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February 17, 2019

School fires: Allow our students to fail

Pupils wait to sit for their KCSE exams .Photo / JOHN CHESOLI
Pupils wait to sit for their KCSE exams .Photo / JOHN CHESOLI

Too Big To Fail! This theory asserts that certain corporations are so large and so interconnected that their collapse would be disastrous to the global economic system, and, therefore, must be supported through government bailouts when they face potential failure.  

In our context, students are telling us they are “Too Young To Fail”. And in their attempt to escape failing in the national exams, school arson has become their bailout of choice.

As a society, we have been conditioned that a university education equals success and that failure to attain it leads to disastrous lives. Consequently, we have deified degrees. And to meet the high premium we have placed on them, parents have sold their morals to acquire purloined exams, while others have sold their productive assets to the point of becoming destitute in order to pay university fees. Others have enriched forgers who falsify academic certificates that have become the irreducible minimum prerequisites for formal employment.

Today, failure has been cloaked as something to fear, to avoid and to prevent at all costs. This fear ranges from failing examinations, interviews, farming, lifestyles and relationships. In our attempts to avoid or prevent it, we burn schools, canvass at interviews, become tenderpreneurs, give farming subsidies and stab our boyfriends to death.

Society no longer sees failure as having any redeeming value. But as certain as death and taxes, failure will happen regardless of what precautions and actions we take. Like pain, failure is a gift. It is a signal that something is wrong. It is nature’s way of protecting us from continuing that which is destructive.

Unlike in social life, failure in the free market economy is not something to be dreaded. It is embraced because it signals to investors that there is a misallocation of scarce resources which leads to malinvestment. This is a mistaken investment in erroneous demands of the economy, which, if left unaddressed, leads to wasted capital and economic losses.

As a country, have we malinvested in our education system?

The Cabinet Secretary for Education recently told the country one million young people enter the labour market each year and of these, only one in five secures a job in the formal sector. Yet, according to the 2018 Economic Survey, the total education expenditure was Sh415 billion in 2017-18. This 32 per cent increase from the previous financial year was attributed to funding for free primary and secondary school education. So have we mistakenly invested in academic education at the expense of real economic demands? Why is this investment not translating into an employable productive workforce?

I posit that the genesis of our malinvestment in education is the central planning done by our curriculum developers. The knowledge required for the demands of our economy cannot possibly be domiciled in a small group of experts. This knowledge exists in dispersed incomplete bits and is decentralised in separate individuals. For instance, there are careers today that did not exist five years ago such as app developers, cloud computing specialists and drone operators. The World Economic Forum estimates 65 per cent of children enrolling in primary school today will work in completely new jobs that do not exist today. So to what extent have the experts revised the curriculum in tandem with such new realities?

Second is the premium we have placed on academic education. Approximately Sh19 billion was spent on vocational and technical training in the 2017-18 financial year. This represents about five per cent of the total education expenditure. Yet the facts as confirmed by the Kenya Federation of Master Builders are that for instance in Mombasa, there are at least 1,000 architects against about 200 masons, plumbers and painters. This has led to poor workmanship in the real estate sector. To compound matters, graduates flee to developed countries in search of the elusive jobs in Kenya. However, reports according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce indicate there are at least 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year, which do not require bachelor’s degrees in America. So the graduates also end up being unemployable abroad.

Third, our mode of instruction is designed to educate us rather than make us learn. Education is the acquisition of knowledge through a process of receiving systematic instruction under the guidance of a teacher. Through rote methods, we memorise what we need to ace the test and gain certification to avoid failure. It is just-in-case learning. We learn algebra, and about ancient Greece and the solar system just-in-case we may need this information in the future. Its value is extrinsic and is insurance against failure in the future.

In light of this, I will make three submissions.

First, we should allow our students to fail. Not everyone is wired for university education. This will enable us to re-direct talent and ability where it will be most effectively and efficiently utilized. Ultimately, nobody will be labelled a failure because everyone will be operating at their optimum level based on individual abilities, rather than an aggregate academic expectation.

Second, the curriculum developers should engage market leaders in designing the curriculum. They should jointly create an observatory that will scan market trends and adjust the curriculum in response. In tandem, there should be a continuous teachers orientation to be at par with the skills required to instruct on the dynamic curriculum.

Lastly, let us give students the freedom of self-directed learning in non-coercive environments. In this day of laptop promises, our system can afford to set aside two hours a day for students to pursue their passions on platforms such as YouTube. To ensure optimal utilisation of this autonomy, students would be required to present a project to be graded and showcased to potential investors and talent scouters based on their self-directed learning.

My unsolicited advice to students is that you cannot stop the temperature from rising by breaking the thermometer. Likewise, you will not stop the national exams by burning your schools.   


The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education - Mark Twain 


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