Thursday, May 11, 2017

'I Hate to Read' - Challenges Confronting Theological Education in Kenya

I have found that many if not most of my students, both at St. Paul's University and at the Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi, do not read their assignments.  Whereas I am the product of an education system where, as a humanities students, I would read hundreds if not thousands of pages per course per term, these students cannot imagine an assignment that would require them to read 50 pages of some text book.  I even had a church history class that fired me as their lecturer (they persuaded the dean to find another lecturer to take my place) after I went over the course requirements and they realised I was having them read more than 500 pages for the term and was planning on weekly reading quizzes!  It is hard for me to comprehend a Bachelors-level, much less a Masters-level history or theology course without reading.  Even my PhD-level students complain when I expect a certain amount of reading.

I have heard reasons, anecdotally, behind this aversion to reading.  It's not a lack of intelligence, as my students here compare favourably in that regard to students I'm familiar with in the US and the UK.  Rather, I think it has more to do with context and upbringing.  I had the privilege of being raised in a family that loved books and encouraged reading.  Very few Kenyan families have any books other than a Bible in their homes, and children are almost never read to by their parents.  Books also cost a lot of money, and most families simply cannot afford what for them is the luxury of children's books.  The education system also encourages learning by rote, as a lack of resources means that teachers cannot count on personalised reading materials for their students the way, say, American students have text books for all their subjects.  So Kenyan students learn how to read, but it is challenging and not easy, especially when faced with reading more than one or several pages.

As a theological educator, I can do nothing about the education experiences my students have already had and the postures they bring into class with them.  So I have to cope with what my students already are in terms of learners, both their strengths and weaknesses.  Most students in my classes are like the rest of us, in terms of they assume that the way they are is the way it is everywhere.  There is often an inability to fathom that with a new program or new course they may be faced with different expectations for reading than what they have always experienced and assumed.  So when they come to a program that has classes that are influenced by Western standards with respect to reading and writing, it can come as a rude shock.  As a Westerner teaching predominantly non-Western African students, this is one of the biggest challenges I face.  Because if my students will not do the reading, how am I supposed to ensure they engage with the necessary material?  Especially when things like power point, online learning and other interactive technologies to which educators in the West have become accustomed are not yet options where I live and teach.  So this is a problem.

One of the things I've tried to do is help my students realise that this is, indeed, a problem affecting learning at every level.  By doing so, I also enlist my students to begin thinking of how they themselves might address the issues involved.  I've come up with a case study to help me do this.  What I would be grateful for is if you can suggest improvements, both in terms of the case study itself, but also in terms of my discussion questions.  I will be presenting this case study next week in my Systematic Theology I class.  They are already in shock because I have assigned them to read almost 500 pages of Grudem's Systematic Theology  over the next 11 weeks of our term.  So I am sure they will be grateful for any help you can give them and me.

So here is my case study.

John Hates to Read

John hates to read.  In the home where he grew up, there were no books except a Bible from which evening devotions were read by his father.  There were no children’s books, no stories at bed time.  John was taught to read at school, but he found the process of learning how to read to be painful and difficult.  Others could read better than he could.  He was embarrassed because he read so poorly.  So he avoided having to read at school if at all possible.

Even though he struggled with reading, John was very bright.  He actually did very well in subjects like maths and science.  And in other subjects that required reading from him, he found that he could involve himself in discussions that gave the impression that he had read the assignment even though he hadn’t.  And when he was required to turn in a reading diary, he simply cheated and made it up.

John was able successfully to navigate high school, but when he got into university, it became much more difficult.  First, many of his courses required not just a few pages of reading, but hundreds of pages.  Secondly, it became obvious in class discussions that he didn’t have a clue what the conversation was about.  Thirdly, many of the exams were based on the reading, and were devised in such a way that it was difficult answer without giving away the fact that he had never read any of the assignments.  Fourthly, there were too many other things John wanted to do at university, like football or hanging out with his friends.  He also had a part-time job.  John could always find a reason to keep him from reading his assignments and preparing for his next class.

John did poorly in his first year, so much so that he received a warning letter from the Dean.  John was in danger of being sent home.

For Discussion
How would you describe John’s problem to someone else?

What should John do?

Is reading important for people in Kenya? Why or why not?

Why do people go to get a degree at St. Paul’s or other schools?

What is the purpose of ‘higher education’ like here at St. Paul’s?  Is it possible to achieve your goal for education without reading?

Is it important to read assignments?  Why or why not?

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