Curriculum Reform: Is it worth the trouble?

Kenya Institute of Curriculum of Development PHOTO:COURTESY

Kenya finds itself in the middle of an education reform process about which everybody has an opinion, yet few quite understand.

What is even more difficult is building consensus about what needs to happen, the subjects to be taught, the type of pedagogy. I have seen impassioned arguments among technocrats about the direction that the reform should take.

But does Kenya need change? Kenya has a strong curriculum, better than most countries in the region.

Changing a system is a very expensive and tiring process. Yet education has to constantly evolve and grow to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. In recent years the pace of change has become rapid and in certain areas, our education system has struggled to implement the changes needed to keep pace. The 21st century policy protocols lean more towards the outcomes of the system rather than the inputs.

For many years, we have described education in terms of how much money has been put aside, and indeed Kenya spends about 7 per cent of its GDP on education, making Kenyan education one of the most heavily funded globally. Free Primary Education was a good step in getting children into school. The question that has been attending the system is: what is happening then in school?

In 2008, The Kenya Institute of Curriculum of Development (KICD) undertook a summative evaluation of the curriculum. The verdict was that the curriculum is not responsive to the changing needs of the society.

Furthermore, it established that Kenyan education as it is cannot meet the dictates of Vision 2030, which aims to drive innovation around science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Uwezo Kenya has undertaken assessments that show that children are not attaining the necessary competencies at class level and year in, year out the narrative has been the same.

The high stakes examinations that are the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education and the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education are so inefficient that all they do is ask learners to regurgitate what they have been taught. And some learners, teachers, and parents do anything to get the coveted A grade.

Yet the global focus on education is about outcomes, not inputs. The needs assessment survey undertaken by KICD showed that the country needs a clear and measurable education system that enables all youth to obtain basic skills. This goal, which promotes inclusive development, incorporates enrolment of youth into secondary school and achievement that provides a basis for economic and social participation through a competency-based curriculum.

So, rather than an assessment that seeks a regurgitation of facts, it will seek to evaluate what learners can do with the knowledge they receive. So, essentially, the reform must look afresh at learning theories such as “to understand is to invent” by Montessori, Dewey, and Piaget, diverse learning styles and intelligences by Howard Gardner.

The system is also operating in an environment of exponential growth of information where learning is a contest between memorising facts and learning how to find, use, and apply knowledge.

It is quite obvious that most work today requires skills we don’t know how to assess or teach to students that include innovation, learning how to learn, problem-solving, and teamwork. The system has become a conveyor that pushes students towards academic subjects and ignores talents such as sports, music, art and craft, and other creative skills. Vision 2030 heavily focuses on application of STEM to raise productivity and efficiency across the economic, social, and political pillars.

I have seen discussions about whether we should change 8-4-4 or not. Prof Douglas Odhiambo and his team proposed change to the structure.

That is not necessarily what Kenyans should be grappling with. We can even go back with nostalgia to the 7-4-2-3, but if we are not clear what the reform should address then this becomes an effort in vain. Kenya has a golden opportunity to make good the promise to the children of this country - to give them wings, allow them to fit in the local and global milieu.

In my view the reform should revolve around three anchors. First, it should introduce uniformly high academic standards for all students, while allowing different pathways for students to show their mastery. Rigour today is less about content coverage and much more about mastery of core competencies: literacy, numeracy, analysis, communication, problem-solving, and collaboration.

Secondly, the traditional “you must go to university to succeed” academic curriculum doesn’t make sense to many students and they are not motivated to attain mastery. The curriculum has to be both challenging and connected to “real-world” applications such as service and internship. It is the only way to make the curriculum relevant.

Third is the increasingly important component of emotional intelligence. This is about building relationships. You can’t motivate a student you don’t know. There is no learning without trust, empathy, and respect, and neither are these granted automatically by today’s students. They must be earned. In my opinion, this is what makes the reform worth the trouble. We can get the structure we want, but what does it mean if our children remain “unbuilt”?

What is the point of setting a beautiful dinner table if the food is not nourishing? We need to focus on what matters. Let’s get the curriculum and accountability right. The structure will fall in place. So, is reform cheap? No, it isn’t. Neither is an ineffective unaccountable education system.

Dr Jepkemei is an expert in education policy, leadership and emotional intelligence