Titanic Targets in a Tumbling Tower
Education comfortably finds home among the sectors deserving increasing attention in the decade of delivery. It is a critical foundation for societal transformation. Technological innovation is quickly reducing the half-life of skills, thus necessitating reskilling, upskilling, and deep skilling – with a keen eye on transferable skills and resilience. With half of the households globally already in the middle-class category, the global race is already cut out to be won or lost in proportion to the influence arising from utilising knowledge and technology.
In Africa, Kenya’s education sector features dramatic episodes that epitomise ambitious targets. Taking over from the 8-4-4 system, the new Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) has been promoted as a progressive skills-oriented education system, a timely response to a changing labour market experiencing a growing skills gap. The targets are, however, resting on a weak foundation devoid of well-tested, collectively owned and finished plans of action with the requisite infrastructure and instructor training. The questions emerging here are systems questions which, if effectively addressed, could lead to sustainable reforms and eventually transformative outcomes. Systems thinking enables us to understand that yesterday’s solutions, in their rushed, short-term and fragmented approaches, are responsible for today’s rising problems.
Missing the Means for Misleading Metrics
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, has a clear message for Kenyan leaders in the educational reform process: You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems. There is real danger in setting high and exclusive goals in an unprepared environment that can only invite a rush for meeting targets by any means, however unethical and undignified the means is. Unintended consequences are unavoidable in such a scenario. Goodhart's law also reinforces, "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Simply put, if you push people to meet unrealistically high targets, they can still meet the targets anyway, but not necessarily through the right means. Achieving 100% transition rate by a set deadline, for example, speaks more to the numbers than the quality. This is a perfect example of the end not justifying the means, according to Immanuel Kant’s lesson on the philosophy of categorical imperative.
A Systemic Plague Defying a Radical Surgery
Kenyans have been treated to several cases of “radical surgery” with a view to eradicating persistent sector problems. The law of systems thinking is, however, against the success of such an approach in the education sector because education is a complex adaptive system; it must be treated as such. Since Kenya’s Ministry of Education at the time of writing this article is headed by Prof. George Omore Magoha, a surgeon, figurative usage of surgical terms should make for effective communication of the policy message. We cannot determine yet if his surgical knife will successfully restore health to the education sector, but anyone can tell quite well where the high hurdles are.
A Disappointing Dissection of the Elephant
One of the eleven laws of systems thinking put forward by Peter Senge states, “Dividing an elephant into two does not produce two small elephants.” Rather, one must patiently allow for the elephant’s gestation period to take its natural course, a whole 600 days, for the live young elephant to be born. For a sustainable long-term solution to education sector reforms, the education policymakers must go for a participatory and systemic approach, which will enable a shared understanding and collective responsibility.
Care must also be taken against any radical surgery that attempts to address the systemic challenge of education reforms by dissecting it into separate parts and factions, or simply copy-pasting patches from best practices abroad. A collective solution must be worked out from the big picture with local multi-stakeholder involvement. The reform process must rate quality above speed and consistency above intensity. The points of high leverage must be given priority, of which teacher training is an obvious candidate. Teachers are critical agents in the planning, management and administration of education. Early engagements through generative dialogue is akin to the wisdom of performing a pre-mortem as opposed to the regrets of a post-mortem.
Inverting the Inverted Pyramid
Education reforms in Kenya must confront and reverse many fronts emanating from years of mismanagement and skewed approach. Recently, the higher education model has been an inverted pyramid focused more on university education and academic qualifications at the expense of technical and vocational skills. This has been against the prevailing demographics and natural distribution of learners’ capabilities. The pyramid must be inverted now to be upright and stable, resting on the broad base made up of over 70% of post-secondary school learners. This rich fraction of talents should find targeted and quality training in well-equipped non-university tertiary institutions (TVET).
Courting Contextual Intelligence
Notably, today’s learners need to acquire contextual intelligence, that rare ability to adapt and apply knowledge innovatively to different borderless real-world scenarios and situations. The timeless creative and people skills such as negotiation, team leadership, fundraising, and effective communication deserve growing emphasis as automation decimates the market for routine tasks. Like any other complex adaptive system, quality education in the new era will continue to place on progressive governments heavy demands for well-trained teachers, quality learning resources, and regular updates within a transparent, democratised and adaptive learning cycle. It, therefore, remains a key governance challenge to identify and address all educational barriers of financial, structural, organisational, attitudinal, and technological nature.
By Nashon Adero
The writer is a lecturer at Taita Taveta University, Kenya