Curriculum shift calls for further investment in quality of teaching

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As in the old adage, ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him,’ the current basic education system in Kenya is in the process of being put on the chopping board, as it had been tagged as elitist, punitive to learners and had been blamed of transforming schools into exam factories.

Consequently, if all goes according to plan, the Ministry of Education will implement the new proposed curriculum that enters the pilot stage next week in all counties. CS Dr Fed Matiang’i has promised Kenyans a new academic dispensation in which no child will be labelled a failure at the end of basic education. In essence, the new curriculum is expected to reduce extreme pressure from students in primary and secondary education sectors and release innovative and creative genius of learners.

No doubt such a strategy is expected to give schooling a new meaning in Kenya and could draw support from teachers who would no longer have to cringe in fear of parents when children perform poorly in primary or secondary school exit national examinations.

So far, it is hard to predict whether the proposed new curriculum has the capacity to deliver a no-school failures education system, in terms of achieving educational potential for all and ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all. Of concern is whether the new system will succeed where earlier systems failed to overcome the effects of social and economic deprivation embodied in school failure that eventually imposes high costs on society.

Relevant skills

The crux of the matter is that a person who exits secondary schooling without having acquired relevant skills has fewer employment options and prospects. Such a person is also less likely to take up advantage of further learning opportunities in future. Subsequently, poorly educated people limit a country’s capacity to produce, grow and innovate. School failure also damages social cohesion and inter-ethnic harmony. Notably those are some of the issues that the new curriculum intends to address through nurturing every learner’s potential in order to produce engaged, empowered and ethical citizens. To achieve those goals, the new curriculum as stated in the ‘Basic Education Curriculum Framework,’ will be philosophically structured like a three-legged stool, whose pillars will be values, theoretical approaches and guiding principles.

However, the success of the new curriculum will draw heavily from theories and ideas of some of the leading educational reformist thinkers of all time that include John Dewey (American), Lev Vygotsky (Russian), Jean Piaget( Swiss), Jerome Bruner (American) , Howard Gardner (American) and Erik Erikson(German), as well as from Christian, Islam and Hindu religious values and African tradition cultural heritage. Nevertheless, it is easy to dream and to imagine about how beautiful a philosopher’s ideas on schooling are, but it is usually too hard to conceptualise those ideas and eventually have teachers implement them into reality.

According to the World Bank, there is no new curriculum that would change the way teaching and learning is carried out unless there is heavy improvement on the quality of teachers and the resources available in every school. “This could be as a result of teacher content knowledge and confidence, access to resources, poor planning or unforeseen disruptions,” says the World Bank. This is one of the key problems fronted by the new curriculum, taking into account that it has most of the spot-marks of the original 8-4-4 that had to undergo reviews in 1992, 1995 and 2002 to address issues of content, overloads and other emerging problems that were sparked by lack of resources and teachers inability to teach practical subjects.

The frustration expressed by parents towards the failure of the original 8-4-4 system of education to provide useful skills to primary school children was summed up by a peasant in Butere who addressed the Commission of Inquiry into the Education System in Kenya led by Dr Davy Koech in 1999 in these agonising words: “When the 8-4-4 system was introduced in 1985, I was told to buy my son a hammer and plane so that he could be taught some woodwork skills. Although I had bought the hammer and the plane, after four years, my son came back home unable to make even a ‘kitimoto’ (a kitchen chair). For me, this was an unnecessary expense.”

Adequate facilities

However, such a situation is likely to be repeated unless smart investment is made in terms of providing schools with adequate classrooms, workshops, teachers with skills, textbooks and other learning facilities that would be required by students. The issue is that at the apex of basic education, the new curriculum proposes a three-year study in any of the three pathways that will be available to students in the senior school. There will be a talent segment represented by the arts and sports science pathway, then a science technical engineering and mathematics (STEM) pathway and a social sciences pathway.

Although Matiang’i has stated that the new curriculum will not be too expensive to implement, that could only be true at the lower grades of the education system but not at the senior school, unless the government intends just to increase the number of traditional dancers, street actors and comedians, roadside preachers, bodyguards and bouncers, jua kali artisans and hawkers.

So far, it is envisaged that 15 per cent of students in senior school will follow the arts and sports science pathway that will have three tracks: arts track, visual and applied arts track, and sports science track. The STEM pathway will have four tracks: pure sciences, applied sciences, technical and engineering, and career and technology studies, while the social science pathway will have three tracks represented by humanities, business studies, and languages and literature.

In a nutshell, the new curriculum has introduced a wide variety of courses in the career and technology studies track within the STEM pathway. According to the ‘Basic Education Curriculum Framework,’ when in full implementation, the STEM pathway will account for 60 per cent of all students attending senior school, while social sciences will account for 25 per cent. So far, the framework is silent on how the government intends to fund senior school, taking into account that currently schools have limited facilities to offer most of the suggested courses. Some of the new courses that in the past had never been offered in the current secondary schooling segment include geosciences technology, marine and fisheries technology, media technology, manufacturing technology and mechatronics.

In the sports track, there are options in ball games, athletics, indoor games, gymnastics, water sports, boxing, martial arts outdoor pursuits and advanced physical education. Probably because of the upsurge of the Chinese presence in sub-Saharan Africa, the curriculum has included teaching of Mandarin, not just at senior school, but also in the lower grades. According to the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development that developed the new curriculum, the introduction of pathways in secondary education will not be unique to Kenya, as similar systems have been successfully implemented in Canada, Finland, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea and Sweden. Nonetheless, while drawing such parallel lines, KICD failed to explain how to circumvent the unequal structures inherent in German secondary education system or how to avoid South Korea’s hagwon, the massive shadow cram schooling system. It is also good to point out that the success of Finland and Sweden has been as a result of cutting edge technology and learning facilities being made available to students.

But as Matiang’i prepares a position paper for government on the curriculum by August, there is need for Kenyans and more so for parents and their children to ask whether the clock has really switched back in time to 1985.