But every October, I am ashamed to be a teacher. Because of the national exams.
Our Kenya national exams are a high-stakes event that turns parents and teachers from people who should nurture truth, character and knowledge in children, into adults who teach children to cheat through paying for leaked exams. Exams encourage our youth to cheat through looking for leaked exams and carrying notes into the exam room.
It is because I have never, ever subscribed to this philosophy of education that I teach in a university, rather than in a public high school where I’d much rather be. My stint of teaching in a public high school was very short because I could not manage sticking within the confines of the KCSE syllabus. At the school where I taught, I was the only teacher who did not cane students for poor performance in a test (yet one of my subjects ended up scoring highest average in the school at KCSE). I hated seeing students struggle to study out of fear rather than study out of curiosity to know.
But I haven’t avoided the problems I was running away from. Even now, I have students who are too focused on their grade that they miss the point of their assignments and simply copy and paste what they find on the internet. It is so difficult to get them to be fully engaged in their subjects, and I feel worse if the students are training to be teachers, because they’re going to replicate these problems to the next generation of Kenya’s youth. Few students attend the great events we organize, such as lectures, interviews with guests, jam sessions with musicians, whose primary lesson is that we are teaching about life and people, not for passing exams. And even the administration system is not structured to facilitate what we’re doing, and so we have to additionally explain and complain a lot for the events to be integrated in the structures. The system understands “short courses” where people pay and get certificates; it does not understand learning, and engagement where people may not get certificates, but where lives are changed.
We have to reduce the stakes in exams. Certificates of completion of each cycle of education should not be the only exams that allow for entry into the next cycle of education. Let us have simpler exams equivalent of SATs, where we’re testing just students' reading, writing and analytical skills. Kenyan tertiary programs should then also have their own placement exams. For example, schools of medicine can provide entry level exams for all who want to do medicine, regardless what their score in high school was. The purpose would to determine the entry level of the students in terms of how many remedial classes they would take, rather than determine whether they’re “worthy” of entering that program. That way, people can join the medical – or any other school – any time, regardless of their high school experience.
And finally, we must, must have social services that give every Kenyan a decent standard of living, no matter their job. We must have an organized public transport system. Our health services should be decent and available to every Kenyan. Our schools should have facilities to develop student’s talent, not just memorization. We must, WE MUST, start to charge capital tax on land, because people are growing rich and powerful for sitting on a title deed they acquired because of their political ties, not because they created wealth that benefited fellow citizens through employment and industry. By breaking this feudal economic system, loans can stop being tied to title deeds and youth can use things like patents, talent and business ideas to gain access to credit. We must invent a new Kenya where wananchi won’t feel that if one wants to be able to raise a family, pay medical bills and be a useful human being, one must pass exams at any cost, to get employment at any cost.