Kenya Quality Basic Education for Enhanced Innovation Capacity: Insights from a Cross-Country Survey

Published on 29th August 2016

At the recent Next Einstein Forum (NEF) in Dakar, Senegal, world leaders paid tribute to the key position of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Africa’s development agenda and appealed for increased investment in STEM education. Emphasis on STEM education, it is believed, should promote the innovations that can unlock Africa’s immense potential for economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Research findings concur that technological innovation capacity is the primary engine for wealth creation, and the means by which increasing development demands can be met against the limited carrying capacity of the planet. Lessons from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) challenge governments to prioritize wealth and job creation goals in their development policies. While this challenge invokes measures to enhance innovation capacity, it also evokes questions on how well a country’s education curriculum empowers her graduates to become critical thinkers, innovators, and hence job creators. The training of STEM disciplines, believed to be the source of key skills for technological innovation, consequently invites much curiosity in terms of educational policy agenda.

New Era-New Demands on Skills Development

Award-winning authors such as Lisa Bodell acknowledge that the era we are living in now, referred to as the Conceptual Age, requires creative problem solvers with a very different kind of mind. This breed of thinkers is not so much into the “left-brain” kind of thinking, which has been a key feature of the preceding Information Age. In the book "A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future", Daniel H. Pink also concurs that current global conditions are setting the stage for a brand new era, in which the “right-brain” qualities such as creativity, empathy and meaning are gaining prominence.

The theory of multiple intelligences developed by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, comes in handy as we explore the various skills modern education and training should impart right from the basic education level. Key among the skills deserving increased attention in this era are systems thinking and spatial thinking. The idea behind systems thinking, proposed by MIT professor Jay Forrester, is to grasp the big picture by understanding patterns and cause-effect relationships in the environment. Spatial thinking involves understanding the relationships between objects based on their location and learning the importance of answering the question “where” to understand “why” things occur. Dr. Howard Gardner defines spatial intelligence as the human computational capacity to solve the spatial problems of navigation, visualization of objects from different angles and space, faces or scenes recognition, or the capacity to notice fine details. This capability is a brain skill that is also found in people with visual impairment.

Quality of Basic Education and Innovative Capacity

There exists vast literature with numerous findings on the relationship between education and training systems on the one hand, and national innovation capacities on the other. Most of this literature places emphasis on higher education (tertiary level). I believe that the quality of basic education (typically primary and secondary school level) holds the fundamental solution to the puzzle of creating innovators. Tertiary-level training mainly builds upon the foundation laid at the basic education level, thereby exposing the otherwise nascent innovation capacity of students on the more conspicuous world stage. The quality of basic education, in terms of how effectively it imparts critical thinking and problem-solving skills, has a strong influence on the innovative aptitude of any graduates – anytime, anywhere.

Cross-Country Survey in Search for Answers

Curiosity about the importance of quality basic education and how it influences innovation capacity motivated me to carry out a cross-country survey i 2014 and 2015. For a balanced view on objective and location-independent ratings, such as the degree of importance of a given skill in promoting innovation, respondents were drawn from other countries besides Kenya. The survey collected the views of respondents drawn from countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The principal focus was on how the basic education and training systems in the respondents’ countries prepare students to be innovative problem solvers. Among the lead questions were:

  • Is Africa, and Kenya in particular, placing emphasis on the right areas that basic education needs to develop in order to enhance innovation capacity?
  • What do students mainly consider when choosing courses to take at higher learning institutions?

Delegates at the 12th African Resource Bank Forum, organized by the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) in Nairobi, 19 – 22 November 2014, also provided key insights into the study questions as they discussed the theme of the forum: Africans’ Productivity in the 21st Century: Who Owns Africa?

Based on what most experts in matters pertaining to quality education and training consider critical to producing innovative graduates, a clear convergence emerges on eight key areas that any basic education level must address in order to produce the brand of graduates required to sustain the innovation momentum that the dynamic 21st century marketplace demands. These critical areas are:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy skills
  • Communication skills
  • Creative arts
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Scientific inquiry
  • Systems thinking skills
  • Talent management

The study used an online questionnaire to collect views on the degree of emphasis the basic education curriculum of the respondent’s country places on each of the eight areas above. The respondents were also required to rate each of the eight areas on how important they are in developing innovation capacity, on a scale ranging from 1 (least important) to 4 (most important). Besides questions that test independent perceptions on impact factors, there were questions allowing for flexible responses depending on country-specific situations. Questions of this type gave Kenyans the opportunity to critique the quality of their basic education system, and further gave non-Kenyans room to evaluate and share the strengths and weaknesses of their own basic education systems as well. The distribution of interview questions was informed by the need to generate results on suitable standards for comparison, best practices, and recommendations for innovation-oriented basic education.  

Notably, questions were designed to extract information relevant to addressing the challenges Kenya has been facing in her current education system. The current process aimed at overhauling Kenya’s 8-4-4 system of education should benefit from the findings of this study. The argument is that the 8-4-4 system has failed to effectively inculcate the skills that match the priority marketplace needs and, by extension, the goals of Kenya Vision 2030. Kenyan experience in this process can serve as a reference point to other countries interested in reviewing their education systems.

A total of 36 key informants completed the survey. The respondents were drawn from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Indonesia, China, Brazil, Germany, Britain, and the USA. The views shared by international delegates at the 12th African Resource Bank Forum on re-orienting training for enhanced innovation capacity were also taken into account. A weighted-average analysis of the ranked views exposed key policy issues in pedagogy and curriculum orientation, which should inform the review of basic education systems such as the process Kenya has embarked on. The weighted scores were normalised into a percentage scale for easier comparison of the views expressed. For ease of visualization and comparison, the synthesized results were plotted with the x-axis showing the potential of each of the eight focal areas to stimulate innovation, and the y-axis showing the degree of emphasis the training in each of these eight areas has been receiving, especially in Kenya.

 Key Findings

Basic education curriculum (in Kenya, for instance) still places more emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy skills, estimated at 83% and 75% respectively. These two areas, however, are rated the lowest of all the eight areas in boosting innovation capacity – with their weaker innovation scores in the x-axis being at 72% and 73%, respectively. They therefore plotted as the smallest balls. Assuming 50% as the pass mark, it is evident that only these two areas pass the mark in terms of receiving adequate pedagogical attention. Communication skills follows a distant third at 47%. The worst casualties of neglect in training emphasis are systems thinking (14%), talent management (19%) and scientific inquiry (25%). Spatial intelligence (31%) and creative arts (36%) are also still below the required level of training emphasis.

Scientific inquiry scored the highest (94%) as the most important attribute for innovation capacity, followed closely by systems thinking skills or the ability to see the big picture or connections in whole systems (91%) and talent management (88%). Communication skills (86%), spatial intelligence (85%) and creative arts (83%) also exert their high importance in boosting innovation capacity. Evidently, there is a wide gap in the x-axis: between literacy and numeracy, and the rest of the skills that basic education must address to harness innovation culture. 

It can be concluded from the above summary that the prevailing mode of delivering basic education and training has been skewed in emphasis, with the areas holding the key to enhanced innovation capacity receiving the least attention, far much below 50% according to average rating on a percentage scale. Newcombe and Frick, writing on early education for spatial intelligence, also observed the fact that teachers focus more on imparting the basic skills of reading, writing and computations (in mathematics and science). They called for more attention to be devoted to improving spatial thinking. Dr. Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, comments that teachers typically have high verbal but lower spatial profiles, a fact that makes it hard to discover spatially talented students at the basic education levels. This talent is therefore missed in routine school tests, thereby going unnoticed and underdeveloped. These observations are instructive in terms of the key changes needed in terms of equipping teachers to deliver effectively on the new areas of training emphasis and improving training infrastructure.

Country-Specific Assessments

Respondents from Asia gave examples of games for learners that help develop their problem-solving skills through games and puzzles. It is notable that such activities extend the critical thinking capability of learners beyond the classroom into the real world of applications. In the USA and Europe, there were examples of activities included in the basic education curricula that expose learners to learning by self-discovery. Map reading skills, a key part of developing spatial intelligence, were noted by respondents from the USA and Germany as part of the regular exposure students receive right from the primary school level. Extra-curricular activities of these types are therefore recommended for developing spatial intelligence, seeing the big picture, and scientific inquiry. These exposure avenues were glaringly lacking in the basic education systems that are fully occupied with classwork and exams, leaving little room for independent exploration by learners. In the Kenyan scenario, for instance, the respondents noted exam-oriented training as a key characteristic of the education system students are exposed to right from primary school, thereby suppressing the freedom of creative thought and imagination.

The heavy workload of classwork, even among pre-primary and lower primary pupils, was presented as a major hindrance to creativity and joyful learning – with private academies as the greatest culprits obsessed with exam-oriented training.  In urban settings, the situation is worse because learners lack meaningful interaction with the environment that can offer natural lessons through role playing, seeing live examples, and applying numeracy skills to real-life examples. 

In deciding which courses to pursue at higher learning institutions (college/university), the cost of the programme was among the leading factors students in Kenya consider. Acquiring skills for employment outweighed acquiring skills for self-employment as the decision variable Kenyan students consider when choosing training programmes, and the influence of mentors was also noted to be a significant force in the choices. The objective position reflected in the weighted average from the worldwide survey, however, placed the highest value on acquiring skills for self-employment (83%); followed by the reputation of the college/university (76%); the technology and innovation opportunities offered by the training programme (74%); and recommendation by mentors (74%).  Peer influence turned out to be the least decision factor, at a weighted mean score of 43%.

Way Forward

The findings of this study are a key lesson for Kenya on misplaced educational priorities. The increasing networking between hardware, software, and human beings is ushering in the dawn of highly networked systems. This means we need an education system that imparts keys skills for the hybrid jobs of the future. Though much attention is skewed in favour of the quality of higher education and training institutions, this study showed that most of the weaknesses exposed among learners at the higher education levels can be explained by the quality of the basic education that shaped their thinking earlier in life. Systems thinking, talent management, scientific inquiry, and spatial intelligence are the most neglected areas in many basic education curricula. The prevailing emphasis of curricular activities at the basic education level has therefore been skewed unfavourably against national innovation capacities, hence retarding the attainment of the goals of job creation and wealth realisation for many developing economies, Kenya included.

As countries like Kenya embark on reforming their basic education systems, these findings place an urgent demand on them to ensure curricular activities place more emphasis on innovation-oriented areas, namely: spatial intelligence, talent management, systems thinking, and scientific inquiry. As shown, even communication skills still need more training emphasis in the current setting, so that learners can develop into experts who can effectively articulate, communicate and validate their findings for improved impact on society. As demonstrated by examples from Asia, socialization of the learning process must not be neglected, since integration of social and cultural aspects into the learning cycle leads to easier absorption of scientific concepts by learners.

Discovering and developing creative talents right from primary school is a critical intervention point in nurturing innovators who will solve real-world problems and impact society meaningfully. African countries should have a fresh look at the quality of their basic education systems, critique how they interface with socio-cultural settings and marketplace needs, and come up with revised structures and policies that will help produce the right graduates for their local development needs in an evolutionary manner. On the part of teachers, it is evident that retraining will be a key requirement for Kenya, including the use of a variety of methods and learning resources to overcome the perennial paradox of giving the least attention to the most important skills and co-curricular activities that matter most for innovation. Work-play balance will have to consider increasing the time allocation for games and other extra-curricular activities that can sharpen the critical thinking and problem-solving skills among young learners – while also challenging them enough to be curious and independent thinkers who can learn by self-discovery and become innovative leaders.   

By Nashon Adero
Lecturer, Department of Mining and Mineral Processing Engineering
Taita Taveta University College, Voi – Kenya

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