By Sharon Atieno Onyango
Published January 1, 2016
“I have a friend who scored an A in an examination he did not sit,” says a university student in Kenya.
Hey, could this be one of the many cases of teachers awarding marks without reading the content in the paper?
A teacher’s work is to read, think, write and share the knowledge gained with students. The learners are expected to apply that knowledge in their own lives; what happens when the teacher doesn’t read or write?
Taban lo Liyong of Juba University has accused Kenyan lecturers of not being scholarly enough; that they do not read or research; that they don’t employ critical thinking in their work; that their only claim to scholarship is ‘writing literature guides’ for secondary school students.
Reports abound of college students who lift term papers and theses from the internet and hand them in for marking. How can a well-read tutor fail to detect the intellectual dishonesty committed by the student?
If media reports are anything to go by, then the tragedy of ‘illiterate’ professionals isn’t confined to teachers. Out of 45 magistrates vetted in Kisumu in western Kenya in 2015, only five had ‘exemplary writing skills’.
“The writing skills of most judicial officers is below par,” said Sharad Rao, the chairman of the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board in a Press Conference in Nairobi. “. . . Most of the people we considered were not up to the job.”
Sending nine magistrates packing, the board asked the Judicial Service Commission to include in its annual conference a presentation on ‘common mistakes in writing’ in order to remedy the situation.
“Many engineers become illiterate 24-36 months after graduation because they stop reading, writing and researching,” Dr Stephen Talitwala often told Daystar University students.
A University of Nairobi-trained engineer, Talitwala was founding Vice-Chancellor of Daystar University.
“Today’s students are not critical as they are coached to merely cram facts,” says Emma Ngare, a university lecturer. This, she says, might be as a result of an education system which puts emphasis on exam-passing.
But something else is at play here. There is no way a ‘literate’ person–defined as one with the ability to read, write and solve simple mathematical problems–can slip back into ‘illiteracy’..
Pundits say ‘lack of a reading culture’ is to blame. Few Kenyans ever read in public commuter vehicles or in cafes. Many don’t even bother to read newspapers.
“I have never taken time to read any book for pleasure since graduation,” says Ronald Iswaro, a community development worker in Nairobi. “If reading long posts on social media is a problem, do you think reading a book would be any easier?”
“I only read when I am teaching,”says Kevin Mwangi, a secondary school teacher of business studies.
“On completing my degree studies, I do not see myself reading anything. Not ever,” stresses Jane Momanyi, a student of psychology.
Mercy Korir, a student of communication, confesses,”It is rare to find me reading or researching when I do not have a continuous assessment test or an exam.”
“The only time our library is packed to capacity is during exam time, yet the other times there are only a handful of people coming to research or read,” says Rose Chebet, a university librarian.
“Illiteracy creeps in easily on those who merely cram and reproduce things like names, places and dates in a parrot-like manner during exams,” says Ondego.
How to Write on 1001 Subjects!, Ondego’s manual for writers, outlines six levels of thinking.
The six levels are listed as Recall (merely remembering details); Understand (explaining and giving examples of what’s learnt); Apply (use what’s learnt in real life situations); Analyse (examine the material carefully, comparing, contrasting and explaining); Synthesise (reshape, recreate, and modify what’s learnt); and Evaluate (judge the value of what’s learnt and identifying strengths and weaknesses inherent in it).
Ondego contends that many of today learners and professionals confine themselves to the lowest level of thinking, i.e. cramming things for the sake of passing examinations.