From the discussions with students before the event, and from the questions they asked Jeff, I could tell that the students were most impressed by fact that Jeff had scored a perfect GPA in Kingsborough Community College in New York, and had gone on to join NYU. Besides marveling at Jeff’s scores and his Ivy League experience, the students’ engagement was also dominated by the persistent question, albeit rephrased differently, on how they can get jobs in the media once they were done with school.
As a teacher who constantly invites guests to come speak to students so as to expand the students’ world view beyond examinations, I must admit that I was a little disappointed. I would have preferred that the students not focus on scores and instead discuss with Jeff what his book reveals about journalism, international politics (especially in Africa) and on education, and reflect on what they could learn from Jeff’s experience as world-class journalist. I wanted them to see that a broad-based education, exposure to international history and culture, and good writing skills (of course) open up a person to dialogue with the world.
Because if there’s anything that Jeff’s book proves, it is that great education is about exposure and opening kids’ minds to the world; it’s not about exam results. Jeff is about the most famous and decorated journalist in Kenya. Besides working in international media houses such as Reuters and CNN, he has also rubbed shoulders with world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jerry Rawlings, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. Jeff is a world citizen per excellence, or as Mbeki calls him in the preface, “an African of Kenyan origin recognized by millions within Africa and the rest of the world.”
And Jeff did not accomplish all that by scoring straight A’s in primary and high school. In fact, he does not mention his exam results. Instead, he tells us about his mother’s commitment to getting him a world-class education from Saint Mary’s school, which he calls “a great institution for character building,” rather than a school that posted high exam scores. Jeff’s mother, who was widowed when Jeff was a baby, put a lot of effort into educating her sons at Saint Mary’s school, even though she was an educator at a local Kiambaa school and was often asked by the villagers why her kids were attending school in Nairobi. Jeff captained the hockey, soccer and rugby teams. He was taught by teachers of Goan, Irish and British origin. His favorite subjects would give Deputy President Ruto a heart attack: History and English. He acted in operas, and the play he wrote as a form six student about apartheid South Africa won the top prize in the Kenya national drama festivals. His local and international exposure was enhanced by the diversity of the student body: there were the Thorpes and the Omamos who dominated swimming, Mark Obama, step-brother to the current American president, and the Ugandan Joe Drani, whose bullying did not prevent Jeff from remembering him fondly.
As such, Jeff was equipped with what have been identified as the four essential skills of the 21st century: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. To survive in today’s world, one needs to be able to speak across cultures (hence the importance of learning history), to be able to communicate, to work with others and solve emerging problems with innovative ideas and solutions. That means that instead of kids saying they want to be pediatric neurosurgeons (how on earth do 13 year olds learn to pronounce that?), they should be talking about wanting to tackle particular issues or aim for specific outcomes, like managing the hyacinth in Lake Victoria, finding a cure for malaria or ebola, becoming the first African to win an Oscar for best film and best director, replacing the monster of tribalism with equity and governance, or finding a way to ensure that discovery of oil in Africa does not necessarily mean civil war.
These skills that help student understand and engage in the world as it is do not come from examinations. Supporters of the ranking system acknowledge that, but argue that examination mean scores are able to indicate which schools and areas are suffering from inefficient teachers and inadequate facilities. However, I think that using exams to get such data is sheer laziness, especially for government. If the Kenyan Open Data Initiative was working as it should, and if all the quality assurance people employed by government were doing their work, we wouldn’t need to torture kids with high stakes examinations to get data that says less than 10% about the kids themselves and more than 90% about their parents’ income, and their social environment, the commitment and working conditions of the teachers, and the amenities they have access to. If we want to know whether teachers are working in the classroom, we need to follow mostly the teachers, not just the kids! If we want to know what amenities schools have, let’s visit the schools and treat inventories and data collection more seriously; not burden kids with all-determining examinations.
To still be celebrating exam results, and to call for ranking, is a sign of how archaic and mechanical the Kenyan educated classes are, and of how education sector repeatedly lacks imaginative leadership. If the innovations in digital technology in Kenya should teach us anything, it is that the people moving Kenya forward are not those with high exam scores who grow up to feel that employment is their right; the people moving Kenya are those who are always open to learning and who want to tackle real world problems. Kenya needs to finally get the political and professional leadership that will steer our education system into the 21st century and get us out of this simplistic use of examination results to address the complex nature of the endeavor that we call education.