Education Crisis In Kenya: A time to Rethink our Conceptualization of Problems

Published on 4th June 2019

During my unpaid leave from the University of Nairobi, I took up a residency at the Five Colleges Women Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. My stay involved a lot of sacrifice because I did not have adequate finances. During my stay, I experienced the handling of the supposed closure of Hampshire College. In the beginning of the year, the College president reported via the media that the college would not admit new students in the Fall of 2019 which meant that the college was on its way to its closure.

Faculty and students were taken by surprise and off began the struggle to save Hampshire college. Faculty through their union hired lawyers and other professionals to help them with the negotiations. In feminist spaces like the center I was in, tears were shed and discussions held on how to help those who were going to lose jobs. The negotiations were intense. The students held a sit in at the president’s office demanding her resignation. The process went on for months until she resigned. There were no demonstrations on streets, destructions of trees, buildings or cars. It was just negotiations and sit ins.

After the president resigned one of the founders of the college was appointed as the president to help in the salvaging of the college, faculty and students. A solution which benefitted faculty and students was arrived at. Voluntary retirements were suggested, salary cuts negotiated, leave of absence negotiated and a pathway for saving Hampshire arrived at. The five college cosortium which includes Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, University of Massachusetts at Amherst gave moral and physical support to some of the faculty. The bottom line was to solve the crisis in the most human way and help save an education institution.

In Kenya, we are having an education crisis at all levels of education. A new curriculum is being introduced regardless of the view of the teachers who are key stakeholders. Public universities are on the verge of being declared bankrupt. They  are accused of lack of quality in their programs. I need not emphasize the need of education in a society. Education provides skills, imparts values and helps individuals work towards the actualization of their dreams. Education has propelled societies to greater heights through research and innovations. Most of the digital led revolution has taken place in universities. New seeds, new crops, new tools and equipment have been developed in universities. Societies have perpetuated themselves through education. Without education there will not be a society.

Education is not something we should play games with. We need to sit and reason together. The change to a competency based curriculum needs to be negotiated and a consensus arrived at with key stakeholders. Methodologies of the curriculum change need to be given time to evolve. How does a one week training change the teachers’ classroom behaviour?

How do you convert a teacher who has been used to lecture methods overnight into using problem solving methods. How do you make a teacher-centred learning process into a student-centred process? For example, for a learner’s competency to be identified and developed, the learner’s school entering behaviour must be understood. Students who have access to out-of-school resources in homes and community will already have their competencies easily identified.

When initiating my parental involvement program in Igamba Primary School, Gatundu North, a visiting American friend asked the pupils to draw pictures of the careers they wanted to be in future. They drew pictures of tea collecting truck drivers, Matatu drivers, tea pickers, policemen shooting people. The pupils were honest with themselves because these pictures reflected the environments they lived in. I imagine a teacher in Igamba trying to discover and the competencies of students who are used to seeing tea picking, milking of cows, cutting trees, using wood fire stoves etc.

While working with the parents, I asked them how they help their students to choose their future careers. One parent told me that if he sees a child interested in playing with wheels, he will encourage them to be a mechanic. Another told me that they encourage them to learn from the teacher about their future careers. The teacher knows what is best for their students. When we are changing to a competency-based curriculum, we need to understand the environments which have shaped the children’s classroom entry behaviour. The way parents socialize their children, the things they have grown up seeing, the exposure to other media, are crotical.

As a single parent, my daughter had a problem when the concept of family was introduced in class. She was told that the family has a male father, a female mother, brothers who are male and sisters who are female like her. Off course I can be blamed for not introducing my daughter to the father, but I come from the school that believes that you cannot force someone to accept responsibility. A teacher also intimated that when in a test, a student was asked who cooks in the home, she replied that it was the aunt. Her expected answer was mother. We need to bring our everyday knowledge in the classroom and address the real issues that teachers face in the classroom related to our society.

The issue with our education is not quality. We offer quality imported curriculums. Some of the students I have taught over my thirty years have excelled in institutions abroad where they have gone for their Masters and PhD degree studies. Currently I have student doing a PhD at the University of Michigan who is doing very well.  It has to do with our imported knowledge system and the desire to catch up. We have an education system that makes us hate who we are. An education system that is geared to further the global system of extraction and exploitation. An education system that is divorced from our everyday lived experience.

While babysitting my granddaughter, I have a chance to watch the baby Youtube video. They cover all aspects of the environment she will encounter in the American environment. The sun, the animals, the bus, the pool etc. We transpose this to our children. This is not the case with our kindergarten books. We demonize our cultures and methods of doing things as backward and primitive. I was ashamed to see an article where a vice chancellor was inviting multinationals to come and set up innovations in his science parks. Since the university is located in Nyeri, why can’t he propose the development of tools that will make farming easy in the region?  Why do women have to dig using hoes and weed using pangas? Why don’t we come up with tools that simplify coffee picking or millet harvesting?  

If I was given a chance to run universities, I would come up with courses like Engineering for everyday problems. I would develop customer care courses for matatu drivers and touts. I would come up with buildings and towns that respond to everyday needs of traders, artisans and peasants who are the majority in our cities and rural areas. This would go a long way in addressing planning and garbage management in cities. My graduates would never miss jobs because they would be solving everyday local problems. They would behave like the Hampshire faculty and students who save their college rather than destroy it as our elite professionals, politicians and academics do to. Rather than build, they destroy. Rather than connect, they alienate. Rather than support, they remove the ladder. Rather than give keys to open doors, they change the locks. Rather than help one raise their head, they use harmers to knock down the raised heads. Rather than stretch our hands for us to walk together, they cut the other people’s hands. What a pity!

By Dr Mary Njeri Kinyanjui

Senior Fellow, Institute of Development Studies,The University of Nairobi.

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