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Class of 2022
Global Studies
Educational Studies


Sponsoring Department
Summer 2022

This paper looks to take a deeper look at the history of mathematics studies in the Kenyan
education system and bring in first-hand accounts and observations made over the last four
weeks. The goal of the project was to get a better understanding of the Kenyan education system
and of how mathematics is taught, understood, and prioritized in Kenya at the secondary and the
overall future of the subject in the country. Understanding the history of curriculum and
educational reform is one way to able to see the route and transformation mathematics education
has taken since independence and through classroom observations and teacher interviews the
future of mathematics in Kenya and of the educational system as a whole can be explored from a
grassroots perspective that is both separated and yet connected with the larger systems in place in
the country. This paper and project do not wish to provide solutions for the way mathematics is
taught or understood but to see the similarities and differences found in the existing literature and
personal research as well as make comparisons to my own personal journey through mathematics
and my potential future as a mathematics educator.

The lack of a progressive system or modern policy change in the Kenyan educational
system, a cohesive mathematics curriculum, and innovative classroom tactics has put economic and financial pressure on students and their families and has impacted their growth and
understanding of mathematical concepts at the secondary level.

This project took on many methods to gain insight and information. The first priority of this
research was to get a firm understanding of the history behind the educational system as a whole
and the role mathematics has had and continues to have in regard to education at the secondary
and university level. Historical research and literature reviews of government documents, media
articles, and scholarly literature were analyzed in order to obtain the information and background
knowledge needed to provide context to the moment Kenyan mathematics is in the present and
the way of the future.

The second method used in this research was ethnographic observation. Over the course
of four weeks, I was able to spend time at three different schools observing classroom lessons at
varying high school levels addressing different topics as well as tuition/test prep classes. Lastly,
the project wanted to hear directly from those teaching mathematics courses in Kenya. I
conducted face-to-face interviews with multiple teachers around the coast to hear not only their
opinions on mathematics in Kenya but their individual academic stories and journeys as well.
Through all these different research methods this project has been able to take ever so large
topics of mathematics education in Kenya and give it a personal touch.

Unlike most western countries, the Kenyan educational system is relatively new to the
scene. Four years after gaining independence Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania formed the East
African Community and adopted a universal plan for education known as 7-4-2-3, which
consisted of 7 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education, 2 years of high school, and 3–5 years of university education (“The Education”). After some struggles within the
East African community, the Kenyan government decided to move education in a different
direction and implemented the 8-4-4 system in 1985 after the Mackay Report of 1981 broke
down the flaws of the 7-4-2-3 system. (“The Education”). This is still the primary system used in
Kenya but with variation among some private schools implementing the United Kingdom
system, the United States system, Waldorf schools, etc. The main competitor and what many
think could be the successor is CBC or competency-based curriculum, which was introduced
around the country in 2017 (M’mboga Akala 2). While pressure has been strong at the primary
level to introduce this type of curriculum and system, there have not been any larger
developments at the secondary or even university level.

While education was originally a joint effort between the east African community, it has
been the ministry of education in Kenya that has been making the decisions on educational
matters since its inception in 1964 (“Background”). Over the years there have been 19 different
ministers, now cabinet secretary of education, whose main mission has been to, “To provide,
promote and coordinate quality education, training, and research; and enhance the integration of
Science, Technology, and Innovation into national production systems for sustainable
development” (“Background”). This department, like many in Kenya, has been highly affected
by politics and those in power in Kenya. This political interference has left its mark in many
ways including curriculum, policy change, and implementation (Mackatiani et al. 59).

Since the 8-4-4 system has been in place in Kenya there have been many reports and
pressure from academics and politicians alike to transform and improve the current system. Of
these reports that criticized the system for being broad, expensive, and burdensome to students
and parents the majority were rejected or only partially implemented (Wanjohi). One area that has not changed within the system is the KCSE or the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education.
This is a certificate gained after passing the KCSE exam which is composed of 7 subjects with
content from all four years of secondary school. In order for students to be able to enroll in
university, they must score a C+ or above, with some public and private universities requiring
higher scores to enroll (Wanjohi).

One of the subjects that are mandatory for students to take and is grouped into the
“Compulsory Subjects” category is mathematics (Clark). Now, while there has not been much
change in regard to educational policy or even the educational systems in Kenya for the last 35
years, mathematics has been a consistent priority for the country. Notably, though, mathematics
scores have been relatively low and in 2020, the scores were seen as a national disaster with
many students especially those in smaller schools receiving “E’s” with an “A” grade being
roughly translated to 57 percent on the exam (Araptoo 2). This has not been a relatively new
issue, as even as early as the 1990s there has been worry about the low performance in the
compulsory subject with much of the reason being put on the students not being able to grasp the
basic and simple concepts that are needed to progress in mathematics at a higher level (Kanja et
al. 70).

Even with these somewhat upsetting and startling facts, Kenya’s education system has
received praise from organizations all over the world for the work and results they produce every
year. In 2017, the World Economic Forum rated Kenya’s education system as the strongest on the
African continent. In 2018, the World Bank ranked Kenya first out of the 43 mainland African
countries for education outcomes (Pattillo 1). This may stem from the fact of how career-oriented
the 8-4-4 systems truly are. The goal is for students to be able to repeat what was taught over their four years in secondary school on exams to merit a certificate and to get into the workforce
as fast as possible.

Overall, through this section, there has been a brief history of how Kenya has arrived at
this point in education, the policy change and lack thereof throughout the years as well as some
key facts and figures about mathematics specifically. This begins to tell the story of Kenya,
mathematics in Kenya, and the trials and tribulations of education in Kenya, but there is a way to
find out more and understand it from a different perspective. If you want to know what is going
on then you have to see it on the ground with your own eyes, not through news articles and

In regards to the background of the teachers that I conducted interviews with, it was
interesting to see that all of them were men under the age of 35. Many pointed out that more
young people are getting into education as a source of income after university, but for them,
mathematics and mathematics teaching is not so much a job but a passion. This passion for math
like many of those that end up down a STEM career path started early and grew due to certain
teachers and the challenges that mathematics brings. One teacher came from a family where his
mother was a primary school mathematics teacher and would get extra problems and even some
above his level to work on at home, now he looks to be the one pushing his students to achieve
more inside and outside the classroom with mathematics.
The teaching strategies all seemed to align not just with the Kenyan education system,
but also with what is usually seen within the United States at both the secondary and university
level. They all placed a priority on getting their students involved in the classroom through
examples, discussion, concept questions, and group work. Just as it is in the United States and many other countries there is a pretty standard outline of how to teach a new topic in
mathematics. You introduce the topic, go through an example, have the students try, then maybe
another example led by students or in groups, then head to your next class.

One thing about teaching that resonated was that all the teachers felt a responsibility and
a role to play in their students' liking or development of a passion for mathematics. One way
teachers in Kenya feel they can do this is by making students aware of the careers mathematics
opens them up to as well as the ways the topics they cover such as linear programming, mixed
concepts, and commercial arithmetic are used daily in adult life. The teachers believed for the
most part that their students enjoyed mathematics and the learning process with some variation
depending on the year, but were quite quick to point out that mathematics is a subject and field
dominated by men. Women and girls in their classrooms have shown improvement over their
teaching careers. For most, they have noticed some effort placed by the various schools they
have taught at to get more girls interested in STEM fields and have now seen a rise in not only
interest but in performance as well with a handful of females outperforming the males.

When diving into questions about the Kenyan curriculum in relation to mathematics, they
were some skepticism from the interviewees. Some educators believed that the system has done
a poor job at catering to students’ needs and has struggled to show relevance to their lives.
Others believe that most students do positively benefit from the systems and curriculum and that
the KCSE does an adequate job testing students on their mathematical skills and knowledge
through their four years in secondary school. One teacher, a 26-year-old from Mombasa Baptist
High School, did state that 48 topics is quite a lot for students to be tested on and that even the
brightest students could not do well that year depending on what topics are chosen to be put on
the exam.

The last thing I thought would be important to ask these educators is their thoughts, ideas,
and even stigmas they have around the Unites States educational system and mathematics in the
United States. I did not want to funnel them into saying something negative about the United
States and rather left the question open for interpretation. Whether it was because I, a white
American student, asked them the question or for some other reason the math teachers took some
time to think about the question and their own responses. The answers revealed that they or their
students really hold any stigmas or ideas about American teachers and students, rather just that
most of their students hope to go and work in America. They did say that they are fairly familiar
with the American system but very surprised when I described the grading scale and that there
was no national exam given out at the end of secondary school to get into university or technical

At the end of the teacher interviews, I was surprised there was not much that differed
from my American experience and from conversations I have had with my instructors about
teaching as I became further interested in mathematics teaching. The main points that truly
related to my project were the differing opinions on the curriculum and the future of
mathematics, the way mathematics is so crucial to students' educational experience and
professional career opportunities, and how male-dominated the subject was in the classroom
whether students or teachers themselves.

The other method of data fathering a used was ethnographic observations of mathematics
classrooms. There were some challenges to observing the natural classroom environment early
on as many students and teachers would try to incorporate me into the lesson or even ask me to teach. Overall, once I was able to explain why I was in the classroom and what my goals were
the observations began to seem like just another normal day in the mathematics class.

In conversations with students in class, it became clear that their knowledge of how
secondary school operates in the United States was pretty minimal. Many students were
astonished at the fact there was now a national exam taken by every student at the end of their
four years in secondary school and also the fact that students could actually get a 100% on an
exam. They were torn between being jealous of the United States for not having a national exam
and also mortified at the grading scale used by most public schools.

It was apparent that the KCSE mathematics exam was weighing heavy on their mind and
that it caused them a lot of stress inside and outside the classroom. One student during a tuition
class, or school break tutoring session, was excited that he achieved 22% on a practice test
because he was only eight percentage points away from a D-. A lot of the students did
communicate with me how much they thought being proficient in mathematics would help them
in life but preferred other subjects. There was also a lot of discussion about how they hoped the
system would have changed by the time they got to form 4 and that it would be more like college
and you could choose the subjects you were passionate about and wanted to study at university.

Transitioning to the topics and lessons I was able to observe, there is only one way to
describe the daily lessons taught in math class and that is random. Every class I went to each day
I had no idea what would be next. One day it was calculating the volume of 3-D objects and
real-world examples and the next day it was vectors and co-linear points. At first, I thought that
maybe it was just a review as the new school year had just started but after obtaining and looking
through the secondary mathematics students' textbook given out by the Kenya Literature Bureau
my assumptions were proved wrong. Kenya’s curriculum for mathematics does not follow that of other countries and even the structure of the university system in the country. For instance, form
3 goes from the topic of trigonometry and then goes to commercial arithmetic. There is no linear
path or progression from algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, etc. rather it is weaved into
the curriculum for the year.

Finally, the last item I want to report on is the way math was taught in the classroom.
While getting answers from the teachers themselves on their style of teaching mathematics, it
was important to confirm or deny what they reported to me. Mainly, the way students were
involved in the lesson was by recalling formulas, and definitions, and providing their answers.
There was no real effort made by the teachers to see if the students could go through the process
of solving a problem or even explain the concept they were being taught that day. Classes were
mostly lectures based with some not taking being done by the students when it came to new
definitions. Many teachers, especially at the form four level would emphasize exactly what part
of a topic or problem students could see on an exam and even the KCSE. The classes were taught
almost exclusively in English, and that also impacted the learning of the students as some would
struggle to understand terms and would ask to have them explained in Kiswahili.

Through background research and ground-level data collecting, there are a few points
that have stood out in both parts of my research. One of the main points is the odd progression
through topics and concepts in mathematics from form 1 to form 4. Thinking about this from a
student's perspective it is more difficult to be constantly switching topics and to see the larger
progression through mathematics. It is not so much that students have not gotten the correct
background information from basic algebra to understand binomial expansion in the latter half of
form 3, but it is the fact that when they learn one skill, they immediately switch their mathematical minds to another major topic like the unit circle or trigonometric ratios. One could
also argue that this makes students work harder and truly understand concepts as they have
longer spaces of time where they are not at the forefront of what they are doing in mathematics,
but from what the results have shown us from the KCSE exams this may be a larger issue that
needs to be looked at further as students are struggling to recall subjects and concepts when it
really counts.

The other area that could be looked at more deeply is the KCSE and grading standards in
Kenya. The students and teachers both believe that exams and grading is harsh to promote
continued learning outside the classroom and for brighter students to not “coast” through classes
and rather always push themselves. The other side of this equation is that this standard adds
stress both mentally and financially for students and their families. Students must spend time
cramming and stressing for exams, especially the KCSE, and parents spend money to send their
students to tuition classes and provide other resources to help them perform better on these
exams. Pushing and challenging students comes naturally in the field of mathematics, and with a
exam that has cemented itself in Kenya’s educational system students begin this building of
stress from their first days in form 1. Having the majority of students not being shown any
success in mathematics creates worry when thinking about the future and those continuing
education and careers in mathematics.

Finally, there is a point to be made about teacher engagement in the classrooms. In forty
years Kenya has gone from 151 secondary schools to 3,000 and this has led to many jobs
opening up for teachers, especially for those in the STEM fields who struggled to find jobs after
graduating from university. While some go into education for the love of the youth and their
subject, we have seen adults get into the field as a means to provide for themselves. This massive increase in schools has not taken the competitiveness out of the education sector and teachers
must fight to stay in schools, especially private schools. This with the help of the way the 8-4-4
system is set up forces creativity in mathematics classrooms to become just a fantasy, as they
look to keep their students on track and prepared for the KCSE. Mathematics class has almost
become an SAT or ACT prep class except it lasts for four years. The main objective is to get
students to pass by any means necessary.

I made it clear earlier in this paper that I was not here to provide solutions for the
problems or points I came across during this research project, but it was still the main point to
connect what was seen during my hands-on research to what has been written about mathematics
in Kenya. I do believe that there are more similarities to Kenya and the United States in the way
mathematics is taught in the classroom but the curriculum and the system as a whole is where the
real difference lies. I do see a concern for the future of mathematics in Kenya. There has been so
much emphasis on preparing students for their careers and effort to get students more involved in
mathematics, but to see this come to fruition there may be other changes to be made. As a future
educator, I want nothing more than students to have passion for the subject I am teaching and see
its usefulness in their lives, but if my students can not see the path they are going and are
constantly concerned about grades and cramming. This research has let me meet some great
people and educators but that does not mean that at the end of all of this I have questions about
the efficacy of the way things are being done in mathematics classrooms in Kenya and how some
of the same things have slipped through the cracks in my educational journey in the United



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Performed.”, 9 May 2021,

“Background Information.” Kenya Ministry of Education,

Clark, Nick. “Education in Kenya.” WENR, 31 Mar. 2022,

“The Education System in Kenya: His.” Embassy of the Republic of Kenya in the Russian Federation Official Website,

Kanja, Charles, et al. “For the Reform of Mathematics Education in Kenyan Secondary
Hiroshima University Press, 2001, pp. 67–75.

“Kenya - Secondary Education.”,

Mackatiani, Caleb, et al. “Development of Education in Kenya: Influence of the Political Factor
Beyond 2015 Mdgs .” Journal of Education and Practice, vol. 7, no. 11, 2016, pp. 55–60.

M’mboga Akala, Dr Beatrice. “Revisiting Education Reform in Kenya: A Case of Competency
Based Curriculum (CBC).” Social Sciences & Humanities Open, vol. 3, no. 1, 2021,

Pattillo, Kat. “How Kenya Became the Strongest Education System in Africa.” Medium, EdWell,
17 Jan. 2021,

Wanjohi, Anthony. “Development of Education System in Kenya since
Independence.” Kenpro,