Top challenges threatening the implementation of competency based learning

Wein Motugi, a grade three pupil of Golden Elites, puts the final touches on his toy, September 16, 2019. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The ongoing debate about the implementation of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) is not about to come to an end, simply because there had never been wide public participation, in terms of design, teachers’ readiness, parental involvement, and adequate availability of learning resources.

Developed at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development with technical support of  Peter Hall-Jones, a motivational speaker, and a former British primary school teacher, the selling point of the new curriculum was that it would liberate students from the traditional world of rote learning and cramming for high-stakes examinations such as the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education.

Its philosophical standpoint is based on a concept developed by the European Qualifications Framework that emphasises student’s learning outcomes should be capped in theoretical knowledge, practical and technical skills, social competencies, and the ability to work with others.

In the European context, competency-based curricula are strategically outlined to draw local students to vocational and technical training as a way forward to avoid European Union’s members having to depend too heavily on migrant occupational skilled workers from developing countries.

But faced with a learning crisis, whereby, learning levels are too low, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa had been on curriculum tourism in Europe and currently are implementing clones and hybrids of European education systems, hoping they would raise learning outcomes in schools.

For instance, Kenya’s curriculum developers borrowed heavily from the education systems of  Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, and  Switzerland when drafting the controversial CBC.

Whereas the ‘Basic Education Curriculum Framework,’ the blue-print of Kenya’s competency-based curriculum, highlights how those European education systems have been able to attract many students to technical training, the document is silent on inputs those countries might have invested in terms of learning resources, teacher development, and alignment of other education challenges.

The issue is that reorienting a major curriculum change in any country is quite hard as it proved in 1985 when the government introduced the 8-4-4 system of education with an over-loaded practical curriculum at the primary level.

In 1992, the practical aspects were eventually dropped as they had lost the intended goals as a result of inadequate teachers in practical subjects and insufficient resources.

Although there is nothing wrong with borrowing from other educational systems globally, there are no indicators that Kenya’s curriculum developers, took into account the capacity of teachers training and their preparedness to transition to the new curriculum, the reality of classrooms and other learning spaces in schools in the country, as well as the availability of learning materials.

The issue is that reorienting a major curriculum change in any country is quite hard. [File, Standard]

Indeed most of the concerns that are being raised by parents today are similar to those that were raised in the 1980s at the height of implementation of the 8-4-4 system of education when parents and other stakeholders wanted to know what the education system would achieve for their children.

To date, it appears most parents are not clear as to how the new competency-based curriculum could help their children. Critics are divided as to whether the new curriculum is meant to increase active learning and creative thinking, or it is merely meant to gang-press learners into vocational training.

In fact, there are some who think CBC is a calculated plot to bring back the discredited rag-tag practical training of the 8-4-4 at different levels of education.

Even as the Ministry of Education pushes for the second phase of implementation of the new curriculum, the learning environment in Kenya will not be about to change dramatically for the better, taking into account the stumbling blocks related to unskilled and unmotivated teachers, poor classrooms, and school management styles, political challenges and limited learning resources.

Despite any goodwill that might be there on the part of the Kenya government in promoting education, the paradigm shift of learning practices without proper planning, financial support, and sustained political will are likely to become a disappointment as has happened severally in Africa.

Way back in 1967, the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, came up with a post-colonial proposal of education for self-reliance in Africa whose philosophical viewpoint was based on sharing of resources and service to humanity.

Although this was the first bold attempt to decolonise African education, nothing came out of it, probably because it had anti-Western capitalist agenda.

But more recently,  in 2010, South Africa had to quit the Outcome-Based Education Curriculum, as it failed to improve student learning outcomes and was difficult for teachers to implement.

The paradigm shift of learning practices without proper planning are likely to become a disappointment. [File, Standard]

According to a background study, "Secondary Education in Africa: Curriculum Reform, Assessment and National Qualifications Frameworks", that was carried out by educational researchers at the South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, in the last two decades several African countries have adopted competency-based curricula with little to show for it.

“While there have been few rigorously designed evaluations of system-wide competency-based curriculum reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa, the accumulation of evidence from a variety of sources suggests that most of these initiatives have been less than successful,” stated the researchers.

But their findings are not so new as in 2013, Professor Roger Francois Gauthier, a leading expert on education in former French colonies in Africa, in his review of competency-based curriculum reforms in five countries had made it clear that the approach did not improve learning outcomes.

The researchers attributed the shortcomings of the competency-based curricula that are being tested in Africa to a mix of barriers that include inadequate educational materials, lack of teacher competence in practical subjects, large class sizes, and unprepared learners.

Reporting on the issue CBC in Ghana, Kwame Akyeamong, a professor of international education at Open University in Britain, stated without increased educational resourcing and improved teacher development, the curriculum was unlikely to have much impact on students and their transition to the labour market.

What is emerging is that there are no quick fixes towards improving learning outcomes in matters of acquiring theoretical knowledge or practical skills, whether by sticking to the old curriculum approaches, some of which were inherited from colonial regimes, or drawing new ones or by borrowing learning patterns that are developed in other countries with specific targets and agenda.

For instance, education officials in African countries who had been recommending ready-made learning suites fabricated elsewhere, they should be asking themselves as to who they want them for and whether their countries have sufficient resources and manpower capacity to implement those approaches.

Just to think of it, a Kenyan father who stays away from home for days looking for pasture for livestock, or a mother who treks more than10 kilometres every day in search of water has no luxury of reading bedtime stories to their children as compared to factory workers in Frankfurt.