one of our favorite sights

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Schooling Vs. Education

As previously mentioned in this blog, Liam is attending a small “private” school here in Eldoret called Potters House Academy.  It is one of several smallish private schools available and Michael chose it because it is within walking distance to the house and it didn’t seem to have a really heavy handed religious bent. Since we have been here we have learned of other schools which he could be attending, however none of them is within walking distance to our house so Liam is not particularly interested in them. Plus he doesn’t want to switch since he now knows some kids and understands the system pretty well.
Private schools are quite different here than at home. Lest you get visions of Park Tudor in your heads, let me clarify. There are many small private schools here, meaning they are privately funded and the students pay a bit more to go than to the public schools.  They exist mostly because the government schools are considered to be inadequate and overburdened.  The public schools although inexpensive,  do entail fees (they call it “desk rental”) which many folks cannot afford, plus there is the  added costs of books and uniforms.  We still don’t know where the public secondary school in Eldoret is. Luckily, we did not put him in it because the teachers were actually on strike for about 3 weeks and he would not have had much to do at that point. Plus it is far away.  
 In any case, we chose Potters and it has been an interesting and pretty challenging experience for Liam. We are pleased that he has persevered and is about to finish up the term. He entered in the third term of this school year, so he actually began as a Form I student (he should have started as Form 2). Next year, which begins in January, he will be in Form 2. He is currently taking the final exams for Form I which is a little absurd considering he just joined in the last term.  Unfortunately for him they cover the whole year but since he has figured out the system better than he had at midterms, he may do ok (he did come in 8th in the class at midterms despite the fact that he’d only been here 3 weeks).  He’s a pretty quick study but I am not sure that his study skills are exactly befitting this system.  We shall see.
Mostly for Liam the challenge has been adjusting to the system. To say it is quite different than ours is a large understatement.  He says “it’s different in every way” and since he is the one going every day I have to believe him.
The most obvious difference is that the schools are set up on the British system so the children in primary school go from Standard 1 (although there does seem to be preschool) to Standard 8. In High School they go from Form 1 to Form 4. Primary school became mandatory just 10 years ago. Secondary school does not seem to be.
The actual academic load of a Form 1 student seems rather heavy and the day is long. Liam leaves the house at 6:45 in order to arrive by 7:15. They start immediately, take a short tea break at 11 and then a ½ hour lunch at 1. They have “games’ from 4-5.  Apparently, the day is long for everyone—preschoolers on up. This may be because many kids  come from families who don’t have a lot of experience with education and studying or it may be that they don’t have electricity by which to study, or it may just be that the government thinks it is best for children to be in school all day. Liam is taking 11 classes….Computer Lab, English, Christian Religious Education, Maths, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History, Agriculture, and Business Studies.  We are taking Swahili privately so he does not have that class, like his classmates do, at school.
 The whole of High School is spent preparing  for the KCSE which is the big exam that they all take at the end of Form 4, to see if they are able to move on in the system. It is very competitive and not a large percentage of the kids move on. Talk about high stakes! The exams come down from the national government, there are  monitors at the schools, the exams are picked up at the police department, and there are soldiers who frisk the students as they come into the school while exams are being taken. The stakes are high because a student can only go on to any sort of higher education if they do well on these exams. There are only 4 universities in Kenya although there are technical schools, business schools, etc. The Form 4 students who do well are the cream of the crop and have been preparing for this moment from Day 1 of Form 1. The exams are taken extremely seriously.
Coming from the Indiana public school system and never having had to study much to do well, Liam has has had to open his eyes to this situation and the stakes involved for his classmates. His director recently described the test taking as “life and death” for the students.  The problem is that even if a student does well and makes his/her way through the system with high marks, he or she is not guaranteed a spot in university because there are fees to pay AND it is so competitive.  However, the students I have met who do well and take their exams and therefore their futures seriously are committed to going, by hook or crook. The lucky ones have families who can afford to send them, or sponsors.
Aside from the testing  (which is also done to excess it seems…preschoolers too!) education itself is what could best be called “rote” learning. I.E. memorization. At Liam’s school, the teachers write notes on the board, which come from the books, and the students are expected to memorize them for the tests. There is no discussion, question asking, and certainly no projects. They just copy the notes. The teacher writes them on the board presumably for the kids who don’t have books as some kids can’t afford them.  Often the teacher doesn’t even stay in the room. So  Liam has learned the art of notetaking and cramming for exams, if nothing else.  We have had many conversations these last 8 weeks about the value of learning to take notes (what they do is actually copying notes) and memorization (it has its place we concede, although it is not a great teaching tool).
As many of you know,  Liam happens to be a more “hands on” learner. He probably would have thrived well in a “project” school if it were taught by an old fashioned “shop” teacher.  Aside from the possibility of failure if one doesn’t study hard or crack the system, students who don’t do well on exams get berated and often punished for not doing well. They even hit them sometimes, thinking this will “motivate” them.  That has been quite eye-opening for Liam.
It’s interesting to think about the history of public education in the U. S. and how far it has come in terms of being inclusive of all types of learners. It actually wasn’t so long ago that it was similar to this system, so hopefully it is just a matter of pedagogical evolution.  Although our system is certainly not perfect (but it is varied!) , I think Liam  is learning to appreciate his own experience at home a bit more. Due to space and financial constraints and for all sorts of other reasons, the system here is not all inclusive and children who don’t do well are not offered options. In fact, the result of thousand of kids not doing well and getting shunted out is a lot of young unemployed or undirected people on the streets. So, it pays for a student to take his studies seriously and learn to take notes well and pay attention and do well on tests.
Liam does seem to be getting the cross cultural experience that we had hoped for him and I think he absolutely gets now why that is valuable. It’s definitely a “Character Building” experience, as my dad used to say, and no doubt it will serve him well as he matures.
So, we are a little up in the air about the future of Liam’s HS education.  Clearly Liam needs to finish his HS diploma but it’s not going to really help him to study for the KCSE as he is ultimately not going to go to university in Kenya. He may one day want to go to university in the States and he needs to get his HS diploma from Indiana. So, we have begun signing him up for HS classes online.  The question has become whether it is more valuable for him to have some free time to do other things, like volunteer in the community and with certain AMPATH programs (they have a farm and an arts workshop), than sit in school memorizing text all day long (they also go on Saturday). We are pretty convinced that he can get a lot out of the volunteer experiences, AND practice his Swahili more if he had time to do that. He says he gets more out of walking downtown on a given Saturday afternoon and going to the market than he gets from sitting in the classroom for a week!
The question is whether the actual academics of this school are going to help him, though. We will be pondering this over his LONG break coming up soon! Needless to say, he is looking forward to this break and there are several more opportunities becoming available to  him so that he can keep busy and build stuff and be outdoors. We have new friends who run children’s homes here who need help building a playground and we are building a small play area outside the burn unit at the hospital which he can help with, and he gets to go help on the AMPATH farms and the Kruger Farm too (that’s where the giraffes are). We also plan to do some travelling.  So, he will get a lot of cool experiences in before school starts again in January.  Stay Tuned for more on Liam’s educational experiences in Kenya!
dog wrestling...a new pasttime!

early morning veiws of  the valley

views of Kerio Valley early morning

acacia covered hillside

termite nest

down in the valley

new discovery! Sego Hotel in Kerio Valley

views from hotel in valley where we had coffee

hike on a cow path

overlooking valley

farms in the valley

mountain man

Liam buying bananas at the market on the way home
The photos included  come from a day trip that we took today into the Kerio Valley.


  1. Happy to hear that Liam has a long break coming. Sounds like you have a lot to consider regarding his education. My vote is for online studies and hands on experience. Love the pictures and love your blogs. Thank you so much for keeping us informed on your life in Kenya. You guys are always in my thoughts, love to all

  2. Hi! Thanks again, Lizzy, for the excellent reflection.

    You already know my opinion, but in short, I agree with Cindy. Although the note taking experience can be valuable (but he may be an audio learner like me) it is not enough to elevate that school experience in the long run. Studying for the Indiana tests, writing essays (kick him in the rear! :) and getting out into the community trump that boring traditional education hands down!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Elena, not sure what is going on with your comments. I got it on my email and deleted it so maybe that is why it is not here? Try again using your secret agent skills....

  5. Awesome entry Liz. You all look well. Glad to see.

    Maybe Liam could tutor local kids in something as well? That would be a great experience for him, I'd think.

    Building projects are right up his alley. Go with your gut.

    Love you guys! Very jealous. Be well!

  6. Thanks for the update Liz. I'm anxious to hear what decisions you make regarding schooling.
    What vibrant pictures! I love the one of you next to the flower. Miss you!
    Erica Barker