The KCSE exam results are out. There are students whose names did not make it to the media headlines. They did not receive invitations to television or radio talk shows; neither did they trend on a social media hashtag #creativeDsandEs. They posted less-than-favourable grades in their results! They “failed”. No! Let’s revise that societal tag. The education system failed them. And that is the reason we are undertaking curriculum reforms.
Had these students been learning in the new competency-based curriculum (CBC), the narrative would have been different. All media reports on this examination would have been resonating with the revised mission of our education, which is to nurture every learner’s potential.
If there is one thing that the 8-4-4 curriculum has failed miserably to do, it is to train learners to understand, appreciate, and act upon obstacles such as the so-called less-than-favourable grades. As the popular cartoon denotes, an examiner cannot determine the intelligence of all the animals in the jungle by by their ability to climb a tree.
There is a Zen story that aptly illustrates this case. It features a king, the citizenry who liked to take shortcuts, and a peasant who found good fortune from a misfortune. Let’s bring the story to our own setting and tell it in a version that suits our situation. The equivalent of the king will be a Cabinet Secretary (CS) who decided to pilot competency-based education in a selected school. His ministry had noted that the students graduating from the country’s education system were not applying the knowledge acquired to solve the problems they encountered in their day-to-day experiences. The students were not street-smart.
Dissatisfied with this state of education in the country, the CS planned how to gauge the level of street-smartness in the learners. His plan was simple. He placed a large rock at the gate of the selected school on opening day. This completely blocked the entrance to the school compound. He also strategically placed a strong plank of wood a few metres from the gate.
The Form Four students were reporting to school on that day. The rest of the students were to reopen a week later. The CS hid in the nearby bushes but had a clear view of the gate. He was able to observe the reactions of the students as they approached the gate. How did they respond? Did they demonstrate the 21st century competencies of problem-solving and collaboration to remove the boulder in order to gain entrance to the school?
The CS was disappointed as the students demonstrated learned helplessness. Among the first students to arrive were the top-rated. The system labels them as fast learners and excellent performers. One after the other came to find this obstacle, looked at the boulder, and happily returned home. They must have been excited at the idea of extending the holiday by a day or two. Their excuse: the school was inaccessible! A few tried without enthusiasm to remove the rock, but eventually gave up. Some openly complained about the school management for this great inconvenience!
The CS was about to give up on the ability of the of students to solve this simple problem. It was a reflection of the kind of helpless of students that the school system was nurturing. Just then, two students came strolling along. They were the last ones to report. Ironically these were students who had been “written off” by the school system. Their assessment reports rated them as slow and below average.
The two, however, did not turn away. They tried to push the rock out of the way, all in vain. The CS was still peering through the bushes. He saw them consult and then look around as if searching for something. He knew it! They were looking for a locally available object that they could use as leverage. And they saw it: the plank of wood. The two students used it as a lever and managed to dislodge the rock from the entrance.
Beneath the rock was an assessment report from the CS. It said: You have demonstrated creativity in your ability to use locally available materials to solve problems. You also demonstrated communication and collaboration as you consulted on how to overcome the obstacle. There is a reward for it. All your school and college fees for the rest of your schooling period are duly taken care of. Upon completing your high school education, you will be granted an opportunity to work in a government institution of your choice. Should you choose to venture into entrepreneurship after the results are released, you will be awarded some seed funding for your startup company.
Of course, the Zen version of this story does not feature any Cabinet Secretary. His inclusion in this revised narration is, however, relevant. In his speech during the release of the 2019 KCSE, Education Cabinet Secretary Professor George Maghoha regretted that “the society has been celebrating top performers, lifting them shoulder high and showering them with gifts while sneering and expressing all forms of contempt at the candidates who score low marks.”
His message resonates with the argument that Harvard psychologist Howard Gardener puts forward. In his book titled, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardener suggests that there are at least nine different types of intelligences. As the CS alluded in his speech, the new competency-based curriculum is intended to debunk the myth that learners who have a high academic intelligence are a cut above the rest.
Indeed, we have countless Kenyan versions of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others, who are successful entrepreneurs, creators and innovators. They have demonstrated that they are not afraid to fail. They have defined their own success.
There is saying in business circles that goes: “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” Likewise, those great students who posted less-than-favourable grades have other intelligences. They can flip those “Ds” and “Es” upside down and use them as a springboard for successful ventures. There is only one thing that could stand in their way: their attitude and approach to life.
Dr Njoroge works in the education sector as a curriculum interpreter and a content developer.