Back to school

This morning I talked with one of the teachers of Holy Rosary’s Secretarial course. She had a book on writing essays and letters. I was curious, not sure if I’ve ever written an essay. What I read in herbook said that essay writing is different from composition because it emphasises the personal opinions and emotional responses of the writer. I guess I have written some essays after all!

The teacher went on to tell me about her English classes with the secretarial students. They are required to research a topic and give a speech on it, they also do short speaking exercises where they are given a topic at short notice and required to speak, in English, on that subject in front of the class. I was encouraged. When the relevant tecaher arrived I asked him about the Communication Skills topic that the IT students take. This is what he told me:

The IT students avoid all creative and practical aspects of the course. They use any excuse to avoid speaking in front of their colleagues, and they won’t answer CAT or exam questions that require creative writing. The teacher told me they even ask him “What benefit will this communication skills do us in our careers?”. He says some of them see it as the work of secretaries and therefore below them. Meanwhile they are terrified to speak in public and never admit to having an opinion of their own, let alone express one.

He went on to say that this is not a necessary outcome of the Kenyan education system, however. He pointed out that the students at our college are admitted with a somewhat forgiving approach to grades. The average grade for many of them, he says, is C-, whereas the national average is C+. Those with As and Bs have gone to universities. These, he says, are the ones who have not learned to synthesize. They have not learned to think for themselves. Rather than learning a skill, he says, they have learned how to pass exams. They learn by experience: because the system requires students to pass at each year in order to progress (unlike in the UK where progression is automatic), some of them have had plenty of practise at taking exams, since they have sat the exams for some subjects several times.

It must be a subject whose time has come for me, the discussion started this morning with one colleague and has continued most of the day so far. Other colleagues were discussing the Stage II students: “they pretend to understand you until you give them a CAT”, they said, “they you see they understand nothing”. My own experience, sadly, bears this out, my last CAT with them was very poor. I’ve been blaming myself but Im startign to reconsider.

It makes the job difficult: the whole system withing which I am teaching is geared towards teaching facts. The teacher of communication skills showed me exams in that subject which were, as he put it, definitive: the questions said “define this”, and “define that”, rather than encouraging students to be creative and communicative. If I fight that, it looks like Im going to reduce their chances of passing. If I go along with it, it looks like I’m just preparing them for the exams, not giving them any sort of education.

My colleague says the University who accredit our diploma are not doing themselves any favors with this course. By producing graduates who are skilled mainly in cramming for exams, but who lack the skills to work with computers, they will, he says, erode their reputation.


  1. natty Says:

    Many public school systems in America are in a similar quandary with standardized testing, thanks to el presidente Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy disaster. Every year in the spring, most grade levels must take a reading and math standardized test, and average scores for the schools dictate whether or not they get this funding or that funding. The No Child Left Behind act has the idiotic idea of punishing schools that don’t meet quota scores: which 99% of the time tend to be poor, black innercity schools. These schools lose their federal and state funding, so poor schools get poorer and the rich, white suburban schools get richer. It’s stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.

    There are two very sad end results: 1) Teachers working in the inner cities, like my oldest sister last year, arrive to find bare rooms with bare floors and no money even for copy paper. Teachers in America are notoriously underpaid, and most of those end up spending hundreds of dollars out of their own pocket buying rugs, paper, scissors, crayons, books, etc. 2) Schools are increasingly pressured to spend the entire school year teaching toward the test, at the expense of educating the kids. Art, music, gym, and language programs are being gutted or done away with, for time and financial reasons. That’s a big kicker, because studies show that kids involved in music and art score higher on standardized tests. And America’s losing the cool part of our education: the well-rounded student who has studied a variety of subjects long after European schools drop off and let kids specialize.

    There are two maddening facets of this program. 1) Standardize testing doesn’t really prove anything except how well you can pass a standardized test. I always scored about 30% higher than my brother and sisters, but that by no means dictates that they’re any less intelligent or knowledgable than I am. It just means I take tests well. Most universities aren’t looking very hard at SAT scores anymore for just this reason. 2) George W. cut most of the funding earlotted for this program, essentially leaving it with brutal standards and no money to help schools achieve them. Yeehaw.

  2. Mark Says:


    Thanks for that Natty, one of the best things about keeping this blog is that I get to hear your observations as well as airing mine. Bush doesn’t impress me much, and the news I receive doesn’t tell me stuff like the story you’ve told here.

    The UK now has league tables for schools too, and the government likes to fuck with the curriculum too.

    I wonder:
    – Just what, exactly, is school for?
    – and based on the answer to that, how ought it to be supported, funded and managed?

    I heard there is a freeze on employing teachers over here. Meanwhile numbers of primary school teachers are decreasing and and AIDS is the most frequently stated cause.

    I know a man in Tala market who rides a bike, he’s a Boda-boda man: his Chinese bycicle has a home-made seat on the back and he offers rides for money (like the guy who crashed with me at the turnoff for College). He has a little yellow plaque pop-riveted to his crossbar proclaiming him to be number 12, T.C.S.H.G: Tala Cycle Self Help Group: a coop of Boda-boda drivers. He used to work as a groundsman at Tala Girls High School, next to College but, he told me, he was not welcomed by the other groundsmen, watchmen and cooks, because he’s a qualified Geography teacher.

  3. Chris Says:

    It all sounds depressingly and familiarly like HND "teaching"…
    (except for licensed geography teachers moonlighting
    as 2-wheeled tuk-tuks, or vice-versa).

    I count myself very lucky that I don’t have
    to do that any more!

    Thinking of you lots


  4. Mark Says:


    I don’t remember you moonlighting as a cycle rickshaw!

    Nice to have the mungbean family grafitiing my walls again. Welcome back. I promise to send you some email. Meanwhile, there is a **letter** for you still on my desk waiting for me to go buy stamps. Watch this space (well, that one actually).


  5. Thaths Says:

    The sad fact of the matter is that the students have to pass the exams. I understand the need to make the studnts genuinely interested in understanding what they are studying. Maybe you could try a middle-path approach. Teach what will be asked in their final exams but do it in a fun and interactive manner.

Back To School

Just reporting in from a whacky and wonderful weekend in Nairobi celebrating the birthdays of four VSOs in May.

On Thureday the door and windows in the dining hall were open. I know the air in the computer room gets stale over night. The dining hall has stood unopened like a bottle of milk, way past it sell-by-date. In the morning I met the deputy principal for the first time since last term, and some of the secretarial teachers. At lunch time, I saw a student; by tea-time I’d seen three or four. Like the birds in the Hitchcock film, or bycicles at the end of Market Street in San Francisco on the last friday in a month, you don’t see them arrive but when you look round, there are more of the there than you remember there being before.

On Friday we were visited by representatives of the African Virtual University (AVU). Looks like we’re going to be their first outreach centre. Watch this space.

In the afternoon I was spirited away to Nairobi in the AVU van. Spent the afternoon browsing books on education, dyslexia and (believe it or not) the AVU! Then met Shauna and Shelley for beer and gossip. Stayed at Shelley’s flat; cooked pasta and veggies and sat in the dark as the power was off, and talked until late.

Saturday was the birthday day. Had a kinda plan to use Shelley’s (electric) overn to bake a cake. Shelley went out to a lunch engagement; I was going to Nakumatt (huge supermarket) for the ingredients but not until after I’d taken advantage of the hot water in the flat, and the bath tub! Oh what luxury! To lie, to soak! My first (tub) bath in Kenya. As I lie there, listening to the soundtrack from The Commitments, I suddently became aware of a bottle of shaving foam and a disposable razor (now somewhat blunt) by the side of the bath! :doze:

Went to the supermarket but stopped off for a beer on the way in a bar we might use for the birthday do. Also went to another shopping arcade, read more about dyslexia in the bookshop there, and had just decided not to have lunch in the Java Cofee House there when I was hailed by Sasha: another VSO volunteer, who was taking her lunch in the cafe next door. So I had lunch there! To cut a long story short this place turns out to be run by Sasha’s friend who arranged to put on a great Birthday-party evening for us all, including a cake, so I could just take it easy and eat and talk with Sasha and Will (who joined us there too) and forget about baking.

The evening party was great. The food excelent and the company just wonderful! When we volunteers get together, we laugh beyond the call of duty.

This morning started slow: how many VSOs can you get in one hotel bed? Can you believe these are adults? Then I took a comfortable (supprisingly large) matatu to Tala in time for lunch with the men from USAID’s Leland project, who had come to visit th college.

Meeting the AVU and USAID people has made me very optimistic about my placement. Meeting up with the VOLS (there were about 14 of us in the restaurant laughing a lot!) has made me very happy about being out here, despite the sometimes scary news I get to hear from them. Meeting our students (a small possey just came in and asked if they could “browse for just one minute”) has reminded me of my optimism for teaching here. And so beginneth a new term here at Holy Rosary College.

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