Monday, December 21, 2009

Education in Africa

Writing about the corporal punishment issue here versus in Kenya reminded me of something that I've been meaning to write about for awhile – the similarities and differences between the school systems in the two countries, and how they compare to the system in the US.

Overall, although there are a lot of issues with the Kenyan educational system, I would say that it is vastly superior to the system here. I guess that is not surprising, as Kenya in general is way ahead on the development scale, wheras in Liberia I would characterize things as barely a step above total chaos (OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but not much of one). This is true not only in the realm of education, but in the political and judicial systems as well, and pretty much any other system that you can think of – for the most part, things are functioning, but not effectively.

In my eyes, one of the major problems with the Kenyan educational system (aside from the corruption and sexual and monetary exploitation of students, which take place here as well) is its extreme rigidity. In part, I think that the rigidity stems from the British colonial influence; somehow, the Kenyan system seems to have combined traditional African values with the worst, most inflexible parts of Western education to create schools in which students are held to unrealistically high standards that cannot possibly be achieved. The girls at my first boarding school were awakened at 5:30 AM every morning, Saturdays and Sundays included, and expected to spend the entire day – from 6:30 AM until 9:30 PM – in their classrooms. Classes ran from 6:45 AM until 6:45 PM on the weekdays, with short breaks for lunch, sports, and of course the requisite twice-daily tea breaks; the rest of the evening was set aside for homework and studying, which students were expected to do in complete silence.

Not surprisingly, the huge amounts of time set aside for studying did not correspond to a good academic performance for most of the students. And the students were punished harshly for poor outcomes – they were publicly humiliated in front of their classmates, called fat and lazy, or beaten. I think, in part, that this excessive harshness came from a twisted interpretation of the value of hard work. “Work harder!” was always the advice given to students who were failing. While the application of hard work to achieve educational and professional goals is certainly a value that Americans hold highly as well, it is useless in the absence of a realistic plan for achieving those goals. Students were given huge, overwhelming courseloads, expected to learn all subjects – including college-level chemistry, physics, and mathematics – in their third language, which many of them had not really mastered, and were never taught mechanisms for effective studying. “Work harder” was not a helpful piece of advice for such students, who were totally unequipped to handle the intense academic environment. A vicious cycle resulted – students performed poorly because the teachers did not teach critical thinking and study skills, students were punished for poor performance, and then students performed even more poorly because the strict punishments demoralized the students and failed to address the base issues underlying students' poor performance.

Here in Liberia, I feel as though some of the problems are almost the exact opposite of the Kenyan system. The overcrowded classrooms and undertrained and underpaid teachers combine to produce an environment in which students are not being held responsible for their own education – as opposed to the Kenyan system, in which far too much responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the students. I was very happy at first to hear parents and teachers alike sympathizing with the students; in the teacher training workshop run by the principal of the school just after I arrived in Liberia, he urged teachers to find the source of students' poor performances, by counseling them individually and maintaining good communication with the parents. Yet, far too often, in practice what results is not any actual attempt to find and rectify the source of poor student performance, but instead an excusing of student failures without any attempt to help them overcome those failures. Thus, students are given passing grades even when they have not even remotely mastered the material, resulting in what I see every day – eighth graders who read and do math at a first-grade level. Blaming the students for their failures without making a real effort to help them is not good in terms of promoting real learning, but neither is absolving students of all responsibility and allowing them to pass without actually achieving anything academically.

I can't help but feel that the major advantage of the Kenyan system over the Liberian one is this: The very best students in Kenya can generally find a way to succeed. A standardized national exam is given in 8th and 12th grades; the results of the 8th-grade exam allow one to enter into a national, regional, or district-level school (national being the highest-quality and district being the lowest). A good performance on the 12th-grade exam allows one to gain entrance at the university. So, although things are complicated by the fact that the better schools cost more, putting the poorest students at a disadvantage (true not only in Kenya, but in Liberia and the US as well), there are opportunities available for the best and the brightest in Kenya. Here in Liberia, I can't help but feel as though everyone is equally fucked when it comes to academics. The good and the bad students alike are piled into the same huge classroom, making it impossible for a teacher to teach at a pace that is appropriate for all students. So even though I think the Kenyan system is not well-suited to your average student (the 12th-grade exam, administered to all students, covers topics ranging from advanced caculus to the interpretation of Shakespeare to basic organic chemistry), it is superior to the system here, in which even the best students do not have as many opportunities for success.

The other major issue here is that education simply does not seem to be as highly valued as it is in Kenya. The idea of universal education is certainly appealing, but many people seem content to let it rest as an idea and not an actual means to an end (i.e., actually learning stuff). As long as students appear to be going to school, and appear to be getting an education, the quality of the education is not of great importance. It's hard to say exactly why this is – maybe I am just witnessing the first step toward the rebuilding the educational system, and the quality will improve over time. Or maybe the lack of emphasis on quality is reflective of a general cultural attitude in which appearance is valued over substance. Or maybe it comes from something else entirely, which I completely fail to understand.

This entry is already way too long, but in reading back over what I've written, I feel the need to mention one thing: As I've said before, there is a huge amount of variation within both Kenya and Liberia. My experience at girls' boarding schools was very, very different from the experiences of many other Peace Corps Kenya volunteers. The size of the town or village, the region of the country, and the cultural norms of the dominant ethnic group have a profound influence on the functionality of each individual school, and my own experience in no way allows me to accurately reflect on the educational system of the country as a whole (even though that is pretty much just what I tried to do). My work in Liberia has likewise been limited to one single large town, and the problems I face here are certainly not the same as those faced by teachers in the smaller towns and villages. So keep that in mind as you are reading through this; take everything I've written with a grain of salt.

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