My first full day in Kenya, I was largely left to myself so that I might recover a bit from jet lag and recover a delayed backpack that decided to enjoy an extended stay in Amsterdam. I have consequently bumbled around this new city like a bemused toddler. Though I haven’t been formally introduced to this country by my host organization, I have been reminded of the importance of informal education in shaping the impressions and experiences of learners at any age. This is a reality that traditional western education too often overlooks.
The western concept of education is much more static than in many other places in the world. Sit in your desk, in your assigned row, in your assigned classroom, for 180 days, pass your exams, and you level up. Thos this is changing to some extent in the west, No Child Left Behind is an example of the extension of this codified system. During Kenya’s colonial period, the British did a thorough job of transplanting this particular breed of education to their occupied territories and it remains largely unchanged in Kenya to this day. But there are many here that wonder whether this very formal style of learning is the most effective or authentic for the Kenyan student or whether a more indigenous form of learning wouldn’t better prepare Kenyan youth to participate effectively in their society.
On the 12 hour flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, I had ample opportunity to chat with a man named Gerald Yonga, a doctor and professor at Aga Khan University Hospital. Although we had varied backgrounds, we had a shared belief in increasing the accessibility and quality of eduction for the young people of his country. We talked about the endless rounds of exams that mark a students progress through the education system and determine whether they can advance; he told me of schools like the Starehe Boys Centre which offers such quality education to the poorest youth in Nairobi, that even very rich families want to send their children there; and we acknowledged the unintended effects the the Millennium Development Goals, particularly universal primary education, on his country. These include overcrowded classrooms, teacher shortages, and an allocation of close to 30% of Kenya’s latest federal budget towards staving this growing crisis. As Kenya and much of the rest of the developing world rush to comply with international conventions on education, the definition of what education ought to look like shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Measuring formal learning is easy. Define your objective. Create indicators which will prove that the objective has been met. Create assessments to measure these indicators. While this equation has its uses, it presumes that 1) we are aiming at a non-moving target and 2) that we already know what the ultimate lesson will be because we have the answer key in our desk. The first assumption is problematic because it frequently cannot keep pace with the realities of our globalized world. The second assumption neglects the reality that it is the questions with multiple or ambiguous answers that are the most likely to truly educate us anyway.
My formal objective today was to buy a phone, find a Barclay’s ATM, and recover a prodigal backpack. At the end of the day I was 66.6% proficient in living in Kenya. But using informal indicators, I have learned the following. Weigh your fruit before you go to the check out line. Obama is a universal language. If a Kenyan gives you a time estimate, you’d be wise to double it. The purple plant in the front window of my house is the Kenyan equivalent of a dandelion. Kenyans very much want visitors to like their country. Lastly, if you are not careful, you will leave Kenya with twice as many Facebook friends as you had when you arrived.
This constitutes only one day of informal learning. How much does a Kenyan child learn in a day? From where and from whom? And which of these teachers will most shape the course of their life? As I attempt to support The Undugu Society’s Youth and Education program, I will strive to keep these questions at the front of my mind.
Posted By Barbara Dziedzic
Posted Jun 20th, 2009