Which way curriculum reform in Kenya?

Over the past decade there have been incessant calls for curriculum change in Kenya. Arguments against the 8-4-4 are not always consistent.

Sometimes it is argued that the content is overloaded leaving children “no time to play”. Other times it is argued that under the system there is too much emphasis on examinations.

The system has been accused of not emphasising on critical thinking, creativity and conceptual knowledge. Some opponents even blame examination cheating on the system.

Employers in Kenya criticise the 8-4-4 system on the grounds that its graduates do not come with “employable skills” and cannot “think outside the box”. Yet in demand and supply economics, individuals supply what is in demand. If there is a demand for plumbing, people will study and qualify as plumbers.

Parents blame the education system for the unemployment of their children. Unfortunately, schools do not create employment. Thus, societal failures in creating employment are heaped on the school system.

There had been earlier calls for reform of the education system. Previously, there had been the Koech report, which proposed the radical restructuring of the 8-4-4 system. It recommended a non-examination system where it was assumed that learners would go to school motivated only by continuous assessment tests.

Koech report

The proposals in the Koech report never saw the light of day. Suffice it to state that the 8-4-4 was itself a response to the perceived weaknesses of the previous education system: Early specialisation by learners, a narrow three-subject curriculum, numerous examinations that created bottlenecks in the pathways of learners. 

The 8-4-4 system opened up possibilities of learners going up the academic ladder carrying the highest possible number of both arts and science subjects. It reduced external examinations to two before one got to university and improved completion and transition rates at all levels.

Despite the improvements, there is still a general frustration with the education system. Research reports show that an unacceptable number of Standard 8 pupils cannot solve Standard 3 Math problems.  Many university students cannot construct grammatically correct sentences in English.

Now that Education CS Amina Mohamed has deferred the implementation of the new 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum, the question to ask should be, why do our children fail to learn?

Key components of curriculum are objectives, content, methods and assessment. These four ought to be aligned. We always seek to overhaul content without changing methods and assessment strategies. The question as to why children do not learn may not be answered by changing the structures of the number of years spent at each educational level.

Structure determines the quantity of what is done at any level of the educational ladder. Efficiency in learning outcomes or quality will be determined by what is done with the learners when they are at school: the methods.

Exit from each level is normally marked by qualifying examination. Thus, the fewer the years at a particular stage, the greater the pressure on learners to succeed at one stage to move to the next level.  The more the stages in the system, the more the external examinations required.

Job skills

The reason our children fail to learn will not also be answered by putting into effect an overhaul of the curriculum simply because employers want directly utilizable skills.

Skills in demand when a child enrolls in Standard One may not be those in demand by employers when the learner leaves school 18 years later.  

We often read about the need to change the curriculum because of technological changes in society. In most minds, the technology that marvels is the computer.

Should we re-design an entire education system around the computer? Do people learn better and achieve more when computers are used? Will a Standard One child learn more efficiently and write better when the word “cat” is presented on a computer screen?

The concept of vocational curriculum in Kenya is not new. At one time there were 17 technical secondary schools which admitted the cream of Primary Seven candidates. On the fringes, there were village polytechnics for “others.” The fate of these efforts is well documented in the research work of Professor DN Sifuna and others.

It would appear that what the country needs is the expansion of the economy first, then skills in demand will follow. First, we must build a factory, then look for technicians to work in it.

Successful talent centres work best in societies where there is demand for that talent. If the country and the counties place more emphasis on creating work opportunities, skills training will follow. Unemployment in a country should not be blamed on the school system. 

Professor Ongeti is a specialist in curriculum and learning design at Moi University