Celebrating East African Writing!
As a guest lecturer at a local university, I had the first-hand experience of finding that students who enrolled for the MBA course had no idea of the problems we face in the practical world. This phenomenon is nothing new in Kenya. Note MBA students are supposed to be experienced in their fields of work before they can be accepted for an MBA course.
It rotates around our very method of teaching that we apply in the majority of our schools. Our methods are simply medieval in that while we tend to teach theories we do not advocate the practical applications of those theories and therefore students, teachers and parents are simply participants in a system that leave products without direction when they do enter the practical world. A theoretical book with no reader.
In most cases teachers do not provide relevance to what is taught in school nor do they show aptitude towards being able to explain to the student as to how these subjects are going to help them in the future. Their introduction of the subject to the student is missing. This problem lies on several levels depending on the age of the student. The following shows just how deeply this problem is ingrained through my personal practical experiences at the MBa level in Kenya. While every effort is being made to change the mode of teaching at this university it has limitations as the lecturers themselves have been covered and protected by the roof of the University, most of whom have spent the better part of their lives in the educational world. While I do not dispute the wealth of knowledge that these lecturers have gained, it simply remains theoretical without the ability to adopt, change and apply these theories to real life problems.
Schools have several priorities such as Finance, reputation, competition, and marketing. These are in total disregard to the interest of the student. The school itself has become a business and it bases its reputation on exam results as the gauge for success or failure. The nature of the private school has changed from the past where students were considered to be better educated than those who are in what we consider public schools/government schools. This remains true for Kenyan schools in the private sector but only when compared to schools within their own local environment. This became clear when I recently visited London and had the opportunity to visit several grammar schools on their open days in London. Grammer schools are semi private with government involvement at the local level but run like private schools without the involvement of major finance from the student. The entrance to these schools is either through an entrance exam or proximity to the school or both.
There also appears to be a distinct lack of general knowledge even though there is access to the world wide web in most private schools. Students appeared to be well rounded in terms of knowledge and this became abundantly clear when they were asked a few questions about Kenya and they were able to give clear concise answers about our politics and geography, people and economics to the higher class students. I did this several times picking random samples over all the schools and these students also seem to have a better understanding of the applications of chemistry, physics, math, Art, geography, finance, and even practical subjects such as woodwork. Their answers were not regurgitated from the book but rather adopted to real world problems. The students also appeared to be proud to belong to their particular schools, I do not see the same in Kenyan private schools. This was distinctly different to the answers that I receive from students that are taught in Kenya. While we may have students that do extremely well in exams, I find this same problem occurs once these same students move from the academic world into the real world and find it difficult to adopt to practical life. The lack of general knowledge about the world around them and the direction it is taking is acute.
A common problem occurs when these students apply for work. After all the hard work they have put into their academia world and having successfully transited, they move with confidence that they will be able to secure a good job. While this may be true for certain specialized fields such as medicine, this is not true for areas of finance, business management and economics among many others. At least a few times in a month I will meet a graduate who will be looking for a job. I normally begin by stating that I have no positions open but to test the student I do mention an entry point position which is open. The gambit is thrown and I wait to see if the subject will bite. Naturally the graduate would like to know what the position entails and I reply it requires cleaning the factory floor, cleaning the toilets among other things, to which the normal reply is; “No! this is beneath my dignity”. This is usually where I make a judgment call, like hundreds of other graduates, this one too has not gotten past the ego and looked at the advantage of starting from the bottom and learning since they appear to believe that they have learnt every thing there is to learn and therefore they are actually in a better position of knowledge than the boss. (This is where knowledge acquisition stops and the ego takes over. While that may be true in this case the applicant will never get a chance to prove it.)
With that I conclude we have another cow who has the ability to chew at the strands of knowledge and regurgitate it back on paper to be marked by a professor who also happens to know simply that. The objective of getting a job is a business deal. The employer is asking what the potential employee is bringing to the bargaining table which would benefit his business. If the employee comes with empty hands (Not cash- but say a potential client list), it leaves him in a basket full of applications with nothing to differentiate. A proof of ability, either through management capability, or accumulation of experience is necessary for an employee to make the correct decision. The employer should be looking for someone who can bring additional resources to the company. I certainly do not want to employ idiots more idiotic that myself rather quite the opposite, I need someone who will be able to bring initiative, flair, intelligence and perhaps clients. Unfortunately all the above are intangible benefits.
The real world works on profit, coincidently so do universities and schools. Even research institutes have this as their objective. It’s what motivates most people to excel at what they do. The governors of the school apply this but we, teachers simply do not know how to bring this out in our students. We provide a foundation of theory and leave the value of practical lessons to the ability of students to gain through experience. However, the truth is that we are unable to teach it because we too do not have it either. Those that have it are not teachers, do not have the time or simply do not want to part with their knowledge, as captains of industry and finance. I can well understand that. The parting of knowledge such as that gained through experience takes time and patience as well as leaves the teacher with a disadvantage. Thus we find ourselves in a catch 22 situation.
There is another problem as found out at University. The unwillingness of students to take in knowledge that is not directly relevant to their own profession. This sense of narrow vision or specialization is what I would consider a handicap. The lack of foresight or the disinclination to gain knowledge outside their relevant fields leaves them with a gap in general business environments. When faced with a problem outside the environment the specialization field leaves us with a major disadvantage and therefore many are unable to profit from chance encounters. While teaching free market economics and free market trading, the one question that came up was; “How is this relevant to me?”, My answer is; “Its not if you cannot think outside the box.”
The inability to be humble and accept that there are others out there with a good deal more knowledge is disadvantaging oneself. General knowledge is absolutely essential when putting a deal together, often a small amount of knowledge in an ‘irrelevant’ subject may open the door for you.
Our system of teaching must bring in a flavour of practical not simply to show a reaction but a practical that shows relevance of that subject. If a child cannot be shown relevance but is simply forced to accept knowledge as is, it is possible that the student will soon get bored and either drop the subject or simply loose interest.
If schools can see relevance in forcing students to excel academically for the sake of business why is it that they are not able to apply the same to the students them selves and make them better pupils. In the past twenty years the drive to academic excellence has been so high for students that when they leave high school they already have their lives mapped out, without half the knowledge. The drive to excel should come from relevance and practical applications, not simple theoretical knowledge.
This drive to excellence is not done for the benefit of the students but for the benefit of the school, right from the day they sit for their entrance exam, they are selected on their academic ability to read and absorb. The school believes in find absorbing students which solves half the problems. Instead of finding out why a student is not interested or is unable to retain knowledge it’s a lot easier to simply use nature and dump them.
Additionally; Uniforms must be perfect, Shoes must be shining and new. Hair must be cut sharp…are all geared towards the school looking good rather than how the student is performing. A shameless use of free market economics in the business of education. It all states the status of the school rather than the student. Some of the schools are ethnic finance cleansing systems where the school over charges outside communities while providing bursaries for those that belong to the community that the school belongs to, a shameless way to tribalism and racism. How would one consider this fair to equal education? These private schools are not governed by any education laws. They are in essence massive businesses. A child paying approximately Ksh 50,000 per term, multiply that by 1000 children, a handsome return of 50,000,000 per term, or 150,000,000 per year remove expenses of approximately 30,000,000 per year and these schools are sitting on enormous bank accounts. Massive educations funds held by holding companies and all tax free. Some of these schools charge anywhere from 250,000 to 600,000 per term. Not a bad enterprise.
The business of education in Kenya is huge with reasonable stability and various international organizations in the country, geared to provide education for employees children these organizations pay at international levels and employees enjoy these benefits. From the sixties, seventies and even eighties the highest rated schools were charging approximately between 12,000 to 25000. These same schools in a period of twenty five years have become massive educational industries churning profits running into hundreds of millions of shillings yearly.
I would still not have issues with the above after all we do live in a free market economy and these prices are being charged base on inflation as well as supply and demand equilibriums. However rest assured that these children certainly do not benefit from additional human endowed benefits since it still comes down to the teacher to provide the direction for their paths.
I believe that we must begin to place less emphasis on through grounding of theory and more on practical applications along with general knowledge and common sense. Incidentally how many of the governors who rule or run these schools do you think had private education and what do you think differentiates them form the rest of us? I would suggest the following; a sharp eye for a gap, common sense, initiative none of which are tangible skills but all appreciated by the entrepreneur.
© Jaimin Vyas 2010
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