Mwalimu’s grading wish list as examination fever sets in

Coast Girls High School i

KCSE candidates at Coast Girls High School in Mombasa on December 6, 2022.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

With October at our doorstep, we Walimu are beginning to feel the heat. It is the heat of the transitional national examinations, the battles into which we send our intrepid little warriors with suave external assurances, veiling the turmoil of our internal anxieties. Whether it is KCPE, KCSE or whatever labels prevail at the time, no one knows better than the teacher the pressure, and the risks, of these assessment tests on which the entire future of our charges perilously hangs.

You might plausibly argue that the pressure is just as high on the candidates themselves, and on their parents, as it is on the teachers. But the serious teacher feels the weight of each of his or her student’s fate on his or her shoulders. Moreover, most of us teachers are also, literally, parents, with candidates in various institutions.

I will not dwell on the angst of school heads, who at this time bear their own crosses and the crosses of each and all of their candidates. You know the old tale. When our children do well in the exams, the parents and candidates are quick to boast, as we celebrate, that we are “really smart”, and “it all runs in the genes”. After all, even the kid’s uncle or great aunt is a professor at a famous American university. The spirit-oriented attribute it all to prayer and to the Almighty.

When, however, the results fall short of our wishes and expectations, the first target of blame is us “useless and lazy teachers”, who spend most of our time drinking in local pubs, attending to our chicken farms or moonshining at private institutions. Well, we admit that we are merely human, and very few of us can convincingly claim to be angels or saints in the classroom.

Indeed, there are some colleagues who do not live up to expected levels of performance.

But all in all, most teachers do their best, often under pretty difficult circumstances. But they cannot do it alone. This is why the most convincing explanation of candidates’ performance, whether good, mediocre or poor, is cooperation, cooperation among the learners, the teacher, the parents and the administrators and supervisors. What remains for me is to tell my fellow teachers, “Shime, wenzangu!” (Let’s gear up, colleagues). Let us throw all our energies, skills and love into the final preparation of our candidates for the coming tests.

Testing and assessment

A significant development that caught my attention as we think matters testing and assessment is the decision of Kenyan education authorities that the final grading of KCSE performance will be based on two subjects. These are Mathematics and Languages (the languages being English, Kiswahili or Kenyan Sign Language).

Reports indicate that in the new grading system, to be applied to the 2023 KCSE results, only these two subjects will be mandatory. In addition to these two, a candidate’s grading will be based on any other five subjects in which the candidates perform best. The planners claim that this will improve the candidates’ chances of joining higher institutions of learning, as contrasted to the previous “cluster” system.

This certainly sounds like good news, especially if the new system will open up more higher education opportunities for our children. But maybe it is too early to comment in detail, especially by us non-specialists. We will need expert clarification from the experts at KNEC, my friend CEO Dr David Njengere and his colleagues, before we start the celebrations. In any case, educationists know that all reforms are processes (michakato) and not one-time strokes.

Indeed, it is in this spirit of processes that I would like to make my halfpennyworth (pesa nane) suggestions for consideration in future reviews.

I noted that our top educationists strongly emphasised the “literacy and numeracy” competence expectations that guided their focus on mathematics and language in the new weighting. This is as it should be, and it conforms to the “Three Rs” (reading, writing, reckoning) expectations of an elementary education.

But where is the oracy? Forty-six years ago, in Lagos, Prof Pio Zirimu, my teacher, and I suggested to Africa (and the world) that oracy, the ability to listen and speak effectively, is an essential skill, and it should be a key requirement in our education systems. We suggested that the essential skills (“3rs”) of an elementary African education should be: oracy, numeracy and literacy (ONL). Has our call for this essential skill been falling on deaf ears for these nearly fifty years?

Current language programmes

I know that “oral skills” are included in many current language programmes, so I should not get unduly cantankerous about the matter. But I would be a lot happier if oracy was more emphatically asserted, taught, tested and valued in our educational systems than it is today. I will not ask how many of us feel that we were really taught “how to speak” throughout our secondary school education.

I am, for example, irked by the way Kenyans always “apologise” for their Kiswahili whenever they meet speakers from other communities. For goodness’ sake, it is our language, and if we are going to speak it, let us speak it well, let us learn to speak it well. Did you also note a recent report that a large number of Kenyan medics missed opportunities for lucrative employment in Britain because they failed an “English” test? I do not want to speculate, but I strongly suspect that the failure had something to do with oracy.

Finally, I would like to see our new generations taught and tested in a subject called “Social Sense”. This is the “Ubuntu/utu” inspired skill of self-respect, respect for all fellow humans and respect for our environment. I wrote about this a long time ago, when I introduced what I called “deshenzinisation” (taking the “shenzi” and primitive out of us). It is, I believe, this social sense competence that can help eradicate corruption, selfishness, deceitfulness and violence from our society.

Best wishes to all our candidates and their teachers.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]