Moving Beyond Standardized Testing

Students at the Maseno Math Camp in 2012 copy down puzzles to work on in their free time.
Students at the Maseno Math Camp in 2012 copy down puzzles to work on in their free time.

Consider the KCSE, the national exam taken by hundreds of thousands of Kenyan graduating secondary students each year. It is the sole determinant of whether a student will go to university, which in turn determines whether the student has a chance at a good job and a healthy life. Because of its centrality, the secondary school system in Kenya is almost entirely oriented around trying to cram information from the exam syllabus into student’s heads.

But this approach has two major problems. The first is that no one can force a student to learn. The second is that a single standardized test gives the illusion of a fixed body of knowledge that people need to understand in order to succeed in life. This simply doesn’t reflect the world we live in. The economy of Kenya and the world in general is changing at an incredible rate, and those graduating under the current academic regime simply aren’t getting the skills to compete. And worse, even if the curriculum were to drastically change, it would quickly be obsoleted again. How do we address this?

We can start by changing our stance as teachers and abandon the idea that the purpose of a secondary teacher is to shove knowledge into brains. As I see it, a teacher has two major duties to their students: Inspire the students, and teach them to learn independently.

An inspired student is a motivated student, someone who will study effectively and learn willingly. By asking interesting questions we bring students onto our side; they work with us instead of resisting. As an analogy, think of the task of getting a donkey to the top of a hill. If you push it from behind, it will resist and you’ll never reach the top. But if you hold a carrot in front of the donkey, it will willingly follow you to the top. Get the student interested in understanding the topic, and they will learn better and faster. Inspiration doesn’t come simply from talking at students, though; we have to get them involved. This means designing activity-oriented classes, where students use their heads and their hands instead of just mindlessly copying notes.

The second duty is to teach our students to learn. The amount of useful knowledge out there is immense: far, far beyond the scope of any syllabus. But a student who knows how to learn can learn anything they want, follow their interests and natural talents, and surpass our wildest ambitions. Teaching someone to learn requires connecting them with resources and challenging them to learn from those resources. This quite different from the way teaching is presently happening in Kenya: We have to give students space and time to explore on their own. We have to throw them into the sea of knowledge and let them learn to swim, while, of course, being on hand to throw a line if it looks like the student is drowning.

In this work, we must not be afraid of students who learn to out-swim their teachers; such students are the innovators of tomorrow, and need to be given the maximum opportunity to grow and learn. And we cannot allow trifling fears (will the students waste time on Facebook?) to preclude giving students the opportunity to engage with the larger world online.

Consider this a challenge to the entire establishment of education in Kenya: How will the government place funds to allow students better access to books and resources? How will the ministry of education modify the over-stuffed curriculum and the university admission process to encourage student exploration and independent thought? And how will teachers prepare students for a world far different from the one they were born in?

The new President’s promise to provide computers directly to students is a fantastic starting point, but it is only a beginning. Kenyan schools have been starved of resources for many, many years, and the university system needs serious government support if it is to start producing competitive graduates. So let us start formulating answers to these questions today, lest we wake up old and feeble and realize that tomorrow never actually arrived.