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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!

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