The search for failure of the competency-based curricula (CBC) to improve academic achievement among children in Sub-Saharan Africa had been daunting, especially in Kenya where very little research, if any, has been done on the veracity of those learning models.
Although local education experts are yet to come up with an analysis of the reality of CBC, Moses Oketch, a professor of international education policy and development at the Institute of Education in University College London, jointly with two other academics think they have found what could be ailing CBC in Africa.
The other two researchers are Prof Mano Candappa, an expert on children’s rights to education at the Institute of Education at University College London and Dr Nozomi Sakata, a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of International Cooperation in Education in University of Hiroshima.
In their incisive study, "Pupils’ experiences with learner-centred pedagogy in Tanzania," that was published in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Oketch and his associates attribute an over-bearing African culture and students’ pervasive fear of their teachers to the failure of CBC and other learner-centred pedagogy models that are being marketed and enforced in many schooling systems in the continent.
The team selected Tanzania as the focus of their study because immediately after independence, the country had tried a learner-centred pedagogy based on educational ideas of the late president Julius Nyerere.
In his ambition to build an equal and classless society in post-colonial Tanzania, Nyerere had come up with education for self-reliance, a postscript for a learner-centred pedagogy that was to be a unique Tanzanian lever of pushing the cooperation of villagers towards the common good.
According to Oketch and his associates, the issue is that Nyerere valued links between the educational curriculum and people’s lives and had stressed the need for education curriculum to impart skills through learning by doing.
Education for self-reliance was meant to impart farming skills and to instil cooperative attitudes among the students. It was also intended to downgrade the importance of high-stakes examinations that were the ugly face of the colonial education system.
But one of the main fall-outs of the education for self-reliance was that whereas Nyerere had indicated that Tanzania should produce good farmers, he had also stated that students should be taught through democratic principles.
For instance, in the case of a school farm that was to teach practical agriculture, students were to have a say on how money from the school farm was spent, as only then, Nyerere had stated, can students practice and learn to value direct democracy.
In that aspect, Nyerere’s democratisation process of learning through a curriculum that was relevant to local lives and collaborative learning, constituted the major themes in his education for self-reliance and which could be argued to resemble some of the tenets of the misfiring controversial CBC models that have failed to deliver the predicted learning outcomes in Africa.
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Whilst the education for self-reliance collapsed because it was partly too idealistic, it also failed because, in so many instances, teachers wanted to turn students into their own farm workers and were not consulted on how money on farm produce was used, an aspect that reminded parents of the missionary and colonial education systems that laid emphasis on manual education for the Africans.
Revisiting the issue, Oketch and his associates found that education for self-reliance had conflicted with over-bearing traditional African culture that aimed at transmitting existing values, ideas, knowledge and customs to the next generation through masters and elderly persons.
“Nyerere’s attempt to integrate traditional learning under the auspices of 20th-century schooling provisions failed as teachers and parents continued to have respect for authoritarian education model that only tested student ability to memorise and recall rather than higher-order thinking skills,” said Oketch.
Contrary to claims that Tanzania was implementing a learner-centred pedagogy, classroom observations, in-depth interviews with teachers and ethnographic studies that examined student teachers’ views of problem-based learning by Sakata found traditional cultural frameworks dictate how teaching and learning were conducted in the country.
According to Oketch and his team, education system in Tanzania as in so many countries where CBC is expected to be implemented requires pupils to memorise knowledge as a result of inadequate teacher training and poor resources.
The study revealed that interactions between teachers and pupils in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are still anchored on over-bearing traditional values, whereby a master, or an elder is not supposed to be bothered too much, or asked too many questions by learners on apprenticeship.
Reached for comment recently, Oketch had this to say: “Classroom reality in Sub-Saharan African countries some which had been implementing CBC is primarily focused on teachers.”
As in Tanzania, classroom observations across Sub-Saharan Africa reveal comprehensive teacher-centred education practices and virtual absence of learner-centred pedagogy. At the heart of the problem is fear of teachers who impress their authority through corporal punishment.
Although corporal punishment of students in recent years had been prohibited by law in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Seychelles and Guinea in 2020, South Africa (2019), Benin (2015), Cape Verde (2013), South Sudan (2011), Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tunisia in 2010 and in Togo (2007), the picture of a teacher walking with a cane in the school compound is still too common. Analysis of pupil-teacher interactions and relationships with teachers indicates pupils’ fear of teachers and their cultural view of the latter as a respected source of knowledge.
What is emerging is that interaction patterns between students and teachers in Africa are based on traditional power structure whereby elder persons are held in esteem for possession of knowledge and established values and in this regard, teachers are granted status as a source of knowledge. According to Oketch and his associates, “ pupils in African schools should never give wrong answers or utter ‘no’ to their teachers,’ as it might be viewed as disrespecting authority.
In this regard, Oketch and his associates argue that pupils in the African school environment are expected to act within the hierarchical cultural social norms that would save face of the teachers even when they are wrong and are not expected to challenge a teacher as a source of knowledge.
Researchers warned that the more punishment persisted in schools, the more children were likely to avoid communicating and interacting with their teachers in order to improve academic outcomes.
According to Oketch and his team, education officials, teachers and parents should understand that what pupils experience at school and how they subjectively perceive their experiences constitute the core of their learning.
But the main problem is that whereas CBC and other curriculum modes have been suggested to improve learning in Africa, they have principally focused on teachers and left students who are expected to be the beneficiaries in the academic wilderness.
Oketch’s study, is a wake-up call that warns that adherence to outdated traditional cultural norms and practices, widespread punishment of students, pervasive fear of teachers by students and lack of teaching and learning resources have become bedfellows of a learning crisis that has established homesteads in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.