  

Half a century later, do we have the courage to reform our education system, emancipate our children and secure the future for posterity?

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