We’re killing education by focusing on exams

In his1916 book, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, John Dewey described education as ‘the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits.’

A century later, we are struggling to define our educational goals. The exams that characterise our educational system do not feature in any definition of education.

Our focus on exams is killing the joy of learning. Learning is not an event. It is a process that is cognizant of the differences that define us as a people.

Schools are supposed to be like trees with many flowers that bloom at different times.

In any one class, there are early, normal as well as late bloomers and each category will have their turn to play a role in our socio-economic development.


Unfortunately, we have chosen to live in a utopian world where we glorify intermittent successes and fail to recognise the logical conclusion of this important process.

The media coverage of the release of the recent Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam results was unfortunate as it focused only on the 2,636 or 0.5 per cent of students who had straight As out of the 522,870 who sat the exam.

The paltry number could very likely comprise the early bloomers. We failed to interrogate serious fundamental issues like the skewed nature of results. Was it because of resources?

What should we do to improve performance in other schools? Given that virtually all policy makers have their students in the British system, we hardly try to find out what really went on.

There is every likelihood that these schools may have sacrificed activities that make well-rounded students in order to create time to drill them for the exams.

Unfortunately, when students study for the exams only, there are deficiencies of character that more often than not show up later at the institutions of higher learning as well as in industry.

We may never correct these deficiencies, yet we keep wondering about runaway corruption, failing marriages, lack of patriotism, focus and common decency.

The tragedy is that these students will take up all the available spaces in high-demand professions like medicine and law.

Top medical schools globally have resulted to interviewing prospective students in addition to considerations of the grades.

Many other schools consider applicants after some related undergraduate degree. This indeed helps to select candidates with a passion in respective professions.

It is perhaps the reason why some of our students drop out when they discover the full scale of what their parents have selected for them. The feedback we get from industry is that our graduates are not able to write reports.

This is largely because the last time the students in the Kenyan system write a composition is in high school.

And if they studied for the exams, chances are that they may never have interest in the subject until circumstances dictate that they should develop their writing skills.

In most cases, this comes later in life either in graduate school or in employment.

It is assumed that the university will deal with any deficiency from high school but courses on technical or professional writing and critical thinking do not form part of our curriculum in the current system.

What is emerging is the fact that we need a complete overhaul of our educational system. As it is now, we have effectively two different systems, that is, the British system, largely for the rich, and the local system, which is for everyone else.

There is no country that I know of that has succeeded with such duality. Are we not then politicising education?

Do we even care that some of the goals espoused by Dewey have become optional in our schools at a time when we are seeking solutions to our failures in governance?

Could the Education ministry explain patterns of performance or non-performance? How do you explain the fall of Lenana, Ngandu, Kagumo, Cardinal Otunga, St Patricks Iten, and others? These schools were once top performers.

What about Starehe? Does anyone care that its fall reflects poorly on the African management of schools?

There are serious systemic problems that policy makers have to deal with to avoid single-time pop ups of high performing schools that then disappear as fast as they appeared. Top girls schools may be in line into nonperformance hiatus.

The answer, however, lies in data, which must be analyzed to decode what is hidden in there. If it is leadership, then we must interrogate promotion policies.

Let’s not seek only for high grades from our students but also develop them to be better persons.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.