Way back in 1998, Prof Terry Hyland, a British specialist in basic education, had warned that some European governments and education marketers were exporting academic failure overseas, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, by recommending competence-based curricula, which he had compared to sub-standard soap operas for having many anomalies in assessment of learners.
But most education officials in Africa did not take notice of the warning, or they just decided to ignore it, hoping that African children would succeed in experiments where others had stumbled.
There was some hope that importing countries could replicate Finland’s admirable record of learning achievement through competency-based curricula. According to a World Bank study, ‘Learning to Realise Education’s Promise,’ many countries in Europe and elsewhere in 2000s had flocked to Helsinki in search of the secret of the Finnish success in teaching and learning.
The craze was that Finland’s well-educated teachers had tailored their teaching to the needs of their learners, as they constantly continued to top performance in the ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study that evaluates educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.
But according to the World Bank, lower-performing education systems that imported Finland’s rich-resource education model that had highly disciplined teachers into their contexts were likely to be disappointed if their teachers were poorly educated, unmotivated, and loosely managed.
To date, there is no African country that has recorded high learning achievement, in terms of raising scores in reading and mathematics simply because of transitioning to competency-based curriculum.
For instance, in Tanzania, competency-based education was introduced in 2005 in secondary schools, but whereas it had not been abandoned officially, teachers have reverted to old teaching methods.
According to a study conducted by Sotco Claudius Komba, a professor of education at Sokoine University of Agriculture, the model is not working, as about 90 per cent of teachers have no understanding or even knowledgeable about the objectives of competence-based curriculum.
Some of Tanzanian teachers, when asked what the new system was all about, had this to say: “To be honest, we do not even know what the competency-based curriculum is all about.”
Implementation of competence-based curriculum in Zambia is also in doldrums, according to Dr Innocent Mutale Mulenga, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Zambia. In his remarks in a study that he conducted in 2019, Mulenga said the curriculum that was introduced in 2013 was likely to remain merely as a vision, as teachers had reverted to using old teaching methods.
In the study, Mutale found that about 70 per cent of teachers in Lusaka did not know what competency-based curriculum was, as most of the lecturers who inducted them, also did not understand it.
A similar case occurs in Namibia, where the education sector had been struggling to implement the Competency Basic Education Training. Recently, some Namibian education experts and teachers said the model was not working, as the curriculum did not fit the Namibian context.
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Since 2016, Rwanda had been in the mix of implementing its own competency-based curriculum that was to be anchored on learner-centred pedagogy. But according to Theophile Nsengimana, an education researcher at the University Rwanda, about 80 per cent of teachers are struggling to adapt to the curriculum and many of them have reported that learners were not acquiring skills as required.
In Ethiopia, very little progress has been achieved towards improving technical skills through competency-based curriculum approach, as most teachers do not have full confidence in the curriculum. According to Kumsa Donis Likisa, a senior lecturer at Adama Science and Technology University in Ethiopia, the curriculum is strongly on paper rather than on raising learning outcomes.
According to Nsengimana, the main problem of curricula being tested in Sub-Saharan Africa is that the reality of education systems in terms of teacher education and motivation, physical learning facilities, learning inputs, supervision and leadership in schools had never been taken into account. In effect, the situation is much more complicated in Francophone Africa, where various forms of competency-based curricula had been in place since 2008 in 23 countries that included Benin, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali and Senegal, but unfortunately, very little learning achievement had been recorded.
According to Dr Sarah Fichtner, a research fellow at the Free University in Berlin and an expert in basic education in Sub-Saharan Africa, those countries have been implementing what are now referred to as ‘travelling curricula,’ simply because there are more or less ready-made and like toys in the global supermarkets, they do not have identifiable manufacturer or the innovator trademarks.
“One does not know where they come from, or go to; they are at the same time nobody’s and everybody’s education reform,” says Gita Steiner-Khamsi, a professor of comparative and international education at Teachers College in Columbia University in the United States.
In her analysis of education systems in Francophone African states, Fichtner, a social anthropologist, argues that the logic of borrowing or importing the competency-based curricula was not based on success stories in their source countries but as marketable and promising tools for improving quality of education.
But even whether one disagrees with theories advanced by Fichtner and Steiner-Khamsi, what is not in doubt is that copy-cats of education systems in other countries were being introduced in African countries without wide consultations with local education experts, teachers and parents whose children were to be the beneficiaries of the suggested academic reforms.
No local experts
For instance, in Kenya, unlike the Kenya Education Commission (1964-5), or the Ominde Report, and the National Committee on Educational Objectives and Policies (1976), the Gacathi Report, the Basic Education Curriculum Framework (2013) is something that was sanctioned in the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development’ boardrooms. Just like similar imitations in other African countries, the new education framework in Kenya has no local experts that could stand out, or even be paraded by the KICD as the actual designers and developers of the new curriculum.
According to Professor Roger Francois Gauthier, a leading expert on education in former French colonies in Africa, launching of competency-based education curriculum in Central and West Africa is linked to International Organisation of La Francophonie, a Paris-based organisation that operates in 88 countries where French is the common language. From 2005, the body organised seminars to train technical cadres in the concepts of competency-based reforms in West and Central Africa under the auspices of Belgian, Canadian, French and other European education experts.
Although competency-based curricula are being promoted in Africa, those learning practices are not global in nature and there is need to ask oneself reasons why countries such as the United States and Britain had not anchored those learning approaches in primary and secondary schooling. Further more, although competency-based curricula are based on cognitive development ideas of the Russian Lev Vygotsky, his homeland has yet to embrace his scaffolding education theories.
Even in South Korea, a country whose educational practical creativity Kenya’s curriculum developers looked up, has in recent years weakened in terms of trying to reorient secondary school learning, as many parents still send their children to private ‘cram schools’ for test preparation for high-stakes tests for entry to leading local public universities. By dropping its competency-based programme, South Africa might be the first country in the continent to see through the veneer and discover that those approaches were not what they were meant to be.