Henry Indangasi: The conceptual issues that framers of CBC overlooked

Pupils from Camp Brethren Christian School

Pupils from Camp Brethren Christian School warm up before taking part in a clean-up exercise at Morgan trading centre, Gilgil. The exercise is part of the Competence Based Curriculum (CBC).

Photo credit: Macharia Mwangi | NMG

The Saturday Nation of April 29, 2016, published my article on the 8:4:4: system of education. In this piece, I said my first encounter with this model was when I was a PhD student in America back in the mid-1970s.

The Americans, I observed, had had the system forever; and with it, they had gone to the moon, they had invented the internet, they had grown the largest economy in the world, and had the highest number of Nobel laureates per capita.

Conceding that there was room for improvement, especially in the teaching of critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills, I pleaded with my fellow Kenyans not to get rid of the system.

One of the framers of the CBC ridiculed my position, seeing it as a case of copy and paste. What this gentleman meant was that Kenyans had just copied the American system. But he concealed the fact that his team had just lifted wholesale a model that obtains in Finland, a small but developed country of five million people.

He and his fellow framers wanted us to believe they had invented a brand-new approach to education. The taxpayer paid for this deception. After all, the government had set up and budgeted for a commission to review our educational system.

CBC is of course short for Competency-Based Curriculum. The keyword “competency” is just a high-sounding word for skill. KICD had a pre-existing syllabus on life skills, the emotional intelligence you need for understanding yourself and your relationship with the rest of humanity. (CBC has the clumsy and pompous term “self-efficacy.”) The 8:4:4: English syllabus is skills-based. In other words, our teachers teach the four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. So, the idea of imparting skills in our teaching is not new.

However, the framers of CBC wanted to sound deep, original, and sophisticated; so, they went for the word “competency.”

Means to an end

But we all know that in the sphere of education, skills are not an end in themselves; they are a means to an end. If you acquire good writing skills, you apply them by actually writing. You use your reading skills by reading books and other printed materials. And in so doing, you acquire something called “knowledge.” You use your reading skills to acquire knowledge about what historians call “the Scramble for Africa” that took place at the end of the nineteenth century.

You read for information about the First World War and the Second World War. As you watch the dramatisation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you use your listening skills to understand the message of the play. In other words, educational models should facilitate the acquisition of knowledge. The framers of CBC downplayed this crucial part of education, which is indeed the final prize of our school system.

The exponents of the CBC have a quarrel with our examination system. They say it encourages rote learning. But this kind of learning is not intrinsic to the 8:4:4 system. It is a product of our poor teaching. Our teachers drill their students and encourage them to memorise information for exams. Even in our universities, many lecturers read their lecture notes at dictation speed and expect their students to cram and reproduce the material in the examination.

I have reliably been told of English teachers in high school who write compositions for their students and tell them to reproduce them in the national exams, whatever the topic. The markers are told not to penalize such pieces of writing for irrelevance. The Kenya National Examinations Council could discourage this practice, but they don’t.

And the Council has the option to set exams that test critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills. There is absolutely nothing in the 8:4:4 model that says rote learning should be the norm; the issue is the implementation by those in charge of the education of our children and grandchildren.

Greater weighting

This brings me to the greater weighting that is given to continuous assessment than to the national examination: 60% to the former and 40% to the latter. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have a problem with this allocation; but we don’t live in such a world. In the 1970s, when Knec asked for a mark in oral literature fieldwork, all schools posted A’s. The requirement was subsequently discontinued.

The mindset of the teachers is not likely to have changed; so, my prediction is that with the bulk of the marks allocated to continuous assessment, everybody will pass. Tell me, which school would want their students to fail, especially if they have the power to pass them? And this renders the assessment process worthless.

Let us face it: there is merit in competition; there is merit in the final national exams. The CBC model is big on parental involvement. Children whose parents are professors have an unfair advantage over those whose parents are illiterate hustlers.

All other factors being equal, a professor’s child will score 60/60 in continuous assessment. And if such a child chooses not to write anything in the final national exam, he or she will still pass. In the current 8:4:4 system, however, if the exam is well set, you are compelled to think on your feet and show the world how intelligent or how foolish you are.

CBC proposes specialisation after Junior High, the equivalent of our current form one. It calls it choosing pathways. If you don’t like mathematics, you drop it. If you don’t like the languages, you drop them. If the STEM subjects are ones that appeal to you, then you can go there. At the end of Junior High, the student is 15, having been in school for nine years. And we are allowing such a child to drop key subjects such as mathematics, biology, or the languages, which they will need for the rest of their lives!


Teachers in the CBC model are simply facilitators. They don’t want to pump information into their students. They want these young, impressionable people to discover for themselves. So far so good. But what are the sources of information?

The teachers tell these students to search online. Let us assume that all parts of our country are connected to the Internet, an obviously extravagant assumption. The fact is much of the stuff that is put on the Internet is factually incorrect: garbage in, garbage out, they say.

Let me illustrate my point. Years ago, a student of mine in my Master’s class researched on the Caribbean writer Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The online source told this student that it was Chinua Achebe who gave Brathwaite his middle name. I was in my final year when Ngugi wa Thiong’o invited Brathwaite to the University of Nairobi to give a public lecture. Later, we learnt, he asked his Kenyan host to suggest an African name for him: and the name was Kamau, a Kenyan name, not a Nigerian one.

The other day, I was watching a video on Youtube about paragraphing. A paragraph is a group of sentences that speaks to one idea. The sentence that introduces the idea and sets the tone of the paragraph is called the topic sentence. But this ignorant presenter of the video was calling it a thesis statement. The thesis statement is the main claim of your writing; it cannot be confined to the small unit of composition which we call a paragraph. The Internet is, therefore, not a reliable source of information. It contains a lot of garbage.

In CBC, all the learning is done in groups. I asked the KICD officials at a workshop whether they had adequately interrogated this teaching methodology. They told me group work was intended to enhance the social skills of the learners. But group discussions reduce everybody to the lowest common denominator.

They give the extroverts, the ones who speak the loudest, an undue advantage over the introvert, that quiet genius who will one day remake the world and revolutionize our thinking, the Galileo who will tell us the earth is round, not flat. The officials had stopped listening to me when I suggested that we needed to vary our teaching method in order to cater for future Einsteins.

Finally, as I conclude this essay, I want to confess that I long ago lost faith in the people who run the Ministry of Education. Never having heard of the universal law of the normal learning curve, these fellows have been releasing raw and unmoderated KCSE results, triggering off mass failures, and then shedding crocodile tears about the collapse of our universities which don’t have enough students.

The guys then wake up one morning and announce they have discovered a pedagogy in the name of CBC which will make our children and grandchildren cleverer and more humane than previous generations. Over to you, Professor Raphael Munavu and your team!

Henry Indangasi, Professor Emeritus, Department of Literature, University of Nairobi