Barbara Dziedzic

Barbara Dziedzic (Undugu Society of Kenya - USK): Barbara’s commitment to social-justice issues began in college. In 2002, after receiving her BA in Religion from Carleton College in Northfield, MN, she moved to the East Coast to volunteer at an AIDS hospice with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. A year later she began her teaching in inner city Baltimore at St. Frances Academy, a private Catholic school founded by Haitian Nuns in the early 1800’s for the education of slave children. Barbara earned a Masters degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University. After graduating, she spent four years as a teacher working for the Anne Arundel County school system. After her fellowship, Barbara wrote: “It's changed the way I look at my own country. Given Kenya's pervasive issues with corruption and the inequality of its education system, I really appreciate the relative transparency of my own country and the public education system. I think I've come to realize how strong and tenacious I can be in advocating for a group of people I feel is being given a fair shake.”

Informal Education in Kenya

20 Jun

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. Employee at NakumattThough 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.  Prolific PurpleWeigh 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


  • springrents

    June 20, 2009


    We enjoyed reading about your informal Kenyan education, so far. I (mom) like knowing you’re in contact with your inner toddler. 🙂 I (dad) am impressed that you can recognize a dandelion equivalent without the aid of RoundUp literature. As a random thinker/organizer, I (mom) believe in taking advantage of random experiences to develop new constructs. I also recognize the benefits of sorting and organizing those events into some order–at least the ones that I’ll transfer to everyday decisionmaking (if that makes sense). We look forward to more posts.

  • Bonnie

    June 22, 2009


    Barbara, I know that plant, in the south they call it Purple Passion, sounds like a fitting name for it’s passion for Kenya. Glad to hear you have arrived safely and are enjoying the time there, making friends and eating your fruit! A comforting photo for the moms in your life. May each day be as productive for you. I am going up for an unbiased bannister meeting this week. We are taking advantage of my last few brilliant ideas allowed this year. Hugs, bdz

  • Jenna Mathers

    June 22, 2009


    You argue a point about formal learning that I had never considered before. #2 The answer key sitting in the desk presumes the outcome of the lesson. It presumes that the teacher (or perhaps the establishment) has all the answers, which as teachers, we both know we can’t possibly because intelligence is much like life experience. Education shouldn’t be based on presumption, but exploration as you aptly illustrated in your blog. Interesting concept. Happy learning Barb. I’m excited to learn with you.

    • Barbara Dziedzic

      June 23, 2009


      I think as teachers trained in the US, we think that informal learning and authentic assessment are new ideas, cutting edge. In some ways, they are a return to a more organic, inherent, natural way of acquiring and applying new information. The irony is, many developing nations look to the west as their model and imitate a structured model of education that actually the west is beginning to let go of. Thanks for you comments Jenna. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

Enter your Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *