Learning Vs cramming: What are students taking home?

By Desire Mbabaali

When Prof A.B. K. Kasozi, the former National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) executive director, proposed that the current seven-year primary education be adjusted to eight, and that students transition to university after completing O-Level, scrapping off what he termed as the ‘unnecessary two years’ of A-Level, the mixed reactions that ensued were no surprise at all. Proposals such as Prof Kasozi’s, are increasingly getting more popular.
Just after the release of Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) this year for example, social media was awash with debate on relevance of such standardised examinations, with some people suggesting a total removal of PLE.
However, decrying a wanting education system dates as far back as after independence from colonial rule by most African countries. African scholars set out to contribute to Africanisation of the education system and some of their suggestions were quite radical.
For example, Unwuachi in 1972 favoured a complete departure from the colonial systems as cited by Dr Connie Nshemereirwe in her 2017 research paper, “What was my education for? Transformative education and the Africa we want by 2030”.
Unwuachi noted that, “Black cultural objectives can never be obtained using…white European standardised educational processes.”
Kenya’s 8-4-4 system?
And whereas Kenya’s 8-4-4 education system can be applauded for the high numbers of students in higher education compared to Uganda’s (a gross enrolment ratio of 500,000 to 250,000 respectively), according to Prof Kasozi’s article in the New Vision, there is one important issue it does not answer – the quality of education.

As a matter of fact, over the years, Kenyans have challenged their government to overhaul the 8-4-4 system of education. In February, 2016 for example, a forum organised at Nairobi’s iHub tapped into an active social media audience on Twitter and created the hashtag #CurriculumReformsKE to speak about the education of the country. Many expressed dissatisfactions with the current system, arguing that it was steeped in rote learning -basically memorising of useless facts for passing in exams, according to Tuko.co.ke.
One @MartieMtange noted on Twitter that, “We need to restore the position of thinking in learning. Not just people who take in information but those who build on it.” @Linyonyism also noted, “The cost of not reforming our education system is too high. We need to start acting now.”
Last year, Kenya’s education ministry sought to change their system and replace it with the 2-6-3-3 system. Though, led by former Moi University vice chancellor Laban Ayiro, the review discouraged the government from pushing through with the new changes. However, the report by the review team as reported in The Standard newspaper barely answers the question of quality.
Whether with Kenya’s 8-4-4 system or our own 7-4-2-3, there is currently a growing feeling that something is wrong with our system of education. But what is it? Are our students actually learning, beyond just enrolling into school?
According to Robert Bulega, a Senior Five student of Makerere College School, poor teacher renumeration and poor school facilities are the main hindrances to effective learning. He reasons, “When the teacher feels that their services are not valued, then they will not give their best, but also, learning does not take place in a vacuum. We need good facilities and equipment, which are lacking in many schools.”
However, Ssebweze Kyeswa, a member of Kigo Thinkers, a network of academicians, sees a more significant problem; the lack of clear national standards for all schools. “A number of schools are preoccupied with good performance in examinations than learning; lessons are mostly based on ‘past exams’ papers. It would be premature to start worrying about the environment and teacher quality before setting the standards for the country’s education system,” he writes in Dr Nshemereirwe’s paper, ‘Creating a thinking person: The need for higher order skills in the Ugandan education system’.

Schooling killing learning
Additionally, Dr Lawrence Muganga, a public policy and strategy advisor, notes that our school system is wanting in many ways. “We educate children by batches and govern their lives by ringing bells. All day long, students do nothing but follow instructions. In today’s world, how far can you get by simply following instructions?” he wonders, adding that the modern world values people who can be creative, yet students do not get a chance to develop such skills in the current system.
Dr Nshemereirwe also points to the ‘banking’ system, which she says, is the main mode of teaching today. Here, the teacher is all knowing, and the students perceived as empty vessels. “…It tells learners both the questions to be asked and the answers thereof. The
banking system consequently produces individuals who gradually take on the habit of looking to others in order to find out what is what, under the belief that they have nothing of value to say,” the paper reads in part.
For Muganga most of the learning that happens in schools today is not authentic because it relies on memorisation and rote learning. “We know that such learning is not authentic because most of it is gone after the exam. Learning can be much deeper and more authentic, especially when students get involved and contribute in their own learning.”

Limited room for talent
Paulo Freire, in his book; Pedagogy of the Oppressed stresses that as human beings, our main job is to become fully human – each one of us growing into our own unique versions by discovering our passions and talents.
“But who in school asks or even cares about your dreams and passions? The question is always, who do you want to be like; the doctor, teacher, lawyer, among other professions. How many students will read Chemistry and Physics but when all they want to do is sing, or be with computers?” Janet Namulindwa, a teacher from Lubiri Secondary School, asks.
To her, this one-size-fits-all kind of education that kills intuition, initiative, passions and creativity needs to be changed. “This could be one of the reasons we have a low retention as formal education progresses because parents and students realise this is not working in terms of encouraging their passions.
School dropouts join business, music, drama, vocational and technical schools in form of apprenticeship because they find these more realistic to their life’s needs,” Namulindwa adds.
According to her, there should therefore be room in the current education system for the most important questions in a child’s life. What am I good at? What do I want to do in life? How do I fit into this world? And, then the education should be flexible enough to offer those different children the solutions.
“This cutthroat, unhealthy competition we see in schools, and the encouragement of unnecessary competition amongst children other than learning from one another is slowly killing us. These private schools, with no control, charge exorbitant amounts of money to give our children first grades,” Grace, a parent at Victorious Primary School, says. She confesses that many parents live in worry about school fees and fees increments, and the long list of requirements which have made the cost of education so high.
Grace, therefore, calls upon government for more control on education fees charged by private education providers.
Currently, 27 per cent of schools at primary level are privately-owned and 66 per cent of schools at secondary level are private.
As of 2013, enrollment in private schools was at 16.2 per cent at primary level and 51.0 per cent at secondary level according to the Privatisation, Discrimination and the Right to Education in Uganda Alternative Report of June 2015.
High stake examinations
While examining how schooling is killing learning, it came out strongly that the major cause of rote learning isthe high-stake examinations.
“It is like life begins and ends with those examinations, and if you do not pass, you are doomed, which is not right,” a parent argued.
The recent education report, Facing forward: Schooling for learning in Africa 2018) by the World Bank, noted that, “High-stake examinations are a bottleneck to progression. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa continue to have high-stake selection examinations that filter children for the next level of education. This creates perverse incentives for teachers to “teach to the test” and leads to unnecessary grade repetition,” the report reads in part.
However, countries that have eliminated examinations between the primary and lower secondary levels have shown significant increase in lower secondary enrolments and improvements in basic education completion, the report noted.

Very often, the issue of financing our education, has come up. According to the Education and Sports Sector Annual Performance Report Financial Year 2016/17 Subsector Allocation, primary education takes the lion’s share of the budget with a 50.17 per cent allocation, followed by tertiary with 19.61 per cent allocation.
Secondary education with a 15.20 per cent, business, technical and vocational education and training at 10.55 per cent and others such as physical education, sports with 4.47 per cent of the total Shs2,447.88 billion budget.
“So, does it come as a surprise that we have high numbers of pupils enrolling for primary education and yet the numbers dwindle in lower secondary, sharply falling at higher secondary and university?” Mathias Mugumya, an education enthusiast, asks.
To Dr Muganga, we not only need to fix a few things in the education sector but rather a fundamental change that includes the issues raised earlier.
“If we want to prepare our children for the modern world and want learning to be effective, then we need to fundamentally change our system of education,” he says.

Performance at different levels
The education system has also been in the spotlight for student’s dwindling performance. In the Education and Sports Sector Annual Performance Report financial year 2016/17 for example, Literacy rate at Primary Three was at 60.2 per cent and 51.9 per cent at Primary Six. Numeracy rate at Primary Three was 71.7 per cent and 52.6 per cent at Primary Six. Primary Leaving Examinations pass rate was at 86 per cent in 2015/16 and 86.9 per cent in 2016/17. The pass rate at O-Level was at 87 per cent whereas the Performance Index was at 39 per cent. Performance Index at Advanced Level was 64 per cent.

Editor’s thoughts

Many educationists think there is something wrong with our education system. In fact as you will find out in the cover article, different people, students inclusive, feel that our education system needs an overhaul.
Some argue that this should start with improving teachers’ salaries yet others say, there Education ministry needs to set standards of operation and follow them up.
But in trying to do all this, we must remember that learning goes beyond the classroom. This will help us to stop promoting more of exams than we do actual learning.
How many schools for instance encourage students to come up with educational projects?
In most Ugandan schools today, there is little or nothing at all being done to encourage innovation. All that students are encouraged to do is read notes and pass examinations.
In doing this, schools are churning out students that seem geniuses but cannot think outside the box.
Such students, as the future will tell, may not be able to solve simple life challenges when they face them. Therefore, to promote holistic learning, our schools should encourage innovation and creative thinking than cramming.

Peninah Asiimwe


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