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Learning Beyond Memorization: A Step to Closing the Skills Gap

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

By Faith Ngogoyo

For this guest blog, we are joined by Faith Ngogoyo of Lumen Labs. Lumen Labs aims to to bridge the digital divide by making computer education accessible to under-served and last-mile communities.

“How many doors are in the city of Nairobi?” Or perhaps let’s contemplate an easier question: ‘How many primary school-going children do we have in Kenya?’ Imagine sitting in an interview as a fresh graduate from one of the leading universities in Kenya, and being asked such critical thinking questions. Many times, the candidate will be shocked at such queries. Their initial reaction will be to answer and say that they do not know, or that they do not have the statistics to informatively answer the question.

Their next reaction (assuming that they are quick enough and have some level of initiative) will be to pull out their phone and attempt to find some guiding statistics that would help to answer these questions. Very few students will have the foresight to work backwards to arrive at a number and explain how they arrived at a figure or answer, however hypothetical. Nevertheless, this is precisely what employers are looking for.

In Kenya, we operate in an environment that requires us to pass exams by whatever means possible. Because exams have been set as a measure of success and a determinant of potential, we find ourselves caught up in the processes of preparation. Society has dictated that we cannot succeed if we do not pass our exams; it is the means by which we attempt to rise above the average. Memorize, cram if you must, and ace that test! But what are such practices breeding? A culture of rote learning--one that is a deterrent to critical thinking and problem-solving. We prepare not for the workforce or future challenges, but short-term obstacles to academic success. This culture instills in students the fear of failure and the fear of failure, in turn, influences our ability to think. We are taught to memorize but never to think. The reason why a student will not attempt to answer a question such as ‘how many doors are in Nairobi’ is that their ability to think critically is disabled by the fear of failure and a lack of exposure to situations in which independent thought is a prerequisite.

An article previously published by Metis paints a severe picture of unemployment in Kenya. Even with highly qualified graduates being released from leading universities each year and companies being established every other day, the supply and demand gap in employment continues to grow. Despite growing cohorts of academically qualified students, employers still complain about a lack of skilled candidates. Are they, perhaps, looking for students who can think beyond the classroom and solve problems in their organizations?

It is possible to influence education outcomes and ensure that we are nurturing well-rounded students who are better equipped to imagine and innovate solutions on their own. At Lumen Labs, we work to ensure that the education systems across East Africa prioritize project-based learning: a teaching method in which students gain valuable knowledge and skills by investigating real-world challenges in a hands-on manner. Lumen’s students collect mobile data to investigate and develop solutions to real-world challenges. In the process, they are exposed to the use of technology as a tool in the problem-solving process and encouraged to develop their own solutions.

We partner with schools, NGOs, and government implementing partners to offer project-based education, and empower students to solve the problems in their communities through technology. Our goal is to influence the critical thinking capabilities of students so that they can grow to be change-makers, leaders, and visionaries, in their own communities. We must address the smaller gaps that are contributing to the bigger problems we have. As we pursue this goal, Lumen continues to seek out partners that will help champion the project-based learning approaches, and transform Kenya’s long-established traditions of rote learning in education.

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