Betty Caplan: Real education more than passing exams - The Star

The time for the annual exam results circus has come around again. "Big Drop in KCPE Grades" read the headline in the Star December 30,2009. The sub-heading was "New Rules to Curb Exam Cheating." Were the two related, do you think?

Those who won high marks were feted as conquering heroes, and lists displayed the names of the top 10 students in each region. Hooray for them but what does it all mean?

Does the drop indicate that students were more stupid this year, teachers more incompetent or cheating attempts less successful? And what about all the rest? Those at the bottom? Are they not human beings in need of attention too?

Let's be clear about one thing: exams have nothing to do with real education. All they do is test how good you are at passing exams. The cleverest people in my experience have been notoriously incapable of squeezing their intelligence into the narrow confines of a brief question. The only fair way is by continuous assessment, with perhaps a single exam at the end to confirm key issues.

What of the teachers who taught them? They were not in the picture. This maintains the illusion that clever children will do brilliantly even without teachers, whereas the fact remains that the profession is tied to producing results, demoralised, understaffed and under-resourced.

Apparently there is a shortage of 45,000 teachers in the country but there has been no recruitment for five years in spite of the introduction of free primary education for all.

Why not interview the teachers of the whizzkids? Ask them what methods they used? Were they teaching to the test?

Because real education has to do with learning how to think, how to do research, how to be critical (even of your own teachers and headmasters!) and how to listen to another's point of view.

A true education would teach you how to read material of all kinds and to assess its veracity. It would not make vocation the one and only end for in these difficult and uncertain times, we often need more than one career as former top bankers and lawyers in New York are finding out to their cost.

Imagine that if we had an education system specifically geared to this country's needs (and not a colonial hangover which was long ago abandoned in the "mother" country), one which taught tolerance by rule and example and included studies of the many ethnic groups that make up this society (not only black) that we might not have witnessed the terrible spectacle of the 2008 post elec-tion violence whose scars have not even begun to heal?

Could there be an education that taught that not all whites are rich, not all Asians are greedy, and not all Kikuyus are born with business skills in their genes? That brought back art and music to a place where they are studied seriously, because they too have much to teach us besides offering vocations.

Such a curriculum would not have to worry about cheating because cheating is only useful when the answer is so simple it can fit onto a mobile phone or the back of a hand.

Is there a one word reply to "describe the contribution the peoples of the coast have made to the development of Kenya since independence?"

In all the excitement about numbers there has been no attention paid to content or purpose. Or analysis of the reasons preventing girls from going to school particularly in certain parts of the country.

But when it comes to cheating, my sympathies, I confess are all with those who try. Why shouldn't they? Everyone else does! The least privileged have just been cheated out of billions which would have provided them with essential books and materials not to speak of computers and the culprits, we are now told, predictably, had political motives. But we still don't know their names and the ministers who head the department are still drawing their large salaries. And yes, parents will do absolutely anything to ensure their children get the best exam results because everything hangs on it.

And teachers will assist them because their own status also hangs upon it. Not on how well they taught but on how many pupils passed. But my best Christmas present came by email from one of the worst students I have ever had who was forced, poor girl, to study literature. She failed. But she is now a mental health nurse in the UK and the mother of a toddler.

"You were the best teacher I have ever had, and we gave you such a hard time," she wrote. That was nine years ago, but clearly she has learned something and I am proud of her.

Caplan comments on topical issues.

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