Would You Assess an Elephant’s Skills by Making it Climb a Tree? Kenya Debates National Learning Challenges

An elephant, penguin, seal, monkey, dog, bird and goldfish are lined up in front of a baobab tree. In front of them sits a human, and the caption reads, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” The monkey smiles. The rest look concerned.

This cartoon served as a wake-up call to national policymakers working to address the low learning levels in Kenya. Deputy President William Ruto, in his address to more than 10,000 head teachers at the Kenya Primary School Headteachers’ Association (KEPSHA) 10th anniversary conference in Mombasa, described this metaphor and argued that children should have the opportunity to have their unique skills and talents assessed by the schooling system. He subsequently tweeted:

ruto quote

The KEPSHA conference commemorated the organization’s 10th anniversary as the country’s premier professional organization for primary school head teachers. On the grounds of the Sheikh Zayed Children’s Centre in Mombasa, more than 40 tents were set up for attendees to attend mini-sessions on a variety of topics. “Are Our Children Learning?” read a banner hanging over the tent run by Uwezo, a national, citizen-led household survey of learning. The Uwezo team handed out posters presenting the district rankings for their 2013 annual learning assessment. “Find your district—take action” the poster encouraged, showing the percentage of children aged 10-16 years who passed a simple assessment of Class 2 tasks in Kiswahili, English and numeracy. At the top of the list was the Westlands district in Nairobi, an affluent community where most of the city’s ex-pats reside. In this district, 87 percent of children passed the assessment. At the bottom were the rural Wahir, Fafi and Ijara districts bordering Somalia and the districts around Lake Turkana in northwest Kenya, in which less than 40 percent of children passed. Only 7 percent of children passed the assessments in the lowest performing district.


At our Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) tent nearby, groups of head teachers cycled through to learn about the recommendations of LMTF 1.0 and were asked to respond to a series of questions on how they assess learning and the main challenges to teaching and learning in their schools. The Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) national examination was frequently mentioned as an obstacle to achieving learning for all. For example, one head teacher explained, “The KCPE mode of examinations does not cater to the slow learners. Those with impairments are ignored and this translates to poor results which make them feel inferior and in most cases they end up dropping out of school.” Furthermore, participants questioned the relevance of national exams that advance the top achievers and weed out low performers. As Kado Charles, headteacher of Milimani Primary School in Nairobi, KEPSHA member, and LMTF working group member explained to a group of colleagues: “Why do we do exams? To find out who is number one. But, if I take my number one, and you take yours, and we put them together, are we really sure that those students who are number one in the KCPE are going to be number one in life?”

kado charles presents lmtf recommendations to headteachers

Kado Charles presents LMTF recommendations to headteachers.

Continuous or classroom assessment was another hot topic, with teachers saying they do some type of continuous assessment, but most saying that they use the results for promotion to the next class or to encourage competition among students. Very few mentioned that they are supported in using this information to target instruction to students’ individual needs.

The challenges facing the Kenyan education system are by no means unique. In the third technical report of the LMTF,  participants from more than 85 countries described a lack of technical capacity for assessment, including among teachers, as a key barrier to measuring and improving learning. They also mentioned that the domains captured in national examinations are limited and therefore curtail the content covered in the classroom, as teachers feel pressure to teach only the subjects covered in the exams. Participants expressed a desire to think through these challenges and potential solutions with other countries around the world that are grappling with similar issues.

In July of this year, 15 countries applied and were selected as “Learning Champions” under the auspices of LMTF 2.0, which will be working over the next 18 months to adapt LMTF recommendations to their national contexts and priorities. Kenya kicked off the LMTF 2.0 Learning Champions initiative earlier this month with launches at the Ministry of Education Science and Technology (MOEST) in Nairobi and at the KEPSHA conference in Mombasa. In Kenya, the Learning Champions initiative is led by the MOEST, KEPSHA, and Women Education Researchers of Kenya (WERK), which has convened a Learning Outcomes Network of government and nongovernmental organizations involved in measuring learning outcomes in Kenya.

A key component of the Learning Champions initiative is broad inclusion in guiding policy decisions, including but not limited to teachers, students, government officials, civil society, and development agencies. In Kenya, we had the opportunity to meet with the recently-elected National Children’s Government (NCG), supported by KEPSHA and UNICEF’s Child Friendly Schools Program. In the opening ceremony of the KEPSHA conference, NCG Speaker Patricia Kemene, a visually impaired primary school student, successfully lobbied Deputy President Ruto for a USD $100,000 braille embosser to help improve learning among blind students in her district. The enthusiasm and influence of these students is generating remarkable momentum for a quality, equitable education system, and the government is responding in turn.

The childrens government with the LMTF teamThe children’s government with the LMTF team.

Above all, the Learning Champions are seeking to develop new solutions to their unique educational challenges. Education policies in Finland and Singapore—countries hailed among educationalists as places that have “figured out” learning—will probably not have the same effects if implemented in Kenya or Senegal. Innovative solutions that come out of the African education community may have a greater impact, if national stakeholders are given the space to do so. Just as the Kenyan innovation M-PESA has revolutionized personal banking in Africa and beyond, the Learning Champions are hoping to collectively discover new tools to revolutionize learning. If you ask an elephant to climb a tree, she will probably knock it down to provide food for her family. Why not evaluate the elephant on her problem-solving skills instead?