What you need to know:
- Most systems focus on passing exams. Rote learning becomes the norm. A student can answer questions on trigonometry perfectly without understanding its application in building of a simple hut in the village.
- Education, in its knowledge and imagination forms, encouraged the viewing of these distinct concepts as if they were from different worlds. Today, the very same measurement problem stands on our way to becoming an industrialised nation.
- Through Ciiru Waweru's partnership with SOS and Safaricom, they take about 30 kids (SOS – 15 and Shofco – 5, two of the most disadvantaged schools, and others from elite schools in Nairobi) for a four-week holiday creative thinking programme at her FunKidz factory in Kikuyu.
- With many maker-spaces, we can unlock the country’s industrial potential to create jobs as well as build a competitive export market for the country.
The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge per se but imagination. These words from Albert Einstein encapsulate the broad sense of an ability that educational systems in Africa took away from learners.
Most systems focus on passing exams. Rote learning becomes the norm. A student can answer questions on trigonometry perfectly without understanding its application in building of a simple hut in the village.
This indeed was my experience from a rural primary school in Kisii to the Kikuyu heartland in Nyeri for my secondary education.
In trigonometry, we memorised the acronym TOASOHCAH, which in Kikuyu is loosely translated to “coming back.”
With the understanding of TOASOHCAH (Tangent equals Opposite over Adjacent, Sine equals Opposite over Hypotenuse and Cosine equals Adjacent over Hypotenuse) the entire trigonometry was taken care of and we loved it.
In my rural village, I would watch as men erected roofs on new homes. There would always be a man who moved several metres away to direct the roofing angles and slants.
“Up up up, oh down a bit,” they would shout instructions to those mounting trashes and rafters on top of the new building.
More than 90 per cent of the time, the “expert” would be wrong and it would take great effort and time to keep adjusting the roof.
Even when they were in agreement that they had it right, many huts usually had some funny slant.
Even after passing exams with distinction in math, we were never curious as to why roofing in the rural areas was such a pain.
Education, in its knowledge and imagination forms, encouraged the viewing of these distinct concepts as if they were from different worlds.
Today, the very same measurement problem stands on our way to becoming an industrialised nation.
A dining set I bought a couple of years back to support our local furniture industry never quite stayed firm in one place.
Several of the chairs danced because the frames that held them to the ground had serious measurement problems.
In most cases, we propped them up with toilet paper plugged underneath some of the legs.
I didn’t mind since, as a lecturer, I could always pretend that I was doing research on the stability of locally produced dining chairs, but I couldn’t help but wonder what really quality-conscious and aesthetically astute Kenyans were feeling about such shoddy designs.
CREATIVE ART GAP
The effort to close this knowledge gap is being spearheaded by one woman, Ciiru Waweru, in Kikuyu town.
She has slowly been making a few of our kids to become more imaginative, enabling them to apply knowledge to real problems facing society.
Her ambition is to plug the creative art gap created by compromising art and craft subjects through lack of tools and workshops in the educational systems we often adopt.
This will perhaps make it easier to depart from the past and relate education to knowledge and our imaginations.
Through her partnership with SOS and Safaricom, they take about 30 kids (SOS – 15 and Shofco – 5, two of the most disadvantaged schools, and others from elite schools in Nairobi) for a four-week holiday creative thinking programme at her FunKidz factory in Kikuyu.
This highly equipped furniture-making enterprise is converted into a maker-space for kids between ages six and 13 to create the products of their imagination.
Several highly educated intern engineers from Safaricom direct the kids when they go off track. Many of these interns have already qualified as engineers but have no jobs. Their specialisations include the following areas in engineering: electrical, mechanical, civil, biosystems, telecommunications, mechatronic, geospatial and computer science.
Technology has made it possible to make even a million similar chairs with standardised measurements without errors of measurement.
With this, we can begin to talk about boosting manufacturing and compete with Chinese manufacturers, who now dominate commercial furniture supplies in Africa.
They too went through some learning curve and embraced technology before they turned tables on Italians, who had dominated the space for years.
Several of the products the kids make with the help of technology can be sold competitively in any market.
Kids making presentations of their experiences while Dr Rabera Kenyanya explains a drug dispenser for patients with arthritis made by the kids to Ciiro Waweru, Bitange Ndemo and Nancy Wamaitha from Safaricom.
At the end of the five-hour assembly session, the kids make presentations of their products and explain what they learnt for the day.
Each child is given time to speak. Although many are shy and their speech copied from their antecedents, they were simply amplifying the effect of our educational system.
They leave the workshop knowing that everything requires hard work and thinking.
The joy of the entire exercise is how they marvel at their creations that register a permanent imprint in these young brains.
Maria Montessori, a child development expert who had realised that “rote memorization of material does not nurture a child’s individual skills and abilities and, in fact, inhibits, or reduces, them”, developed this kind of learning.
Instead, she argued that “children have an intrinsic, or natural, motivation to learn and will do so if given the right resources and opportunities in the classroom.”
She established that the most important years are ages one to six. More importantly, this age category rarely requires a teacher to tell them what they need to do.
The Montessori system recommends that adults are mere facilitators while the students try new ideas.
This requirement has been elusive in our early childhood education in the current education system for lack of facilities.
Indeed, selection to Standard One is based on how much kids can regurgitate what they have learnt instead of creativity.
In the pictures above, kids clutch on to their creations, a wooden water dispenser, a jewellery box and several other products that form the bulk of imports from China.
The children do not just learn to make products but they are introduced to other concepts like the circular economy.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes this type of economy as:
“a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and closed recycling loops. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.”
The wood they are using to create is from recycled import pallets that usually end up in garbage dumps.
The opportunity to repurpose used material helps the kids to become more sensitive to the environment as they attempt to re-use virtually everything that is destined for the garbage dump.
Some adults accompanying the children too are taking advantage of the technology at their disposal to design their products too.
Dr Kenyanya sees opportunities to make innovative products for the elderly, such as drug dispensers for people with severe arthritis. No one would have imagined this if the children had not developed a dispenser.
The problems of design and measurements can be easily dealt with using new technologies if these technologies are widely available in makerspaces like FunKidz.
With many maker-spaces, we can unlock the country’s industrial potential to create jobs as well as build a competitive export market for the country.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito