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KCPE: Who will speak for the ‘losers’?

By Antoney Luvinzu | April 26th 2021

Sophy Mutheu Benson, 13 (centre) with her parents Lillian Benson (left) and Benson Nguthu at their home in Lenana in the outskirts of Narok celebrate her good performance. She aspires to be a gynaecologist so that she can assist pregnant women in arid areas to reduce maternity deaths. [Robert Kiplagat, Standard]

We are still reeling from the hubbub and razzmatazz that characterise the release of national examination results, in this case KCPE 2020. It has been all pomp and colour, song and dance, carrying ‘winners’ shoulder-high, fussing over their future career aspirations, which top high school they hope to join, the ‘secret’ to their ‘magic’, et cetera.

But, no one bothers to shine the spotlight on the so-called ‘losers’. Who interrogates what kind of learners they really are? Could they be winners in something else rather than a one-off sit-in summative assessment?

Isn’t it a shame that we do not consider any other indicator other than a KCPE score to admit students to premium high schools?

Isn’t it naïve of us adults, who should know better that grades do not define one's destiny in a rapidly changing world, and yet we give these children the impression that they are winners or losers in life on account of their KCPE score? Aren’t we breeding a sense of false entitlement to the ‘winners’ and undue despair to the ‘losers’? Indeed, it is rather hard to reconcile with the fact that we are the same people who demonise 8-4-4 for its obsession with grades, arguing, and correctly so, that many a talent go to waste as a result. Yet we fuss over ‘top achievers’ and put the rest on the back burner. 

The traditional teach-to-the-test practice that is ubiquitous and seemingly deep-rooted today has had severe ramifications which have encumbered the process of teaching and learning. Educational institutions have prioritised the grade system so much so that students have become grade-oriented in their approach in their pursuit of educational enlightenment. This, sadly, cuts across from the primary level all the way to university – where research and the creation of new knowledge should be considered more premium.  

Yes, grades have been the primary form of measuring, communicating, reflecting and indicating the cognitive aptitudes of a student since education was first institutionalised. They were seen to provide a rational basis on which to evaluate the collective efforts of a student’s potential and a medium through which student mastery is reflected.

Not anymore. The tide seems to be changing, and there is a litany of research to this effect.   

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With the grading system so deeply entrenched, educators feel impelled to grade student work willy-nilly. There are reasons why this praxis is endemic. Parental aspiration, peer pressure and a school’s own self-serving desire to ameliorate its exam performance have rendered the notion of organic learning obsolete, with grades being the only parameter deemed worthy as indicative of a student’s achievements and performance. While the effect has been expounded, it is of utmost gravity to identify the root causes that contribute to this bleak premise.

There's no magic formula when it comes to school admission decisions. A student's grades in various levels of study remain the most significant factor.

Many of us know children who seemed headed for disaster when they were young and in school. Maybe they flunked out of school, or they did drugs, or they were depressed loners, or they just performed averagely, if not dismally.

But then something happened later and they blossomed into healthy, happy adults who contributed to society in important ways. How did they accomplish this? There is a belief that those who do well in school are generally smart and will be successful, while those who struggle in school are not and will end up struggling in life.

Learning challenges

There's are many who equate resilience with success, ignoring specific learning challenges and important environmental influences. The truth is, some of the smartest and most resilient people we will ever meet may struggle significantly just to get through a typical day, school-age children included.

There are several ways educators and other stakeholders can support children’s talents and aptitudes so that fewer will succumb to this illusion of failure and will make all students feel important.

Providing opportunities for children to feel they belong and to contribute in meaningful ways is one of the ways we can support youngsters. Instilling that sense of belonging and that they have something important to contribute are universal needs.

Giving children important tasks and responsibilities is another aspect. If a child talks a lot, that gift can be nurtured to make the child a great student ambassador for their school, while an artistic one can create a mural for the classroom. Perhaps an older child can tutor a younger child. Giving children responsibilities like these can go a long way in helping them feel useful to others and to their community.

Level playing field

Raising the bar and level the playing field: While it’s important to level the playing field by offering support to children, it’s also important to raise the bar for them concurrently. Many of those who failed at school remember the well-intentioned adults who tried to help them. But they also remember how some of that help drew unwanted attention to challenges they viewed as shameful and embarrassing. Many eventually stopped accepting help as a result. 

Reward struggle as well as achievement. This is easier said than done because we are trained to evaluate children based on their successes. But we need to foster a growth mindset in which children are praised for their efforts more than their achievements, allowing for mistakes.

The opportunity to do what we love to do and do well can reveal personal strengths and qualities that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Find children’s unique strengths and talents, then highlight and celebrate them. 

 The writer is an IB Educator

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