Why take a Communication Skills class when I have been talking since I was a toddler? For over 20 years now, I have listened to many versions of this question from students in my Communication Skills classes in Kenya and the U.S. Most first year students in Kenya come to my communication class wondering what to expect. Some students assume that as potential engineers, physicians, chemists, accountants, agriculturists or architects, they do not need training in communication skills. Many think it is an easy subject because communicating, after all, is something they have been doing everyday. Communication is a skill, just like athletics, that needs to be learnt and practiced. Communication is key to listening, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.It is also important for team and work performance.
Nashon Adero in Kenya Vision 2030 and Human Resource Development observes that Kenyan education does not effectively address the core areas of communication, creative thinking, systems thinking, creative arts, talent identification, scientific inquiry, and spatial intelligence, which are critical to the human-resource demands of Vision 2030. This is lack exacerbated by Kenyan universities that liken teaching and learning of communication skills to other university common courses such as HIV/AIDS, Development Studies and Ethics. Often, the communication skills classes are in excess of 200 students, akin to other courses, and learners cannot practice the requisite skills of oratory, debate, research and organizing materials for speech-making processes. For quality training in communication, the UNESCO-recommended class size is 30 to 40 students.
Part-time lecturers who aren’t trained in rhetoric are employed to teach a Communication Skills course. Such lecturers equate talking with communication and are stuck in the traditional “talk and chalk” mode of teaching. They make students to write and memorize mechanically narrated subject content. The more notes the lecturer dictates, the better the lecturers think they are. The more the students accept to be filled like empty vessels, the better they are perceived to be.
The paucity of presentation and communication skills among lecturers and professors has turned Kenyan university education into what Paulo Freire, the Brazilian adult educator, referred to as the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. The year 2030 is speedily advancing. Kenya targets to be a newly industrializing, middle-income nation that provides a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030, but the local human resource base is insufficient and ill-prepared. Human resource development is a fundamental enabler to the Vision 2030.
Kenya requires graduates with requisite soft-skills training to effectively negotiate the 21st century global village. Such skilss will enable engineers, physicians, accountants, horticulturists, scientists or professors to think globally and at the same time articulate their ideas to find local solutions to local problems. University graduates that will deliver Vision 2030 must be great thinkers that understand the relationship between their technical expertise with other disciplines. They must see how their research projects connect with other thematic areas and contemporary global trends. They must be excellent communicators who can clearly articulate and logically present their ideas to various audiences that range from technical management boards to public committees.
The newly introduced 2-6-3-3-3 system of education in Kenya, if properly implemented, envisages imparting the competencies cited in the previous text. The first university graduates from this system will be spewed out after the year 2030. Waiting is to put the cart before the horse. Kenyan universities urgently need to creatively re-engineer the way they teach and prepare graduates for the ever-changing labor markets. The paucity of communication skills training among university academic staff, which has made university education become an act of depositing in which the students are the depositories and the teacher a depositor, can be addressed by education, engineering and enforcement (3Es of behavior change communication).
I learnt how to ride a bicycle from a skilled rider who inspired, coached, motivated and provided opportunities for me to explore and try out new skills. Imagine learning how to ride a bicycle through the banking concept of education. The learners may score As in the final exam after a semester long of writing and memorizing mechanically narrated subject content but that doesn’t mean they can ride a bicycle. This is what universities are doing. Education of university academic staff on the importance of communication skills training is imperative. Communication, presentation skills training, emotional intelligence (EQ), conflict mediation, negotiation and anger-management must be part of a continuous development program (CDP) for university academic staff similar to other professions such as medicine, law and engineering.
Kenyan universities must re-engineer the teaching of communication skills. Every university must build state-of-the-art laboratories for practical training in soft-skills. Communication and critical thinking skills training must be a life-long continuous education program in Kenyan universities. Academics should earn a certain minimum continuous learning education (CLE) points to validate their university teaching certificate. While most professors boast of 20 or 30 years of teaching experiences which really is 1 year’s experience repeated 19 or 29 times respectively, experience ceases to be a great teacher where one learnt the wrong skills from the start.
Learners, in the first two years should learn and practice communication and critical thinking skills at the basic, intermediate and advanced levels. From then on, communication should be tailored to their profession. Reimer Marc, writing on Communication Skills for the 21st Century Engineer in the Global Journal of Engineering Education, posits that communication skills are an essential component in the education of engineering students who aspire to carry out their professional practice in the global arena. He proposes that communication skills be integrated across the curriculum. The skills education must include oral, listening, written, visual, interdisciplinary, intercultural communication, and emotional intelligence (EQ). The Engineering accreditation in the United States of America recognizes communication skills as one of 11 key outcomes required by an undergraduate engineering program.
Similarly, communication skills training and related educational efforts are fully supported and required by the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) in America. Patient interviewing and interpersonal communication skills has a long history in medical school curricula in the U.S. A research assessing the effectiveness of Communication Skills training with medical students indicates that it has resulted in improvement in communication behaviors, confidence, and comfort specific to the clinical topics. Further, the biopsychosocial perspective (integration of biological, psychological, and social perspectives) of illness treatment is increasingly becoming more popular, replacing the biomedical disease model which has demonstrated limited effectiveness in treating the 21st century concerns such tobacco use, physical inactivity, poor diet, and alcohol consumption.
I urge the Kenya Medical and Dentists Practitioners Board (KMDPB) to conduct research and make a number of recommendations to “reinvent” the failing health care system in Kenya and enhance medical training by improving the integration of behavior and social sciences into the six-year curriculum with a particular focus on key areas including physician-patient communication and principles of behavior change. I see the medical internship period as uniquely positioned to offer the longitudinal focus in which communication skills can be well integrated in the Kenyan medical curricula over an extended period.
Communication has its root from the Greek word rhetoric, which basically means the art of persuasion. University academic staff, school teachers, government, community leaders, politicians, and other public speakers, are in a unique position not only to share their ideas but also to persuade their listeners and, at times, move them to act—for better or for worse. With this unique power to influence the minds and hearts of others come ethical responsibilities or ethos meaning “character.” According to Aristotle, a person who has ethos demonstrates while speaking that he or she shares characteristics with others in the community—that is, has a good-sense, good-will, and good-morals.
Good-sense means to speak knowledgeably. Most professors and lecturers have a great knowledge base of their subject matter, research agenda and what they are doing but lack the requisite communication skills to effectively paint that big picture outside their minds, laboratories and offices, which is a major handicap in enhancing the role of universities as engines of socio-economic transformation. Universities have a crucial role to play as enablers of Vision 2030. These institutions will remain white elephant projects if they fail to communicate science and technological innovations in a mode comprehensible to policy makers and the public.
Good-will is to communicate a sense of caring for oneself and the audience; and good-morals means to share your audiences’ visions, fears, and hopes. For Aristotle, speakers were regarded positively only when they were well-prepared, honest, and respectful toward their audience. Kenyan academics create such a high power distance—defined as the extent to which less powerful members of the society view the unequal distribution of power as a normal part of life—with their students that militates against meaningful interactions and dialogues concomitant to sustained academic rigors. The typical Kenyan professor projects an absolute ignorance to the learner, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression that negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry, dialogue, invention and re-invention. Friere postulates that in the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. The result is half-baked university graduates with great college academic grades but no sound college education.
Kenya’s Vision 2030 attainment is pegged on the quality of its university graduates. The 21st century university graduate must display sound reasoning skill and communication ethos. Communication ethos requires that people adhere to certain ethical ground rules that include being trustworthy, respectful, responsible and fair in our oral and written presentations. Presently, the cancer of corruption, ethnocentrism and hate speech pervades the Kenyan socio-cultural milieu. The 21st century graduate must appreciate other people’s world-view even if they don’t agree with it. One the other hand, hate speech is any offensive communication—verbal and nonverbal—that is directed against people’s racial, ethnic, religious, gender, or other characteristics. To industrialize and modernize by 2030, Kenyan universities need to produce graduates with skyhook principles and values that transcend ethnocentrism, nepotism and corruption, hate speech, gender-based violence, stereotyping, racial biasness and the big-man syndrome leadership type.
By Dr. Mjomba Majalia
Lecturer of Communication, Media Studies and Theater Arts at Taita Taveta University in Kenya.