What educational reforms will catalyse economic growth?

By XN Iraki

In his second State of the Union address, President Barack Obama alluded to the 'putnik' moment.

point out that the metaphor failed to fire up the imagination of the audience, for a good reason.

Sputnik moment came in 1957, when most Americans, including the president were not born.

In that year the Soviet Union, which after the cold of Cold War broke into countries with tongue twisting names such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, launched a spacecraft by that name that orbited the earth piloted by Yuri Gagarin. Americans saw that as an affront to their pride. How could a communist country win space race?

Another young President like Obama, John Kennedy reacted not by talking but by acting. In 1961, he suggested that Americans should land on the moon before the end of 1960s decade. They did.

To achieve that super ordinate goal, they had to reform their curriculum right from primary school to University.

In Kenya, we have our superordinate goal, attaining Vision 2030, our economic blueprint. America’s goal was landing on our nearest celestial body, the moon; for generations a subject of myths and mythology. It would be a great pride for our generation if we achieved this Vision before 2030.

To achieve our superordinate goal, the Vision 2030, we must reform our education. The ministry of Education has already embarked on starting with social sciences where new provisions of the Constitution have made it to the curriculum.

I gather that to address gender balance and recognise her achievements, Prof Wangari Mathaai will be in the curriculum joining the list of prominent Kenyans from Jomo Kenyatta to Tom Mboya. Is Vision 2030

part of our curriculum?

But what other specific areas in education need reforms?

In the last 25 years, any debate on education reforms has revolved around 8-4-4 system and the politics around it. Rarely has the debate been about contents, which is what really matters. More obvious is that 8-4-4 and 7-4-6-3 all add up to 16.

System delivery

The system does not matter, it is what the system delivers after 16 years or more because eight is rarely eight, with all the nursery school jargon from baby class to middle and top classes.

The starting point in reforms is the curriculum. What do our children learn and how sure are we it will make them competitive for the rest of their lives?

Could the mass return-to-school by adults be a realisation that knowledge ages and must be constantly replenished?

This "return-to-school" movement particularly at graduate level gives us the golden opportunity to re-engineer Kenya’s working force to make it more productive.

Our children will live in a different world from ours. Are we empowering them with the skills, knowledge and attitudes that will make them confront such a world head on?

Our current economic situation with such a high unemployment rate demands new a curriculum. For example, most universities teach a course on entrepreneurship to both under graduate and graduate students. Is that not too late, why not start the course in primary school?

We are quick to add the provisions of the new Constitution to the curriculum, what of the new developments in science and technology? Our children live in a technologically advanced world. Yet we seem to worry more about how they will misuse technology not how they can produce it.

Truthfully, most of the new enterprises have a science and technology component, from Google to Cisco to Sony and Access Kenya.

If we are to have our Sputnik moment, we must refocus our energy on science and technology.

Unlike social sciences, the government must invest in this area because it is expensive and externalities are very high. No one can deny that our country is a hostage of social scientists; they hold key position in most institutions and make the major decisions. The new constitution seems to have reinforced their privileges.

It is unlikely that investors in education will willingly shift to science and technology when with lower investments in social sciences they cannot even satisfy the demand for higher education.

Information asymmetry

Most students only worry about what they studied after graduation, not before. They do not explore what opportunities their field provides beyond graduation. This has been the lifeline of bogus colleges.

The other reform should focus on learning itself. Sputnik led to new approaches such as learning by discovery where students explored new frontiers using small projects.

Today, our students prefer to be lectured, faithfully taking notes and hoping that the exams will be as close to those notes as possible. Without learner involvement, it is no wonder lifelong learning is not one of our cultures. We need a rethinking of our delivery systems so that our next generation is not fed on a steady diet of inert ideas.

The biggest threat to our sputnik moment is extra tuition that denies our students the chance to learn by themselves.

In areas like mathematics, children will only internalise the concepts you teach by doing, it does not matter how many examples you give them. The same applies to most sciences.

A bigger reform should focus on the attitudes of the next generation. The most worrying attitude is hatred of work. Too many students believe work is evil and should be avoided. This negative attitude in class easily slips into the world of work with employees that lack self drive, self initiate and innovations.

They may have the best grades but their attitudes are anti-work. Could extra tuition be teaching our students to avoid work?

Some observers worry that we spawning a generation that value leisure more than work.

The term "working smart" often connote avoiding work or delegating it to the "drones".

We cannot forget reforms that recognise our individual talents. Education in Kenya has become zero sum game, a lottery of sort.

— the writer is a lecturerr, University of Nairobi Business School.