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Monday, July 25, 2016

We must deal with the root causes of school unrest


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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Poor quality professors producing low quality graduates


The dominant model of education is in turmoil. Students demand fewer courses, less reading and writing assignments. Employers say graduates are not work ready. Parents are staggered by the rising cost of education.

Grave concerns on the quality of college graduates abound. Employers are unanimous in their condescending view of recent graduates. In their opinion graduates can’t apply knowledge, lack critical thinking and communication skills.  Recent studies show that even after four years in college nearly 40 per cent of students in the US failed to improve test scores in critical thinking.

Indignation about higher education derives from the perception that the model of delivery – the classroom and the lecture – is antiquated. The popular view is that disruption in education is overdue. The cry everywhere is abolish lectures, abolish classrooms. Learning must not be constrained by professorial enclaves called subjects or disciplines that inhabit kingdoms called departments.

Scholars in higher education reform believe the combination lectures and classrooms stifles understanding and fails to spark creativity; the two essential ingredients for deep and enduring learning. This band of education innovators argue that technology now enables novel approaches like the flipped classroom where students can through the internet learn in the quiet of their homes and engage in more active learning by doing in the classroom.

The ranks of professors who believe that university teaching needs fundamental reform are growing. Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman of Stanford recently issued a plea to educators to stop lecturing. Meta analysis of over 200 studies reveals that lecturing increased failure rates by 55 per cent. Conversely, interactive or active learning methods resulted in a 36 per cent drop in failure rates.

But is the lecture model and the traditional classroom really the problem? The problem in my view is not the lecture. The lecturer is the problem. Most academics are horrible teachers, movingly inarticulate. Moreover, the reckless proliferation of universities, public and private, has unleashed an unrelenting gust of intellectually mediocre professors upon college students. They are super depressing to listen to or chat with even if the subject is the weather or Nairobi’s incessant traffic gridlock.

I remember as a young undergraduate saying to a professor during a lecture that I was waiting for him to lay out an argument of his own. This professor understood a lecture as event during which dictated his notes to students. As you can imagine, I paid dearly for my indiscretion.

Professors must be good teachers and public speakers period. The good news is that oratory can be learned. A combination of academic rigor, eloquence and passionate delivery endows a lecture with inalienable and remarkable power. A lecture delivered with wit motivates active learning and critical listening while modeling the sublime art of reasoned argument.

Both flipped classroom and active learning in small groups are not novel. Novelty will come through incentives for scholarship in teaching. And yes, excellent lectures can engage and inspire learners to think critically and to innovate.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ethnic politics diminishing Kenya’s stature in the East Africa Region

Kenya is famous for picturesque landscapes, dizzying diversity of wildlife, the world’s fastest runners. Kenya is birthplace of the ancestors of the leader of the free world.

When our neighbors were embroiled in conflict former president Moi crowed about Kenya as an “island of peace”. We built schools and educated our sons and daughters as our neighbors sent their sons to war. When Idi Amin and Julius Nyerere expelled Asians, we relied on Indians to lay the foundation for a vibrant private sector a middle class.

But Kenya’s recent political and social history is depressing. Unabashed ethnic rivalry and greed define and often turn political competition into an orgy of inter-community violence. Reckless politics and ethnic discord comes at a steep price.

For example Uganda’s decision to go with Tanzania reflects Uganda’s practical and strategic concerns. Foremost are Kenya’s recent history of politically instigated ethnic violence and the complex politics over land in the Coast and the Rift Valley. With this deal, Tanzania has stamped its seriousness a regional economic player of immense significance.

The ghosts of political recklessness and catastrophic blood letting of the 2007 post-election violence still haunt us. Ethnic vitriol is alive and well. Mobilizing for electoral competition through opportunistic and fleeting ethnic coalitions diminishes hope for genuine social cohesion.

There is an old fable out west among the Luo community. It is a myth about a fierce warrior. Folklore has it that Luanda Magere possessed supernatural powers. Luanda was invincible at battle. Spears and arrows fashioned against him by Nandi warriors were bent out of shape by his rock solid torso.

The Nandi community learned at a steep cost of treasure and blood that they would never vanquish Luanda in combat. According to this myth, which is only told among the Luo community, the Nandi chose to make peace and offered a young beautiful woman to marry Luanda. But her solemn mission was to find the source of Luanda’s invincibility in battle.

The East African Institute with partners from University of Alberta, Moi University and young artists from Kisumu County is working on an initiative to take old stories and tell them for a new generation. This initiative, Old Stories in New Ways, seeks to carve out of the solid rock of the Luanda myth a grain of hope, peace and cohesion among the Nandi and Luo communities.

In the new story, the beautiful Nandi spy wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to Luanda’s only child.  In her agonizing dirge she says the rock is a monument of hatred between Nandi and the Luo. The baby symbolizes a new beginning, a future of kinship and peace.

A survey of Kenyan youth conducted by the East Institute revealed that only five percent of Kenyan youth identify by their ethnicity. A future of social cohesion and inter-community understanding is possible.

We can compete for political power as fellow citizens not as enemies. We can redeem our image among our neighbors because our youth are Kenyans first.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Elections undermine democratic processes

A survey conducted by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University showed that between 68-90 percent of East Africa’s youth held positive views about democracy and would participate in elections. However, trust in politicians was as low as 40 percent. 

One could be persuaded to suggest that East African youth fancy the idea of elections or democracy but disdain its outcomes – politicians and government. However, confidence and trust government in “Strong leader” models like Rwanda was as high as 80%. Waning trust in politicians and government is not unique to East African youth. There is an emerging and worrying trend if mistrust between citizens and government. 

According to Pew Research Center, fewer than 30 percent Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted between 2007 and 2015. Similarly, a recent World Values Survey, which polled 73,000 people in 57 countries revealed that trust in government and institutions of democracy such as political parties has reached a historical low. 

The perceptions of East Africa’s youth underscore a deep and concerning contradiction; passion and apathy for politics. Essentially, youth are enthusiastic about the political process but deeply distrusting of the outcomes of political participation. Clearly the youth appear to honor and respect elections but despise the people they elect, the politicians and the governments they form. 

There is a crippling decline in the belief that government can even deliver on services or aspirations of the youth. It is not surprising that while up to 90 percent of youth have a positive view of elections, less than 30 percent of East African youth reported that they had benefited from government initiatives. Moreover, youth trust family and religious institutions more than they trust government or politicians.

The youth are a consequential majority in every sense, political and socio-economic. About 80 percent of the estimated 146 million East Africans (excluding South Sudan), are below the age of 35 years. How youth engage in the electoral process, and their perception and confidence in the political process has strong political and socio-economic implications for the future of East Africa. 

But the magnitude of mistrust in politics and government by citizens must lead us to question or wonder if elections are the best mechanism for transforming the collective will of the people into tangible social or economic outcomes. Elections are even less believable as expressions of the collective will of citizens especially when fear mongering, misinformation and manipulation in the electioneering period inundate voters.  

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is flawed to the extent that it conceives elections as the embodiment of democracy. Elections can cause all kinds of outcomes like Brexit and the possibility of a Trump presidency. In Africa elections have been associated with violence, ethnic cleansing, political instability and economic decline.
Globally, there is a growing perception that elections are gravely antiquated tools, which could undermine democracy if they are not enhanced with more enlightened forms of public participation. 


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