How competency-based learning will be crucial in nurturing self-reliance

Grade Three pupils of Victonell Academy, Nakuru, clean up a road as part of the learning process, yesterday. [Harun Wathari, Standard]
The Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) currently being implemented is one of the most radical attempts at reforming the education system in Kenya. Though not the first such effort, it marks a bold shift with its singular focus on how learners can apply the knowledge imparted to them in school, a departure from the largely exam-oriented approach of previous systems.

Starting with the Ominde Commission in 1963, there have been other major attempts at revamping the country’s education sector. The Ominde Commission led to introduction of the 7-4-2-3 system to replace the European-oriented colonial learning system. With time, however the 7-4-2-3 system came under intense criticism as being too academic and detached from the employment needs of society.

As the Gachathi Report of 1976 noted, “The problem (of unemployment) is aggravated by annual outputs of school leavers whose numbers continue to swell following the enormous expansion of education.”

A new learning curriculum was required, one attuned to the country’s ever-evolving social and economic needs.   
Then came the 8-4-4 system in the mid-80s, seeking to redress weaknesses of the 7-4-2-3 by producing learners capable of pursuing opportunities in entrepreneurship and the informal sector. But like its predecessor, the 8-4-4 system was strongly faulted for being too cumbersome and expensive for teachers and learners.
Despite several task forces formed to reform it, 8-4-4 lingered on for three decades, with disastrous results if the high numbers of unemployed and unemployable school graduates seen today are anything to go by.

Perhaps the worst legacy of the 7-4-2-3 and 8-4-4 systems is in the failure first, to focus on the unique abilities and talents of the learner, and second, focusing too much on the individual without equipping them with tools to become better and responsible citizens in future. Hence, corruption, negative ethnicity, violence and lack of patriotism became endemic problems in Kenya. People were schooled to put their individual needs above the rest of society.

The previous learning systems were also deemed as coming short of the education demands of the Vision 2030, the national development blueprint to make Kenya a competitive and prosperous economy. Building an industrial, middle-income country requires diverse competencies from a social and technical perspective.

The CBC, in my view, aims at reversing this situation. It meets the aspirations of Kenyans as espoused in the National Goals of Education. CBC was the result of a series of studies, notably a needs assessment review conducted by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) in 2016. The new system aspires for radical new outcomes from the learning process.

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At the core of CBC is equipping the learner with ability to apply knowledge, skills and values taught in school. It is therefore a learner-centred system geared to improving the ability of students to use what they have learnt in school to solve life problems. Unlike previous learning systems, it is not just about what the student knows but also what they are capable of doing with what they have learnt in school for personal growth and national development.

Whereas the 7-2-4-6 and 8-4-4 systems prepared students for traditional careers like medicine, law, engineering, teaching and so on, CBC is heavy on talent-oriented disciplines like sports, art, music as well as non-traditional vocations that are often shunned but require unique skill-sets.

But more importantly, and this is where CBC is distinctly innovative compared to previous systems, is that it seeks to shape responsible citizens by inculcating values like patriotism, integrity, peace and social justice. Unlike the 7-4-2-3 and 8-4-4 systems that focused primarily on vocational skills and knowledge for the job market, CBC goes a step further to inculcate skills to enable learners make positive and meaningful contribution to the community.

For instance, learners will be required to undertake a mandatory course in community life skills when they enter senior school (current secondary level) comprising grades 10, 11 and 12. As I write, Grade 3 pupils in several schools have already taken part in cleanup activities as part of the process of honing their community skills. These kinds of activities have been integrated to other learning areas.

The CBC also focuses on principles of diversity and inclusion by ensuring learners’ individual needs are addressed through individualised education programs (IEPs).

This gives opportunities to learners with special needs to also acquire competencies and skills at their own pace to enable them participate in socio-economic development of our society.

Other than citizenship, other valuable competencies under the new curriculum include communication, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and digital literacy. These 21st century skills are all geared to enhancing the ability of learners to engage in pursuits like entrepreneurship as well as social and technological innovation.
The CBC therefore goes beyond rote learning to pass examinations and get a “good job”.

It aspires to encourage learners to think and apply what they have learnt to every day problems in society around them.

But curriculum change is a sensitive process, hence the political backlash the shift to CBC has elicited.

The bigger picture is what matters, namely, the transformative impact of CBC on present and future generations.

- The writer is a lawyer and public affairs consultant. [[email protected]]

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