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My 400th Sunday Nation article: Rethink education, for all our futures

This is my 400th article for the Sunday Nation, and to mark the milestone I want to return to a favourite theme: education.

A confession first: I was beaten, disciplined and detained many times at school. Not that I was a serial miscreant, please understand. I was punished for multitudes of minor offences: questioning the knowledge of teachers; getting things wrong; answering back; failing to be in the library at the correct time; participating in minor mutinies against teachers.

In other words, I was reprimanded routinely for doing the very things that would stand me in good stead in my future life: a habit of questioning things before accepting them; a reluctance to accept other people’s rigidities; an inability to conform to blind routine.

Remember, please, where this desire to beat knowledge into people came from: from the Victorian era and the dawning of the industrial age. Then, the world was ruled by small elites who needed armies of “worker bees” to support their efforts. Education’s mission at the time was, above all things, to instil discipline, stamp out dissent, and embed the habit of following orders without question.

Things have changed – sort of. The other day I was privileged enough to sit quietly at the back of a classroom and watch modern teaching in action. I wanted to weep with joy. The teacher I observed was clearly the pupils’ friend as well as their instructor. She had a small coterie of youngsters to handle. She sat them around her on the floor, and they learned the subject of the day by observation, touch and asking questions. They seemed to be having an interesting chat more than having preset knowledge drummed into them.

Yet those kids learned a great deal. By engaging with the subject, being encouraged to ask questions about it, being asked to do something that confirmed their understanding, they had their natural spirit of enquiry stimulated. Because they liked their teacher and bonded with her, they were uninhibited and confident. A far cry from the way I was educated at that age, when teachers wrote out dreary notes on blackboards for brainless copying; where knuckles were rapped viciously for speaking out of turn or getting something wrong, just to appease the sadistic instincts of some so-called teacher.

The world has moved on. Most educational systems now focus on that very spirit of enquiry, and seek to nurture the desire of children to improve themselves. Even the good old British, who championed the “whip-it-into-’em” system inflicted on most of us, have reformed their way of teaching. Modern British curricula emphasise learning through doing and relate teaching to everyday life so that it becomes immediately relevant to the child.

But here’s the point: the school I observed was a high-cost institution, available only to a privileged few. The average Kenyan child in “free” primary education is still receiving the bad old ways: the teacher is the dictator; the knowledge is pre-ordained and certain, to be crammed and regurgitated; questioning is not permitted.

Success in today’s world will not come from producing worker drones. Today’s interconnected, always-on economy requires people with unusual insight, unique thinking and creative solutions. It demands people who can participate in global social networks. It needs minds that do not reside in boxes, minds that can ask “why” and “why not” all the time.

So let me mark this personal milestone with an appeal to parents, teachers, and educationists: release all the children of Kenya to love their schools, their teachers and their subjects. Release them from the mind-numbing tedium that is the average school day. Stop making our schools torture chambers ruled by little despots. Learning should be fun – our intellectual juices flow, and we receive knowledge better, when we are enjoying ourselves. It is time to bring the Kenyan child into the 21st century.

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