How we think and why it’s a problem

Monday January 4 2016

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Happy New Year!

Once again, we are starting a brand-new year hoping that it will be better than the one that just ended.

As we do so, we must reflect on what we learnt from 2015 as a basis for planning our future.

Kenyans want to change may things this coming year, chief among them our education system. Like many other countries, we are not satisfied with the outcomes the system in place is producing.

Unfortunately, no one is saying exactly what they want changed. In this piece, I will try to approach education through the lens of how we think, and hopefully pinpoint what we really need to change.

In one of the social gatherings I attended this festive season, a discussion ranged around education. One individual kept on asking why Kenya’s education system has no direct correlation with how we think and behave.

Many professors working in Kenya had their higher education in Western countries where people think and behave differently, but their education there does not appear to have rubbed off on locals.

Even before we could delve into that question, one other academic added that our system does not teach students to think, that it is more into rote learning and that application of knowledge in day-to-day circumstances is lacking.

To put these arguments into perspective, perhaps we need to ask ourselves this simple question: What does it take for someone to think?
Many scholars say thinking is the process of producing thoughts, while others say it is processing or arranging ideas.

The best explanation I have seen so far is by Cabrera (I will say more about him later), who describes thinking as the process of structuring information as to do something meaningful.


In other words, you can have good ideas but if you don’t arrange them well, people will conclude that you were not thinking.

Some people laugh loudly at ideas they have not verbalised, which others often misconstrue as having a loose bolt in the head. Perception leads us to make judgement.

Whoever perceives your actions may or may not have gone to school and they may not specifically know when a person does not make sense.

Multiple experiences that are well organised create a wise person. Systems and cultures that emphasise teaching of multidisciplinary courses from very early childhood do indeed develop a well-rounded person capable of thinking independently and making correct perceptions at the right time.

You may have witnessed a situation where someone makes a joke which is appreciated immediately by a few who laugh. Others only come to laugh at the joke days later, after processing the information and understanding it.

Such people spend time more filling in gaps in knowledge and experience in order to arrive at the state already reached by those who laughed earlier. The local "Churchill Show", for example, may not be funny to Australians who have not been socialised locally.


Indeed, the constructivist philosophy is about how people think and learn new things that facilitate change. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or perhaps discarding the new information as irrelevant.

For a person to learn from experience, there is need to have an open mind to process experiences and provide the person with some feedback so that if it works well, the person repeats the same experience, and changes when the experience is not good.

This process of input, processing, output and feedback is referred to as the systems model. Some people, including toddlers apply this unconsciously and in the process improve their situation. If a child plays with fire and get burnt, he or she would not repeat the same mistake.

Strangely, in Africa, an adult teaching a class that ends up failing repeats the same teaching methods with new students over and over, without making any alterations that can improve the next class.

In such a case, it is safe to say that the teacher does not think at all and perhaps will never be able to think. This is what is happening in Kenya today.

The systems model dictates that the government and the unions remove such teachers, adjust teacher qualifications as part of the experience, and keep going through the loop until optimal outcomes are achieved, but this too does not happen.

Teachers themselves don’t appear to learn from the poor results of their work. If they did, we would witness individual improvements that would ultimately lead to collective improvements in results.


However, it is unfair to blame the teachers or unions. Our culture does not encourage thinking, and we fail to inculcate this virtue in our children at an early stage of growth.

As children begin to learn, they ask many questions. “Mommy what is this?” “Daddy what is this?” Our stock responses, when we give them, are hardly encouraging: “Ask your mom.” “Stop bothering me.” “Shut up.” “You are foolish like your mom.”

Teachers experience this when growing up, and it is what they take to class, and so when a student asks a question, he or she encounters a similar response.

Teaching is meant to be pleasurable. It should be where ideas are shared openly, but this does not happen in most African countries, even in institutions of higher learning.

Discouraged from asking questions, most college students attend class and let professors pontificate on their theories without interruption.

It is a particularly cruel experience for the bright student, who will have encountered the theories in the texts and also on the internet. An opportunity to teach through meaningful interaction is therefore lost forever.


A good teacher employs what I call dynamic systems theory, where the teacher changes tack in order to provoke a student’s mind. This can happen even within a lesson if the teacher is perceptive enough to notice that learning is not taking place.

It is an art with instant gratification when you drive an eager mind to respond to new ideas.

The situation is made worse by institutions, which have made it difficult to encourage unstructured thinking. Instead, teaching is confined to over-engineered curriculums that discourage learning. Some even go ahead to provide notes, planned lessons and lectures.

This is a global problem, as explained here by Dr Derek Cabrera in his TEDx presentation on "How Thinking Works". He argues that there are four universal processes of structuring information: distinctions (distinguishing ideas from objects and things), systems (organising things into parts and groupings), relationship (making connections between and among things), and perspective (taking different views on and from things.

These simple universal rules on thinking are what leads to all forms of thinking, including critical, creative, systems, scientific, interdisciplinary and emotional or prosocial thinking.

The whole purpose of thinking is to build a society that does not just look for the right answer, but is able to create new answers for existing problems.

A majority of our political class lack any form of thinking. In particular, they are extremely lacking in emotional thinking, given how they campaign for themselves at funerals while completely ignoring the bereaved family.

We could change our situation and create better citizens in the days to come by beginning from the family. As an individual you should decide not to have a child if you don’t have time for one. That way, you won’t spend time answering the many questions the child is guaranteed to ask during its formative stages.


We also need the courage to tell our children that we don’t know but can find out from books or search engines. After some time, they will search for things and begin to take you through a new experience that you never had during your childhood, and when they get to school they will push the teachers beyond their limits.

At institutions of higher learning, lecturers and professors should not be measured by how well they covered the syllabus but how well they provoked students into searching for more knowledge.

Being a good, thought-provoking, university teacher who causes students to think and solve problems should be as venerated as being a good, publishing researcher.

The world out there is a forest with no roads. Only those who know how to navigate the forest can make it. Let us teach our students how to navigate through thick forest.

Changing the system from 8-4-4 to any other form may not change much if the teachers have only a single perspective to learning.

Once more, I say the problem is not the structure of the bus, but its drivers. You can either build their capacity to drive the bus by leveraging the collective experiences of the many Kenyans who have received their education abroad, or fire them because they can’t drive any bus, including the best built.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito