Connecting the Dots: Character Formation and Value-based Education

Jaslika Director, Sheila Wamahiu, was invited to present a talk at the Value-based Education segment of the Smart Governance Conference organised by the Jesuit Hakimani Centre on 12th June, 2019. She was also invited to make a brief presentation at the closing plenary session. Her talk is presented below, slightly modified from this blog. The session on Value-based Education was moderated by Samuel Mukundi, a co-associate of Jaslika, in his capacity as a member of the Catholic Professionals Group. The recording of her talk was transcribed by Ernest Onguko.

Connecting the Dots ...

I was asked to talk today on the issue of value-based education and character formation. Preparing for this presentation has forced me to self-reflect  on my own values, and the impact of my home, school and work experiences in their formation. 

As Samuel Mukundi, the moderator, said earlier in the introduction, I have done a lot of research on values. However,  I will not be presenting findings of my study today, though I shall touch on specific aspects later. Instead, this I will take a very different approach in my talk today from what you are used to in order to provoke a discussion: I will tell you a very personal story of how my character was formed, and from there we can infer lessons.

My character was influenced by my experiential knowledge, through living my life for over six decades now. I have been learning all this time; education is about learning isn’t it?  We start learning from the time we are born; we learn things that are good and we learn things that are not so good, but we learn.

Let me tell you about myself. I am a Muslim by birth. (I know this is a mainly Christian congregation).

[A man interjects: But mainly Catholic]

Yes, mainly Catholic. I come from a Muslim family, raised in a Muslim family and I am still a Muslim. But I went to a Catholic school.  One of the earliest lessons I learnt was that my values as a Muslim was actually aligned to the values of my Catholic school.

[By now, the room was congested and more were people coming in. The presentation was interrupted to make people move ahead with their seats to create space for more people.  On count we had a total of 116 people, the room was small, some did not get seats]

So what values I was brought up with in my Muslim environment?  There was not much of a difference with the values of the school where I went.  There was an alignment or congruence of values and we will talk about that later.  Apart from my personal life, there is also my research; I am a researcher. I also do development work.  My insights from my research and development work revolved around values right from the beginning: Values of equity and equality and justice, social justice. Child protection, rights and safeguarding women’s and human rights. The values I was brought up with and those I learnt in school have also converged in my work life as a researcher, development work and as a teacher as well.  Those of you who I lectured I think they can still remember me, from my lectures, socialization, right Fidelis [addressing one of the members of the audience]? Within this, issues of equity and social justice were built in, and within equity and social justice were embedded the issues of values. 

Through all my life I have seen the best of humanity that has inspired me, but I have also seen the worst of what human beings can do to other human beings. But the challenge is when you see the worst, you might allow the worst to take over so that is always the struggle. We should let the good inspire us, the good values, the good actions, the good behavior inspire us and build our character but learning lessons from what has happened in the worst that we have experienced.

The Story of the Blue Mosque and a Catholic Cemetery

As I told you I am going to tell you a story and in this story I will take you to 2014, five years ago. [She points to the image of the Blue Mosque in Turkey. Directly underneath is a picture of a Christian cemetery] Do you recognise that, the Blue Mosque in Turkey? The other image is a Catholic cemetery in a tiny little place called Mission in Texas, USA. Why am I talking about these two? It’s because we had two events that happened in that year that were significant for me.  The first event was in the Blue Mosque. Pope Francis - you are Catholics so you know Pope Francis - even those of us who are not Catholics, we know who he is. Pope Francis went to the Blue Mosque; you remember? He prayed alongside the Grand Mufti [Rahmi Yaran] in the mosque. What was that? Interreligious dialogue! 

Now if you look at the other image, that is the story of my sister, the one I follow. She had cancer.  [I told you I will tell you a personal story). She had cancer and she passed on in 2014 after a very short illness. She is a Muslim like me but she lived in a tiny town where there were no other Muslim, no Muslim cemetery or even a mosque. So what happened? The Catholic management opened up the cemetery for her, a Muslim, to be buried. Imams from two mosques from two neighbouring cities came without asking any questions. They came and they did the Islamic burial rites for her in a Catholic cemetery. This is an example of what? Tolerance? Of inter-faith harmony, dialogue? That was values in practice; so she was a Muslim who was buried in a Catholic cemetery using Muslim rituals. I am not sure where else that happens.

So we have examples of people who see what is common among us but not the differences that divide us. As I said earlier, I am a Muslim, born and raised in  Muslim cultural environment. As a Muslim, these words from the Quran “Bismillahir-rahmanir-rahim” is etched into my mind as it is in that of every Muslim. Almost all the verses of the Quran  [apart from one] begin with these words glorifying God’s Compassion and Mercy. We are supposed to utter these words before we eat, or before we do anything, and repeat them when we say our daily prayers. 

So what do these words mean? In the Name of God the Most Compassionate, the Merciful.  

But God’s mercy is not a prerogative of Islam. Other religions have similar messages, I picked out two: You are of the Christian faith and you know better than I -  the first one is Psalms 86:15 - “but you oh lord our God merciful and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The other one is from ancient Tamil texts, “Find and follow the good path and be ruled by compassion. For if the various ways are examined, compassion will prove the means to liberation” (Tirukkural 25: 241-242). Again here is a demonstration of unity and inter-religious commonality.  

But the thing is, in addition to going to a Catholic school, in my early social life there were people of other faiths who had an influence on me. For example, our family doctor, Dr Nandi, was Hindu - a very nice and jovial person who looked at nutritional aspects before he would prescribe medication. There was another gentleman, Mr Amelandu Baul, who used to come teach my older siblings music. We used to fondly call him “Master Shahib”. He was a  wonderful person, also a Hindu. They both had the same values that we subscribed to.

Where is the Compassion? Where is the Mercy?

It is true that our scriptures talk about values, positive values; but what actually happens out there in real life? Can you see this picture? It can be anywhere, do you see it? [Shows the image of car burning, clearly the target of violent mobs].

This is an image of Hindu violence against Muslims in India. But it could easily have been an image of Muslim violence against Hindus in Bangladesh or Pakistan. Such scenes too were part of my socio-cultural environment. As far back as I can remember, violence against Muslims in India would provoke atrocities against Hindus in Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh. But through it all what I remember most is the compassion of my parents and their friends, and their courage and integrity, in rescuing Hindus who were at risk of being slaughtered by people who called themselves “God-fearing Muslims”. We get that a lot, killing each other which is not sanctioned by our religions.

And during the war in Pakistan in 1971 that resulted in the creation of an independent Bangladesh - I witnessed what happens when family and friends turn against one another - the senseless bloodshed, rape, hate. But I also witnessed compassion, courage as once again people risked their lives to save and give refuge to those fleeing persecution. I was 14 or 15 years at the time.

And then there’s the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. We don’t hear much about it nowadays but there was a time, we could see the kind of destruction they did in northern Uganda where I worked for like five years. And then we have the  Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, Isis and who knows what else. And also the more recent terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka and New Zealand. And in all of these incidents, what are we doing? We are killing in the name of God. So where is the Compassion and Mercy of God?

That’s why when I started I said  have seen a lot of this and lived through wars. In Kenya we have experienced terrorist attacks; we have witnessed ethnic violence. From my experience  in living through real, full fledged wars and civil strife, I can say that if we allow that kind of negativity go on and form our character, then you know there is no hope for the world. But there is hope when we let our character to look at the bigger picture and values, not the small petty things and see how can we learn to be humans because all our religions talk about that in different ways.

Voices of Children

So all this, what does that have to do with education?  If you read the title of my presentation, it states: Value-based education and character formation: connecting the dots. I would like you to connect the dots. What does all this have to do with what is happening in our schools, for example. and how can we build character in a positive way and not in a divisive way?  Let’s listen to some voices from some of the research I have conducted. 

The first is taken from a case study undertaken by the Women Educational Researchers of Kenya (WERK) of which I am a founder member, . In the extract, you can hear children relating to the researchers how they are disciplined in school.

Girl1: I came from B Primary and there was everything [there]. Good teaching, choirs, games, sanitary pads were provided, teachers were paid, we are beaten on our hands but here we are beaten without clothes […]

Girl2: Yes we are beaten. Teacher Jane beat me in class 2 without dress at my behind.

Boy1: Yes it happened I was beaten with shorts only. She forced me to remove my trousers. I had wronged maths. She used a stick to cane me at my behind.

Boy2: Yes she also beat me using a wire on my toes and legs. I wanted to drop out of school.

Girl3: She used a pipe on me. I had wronged English. It was not very long ago. (Children’s Focus Group Discussion,, Wasichana Wote Wasome (WWW) Case study #1, 2014)

There is a lot of violence in our school, we keep on blaming the children for the riots but there is a lot of violence. That is one example. The next one is from a national research that WERK commissioned on value-based education. Our sample was almost 13,000. We survey four categories of respondents from 5% of all public schools in each of the 47 counties in Kenya. We also conducted 25 in-depth qualitative case studies. Two researchers spent one week in each school; it was very intensive. Actually the Catholic Secretariat was part of the advisors; the Ministry of Education was also part of it and the Principal Secretary of Education launched the report on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary in 2016. The following extract is taken from the observation notes of researchers in one of the case study schools located in an arid and semi arid (ASAL) county.

Outside the Deputy Head Teacher’s office, I can hear the children being beaten and being asked by the Deputy why they are not performing? As he beats them, we can hear [him shouting]:

“ it because you don’t have a teacher? Do you have lights? Are you feeding? Do you know there are some children who do not have food? I have told you several times, you pay attention and that [doing well in] maths needs practice”.

The beating goes on and the lunchtime bell rings. We head to the dining area.  (Lunch time Observation, School #23, 2015 National VbE Study)

The third example that I’ll give you today is from a 2017 scoping study commissioned by Twaweza East Africa prior to an in-depth inquiry of positive deviance schools.

Girls: We are beaten mercilessly especially by male teachers. Boys are beaten seriously on the buttocks and us on our palms till we swell.

Boys: Teachers cane students when they fail exams, failing any question during revision time, after academic analysis. This happens even when one has dropped with one mark from previous grade. It is worse for performances below 250 marks where one is caned by more than one teacher in a row [if she/he gets less than 250 marks].

The teachers use sticks, pointers and rubber bands (the boys indicated where they are hit with canes on the lower leg) One is punished by wearing sackcloth or speaking a language not prescribed for a given day. At the end of the shameful day, one is still caned.

(School C, PD Scoping Study, 2017)

This last example reveals the use of collective punishment on children by teachers. This Is something that has been there - in research that I conducted in the 1990s, we found children who alleged use of collective punishment in schools. This kind of collective punishment we have even seen with the security forces - we have seen them go to villages and punish collectively.  I want you to connect the dots, that violence that you see in the classroom, how does it impact on what we do outside the school? Recently in the news, we have read about the religious lobbies advocating to bring back corporal punishment. My question is,  how do you reintroduce something that has never gone away? Because every school I have done research in, in every school we visited in the Value-based Education study, for example, we have found use of corporal punishment apart from just one school - it was one of the exceptions. Its common even in private schools.  So the point we are making here is violence breeds violence. That is the character we are forming.

I went to a Catholic school; our school never used the cane, we never had corporal punishment, yet our discipline was excellent. As we learn to form character, can we also look at what does discipline mean? Discipline and punishment do not mean the same thing, punishment and corporal punishment is not the same thing. How does it impact on our character because the types of violence that we saw in the schools - pinching, using pipes to hit children, slapping, beating using phone chargers, dusters, spanking, kicking, boxing, banging child on the wall and teachers punishing children collectively.

The Honourables Behaving Badly ...

Can you recognise those pictures [on the slide]? I understand we have some Members of Parliament in the audience today. Honorables [referring to the Parliamentarians present]  you recognise the first picture? That is in the Parliament, right? [The picture is an incident during a Parliamentary sitting that ended in chaos and violent confrontation between members]. Very familiar [A member of the audience admits to recognizing the incident, recalling that he was the Whip in Parliament at that time]. 

The second image is that of our “learned friends”, the lawyers. They are supposed to uphold the laws, yet you see them resolving their differences violently during the elections of the Law Society of Kenya. The third picture shows school children pushing down a wall to protest against land grabbing. While the children were right to protest, they should not have been encouraged to engage in violent behaviour. What happened put them at risk of physical danger, and also taught them that violent conflict resolution is the way to go.

So you see, they [a section of Parliamentarians] were saying that corporal punishment should be brought back to school. According to them they went through corporal punishment, and it helped them to become what they have become. 

But if the consequence of corporal punishment is positive, why are they [Parliamentirians] behaving like this [badly]? If that cane produced disciplined learners, then why are they behaving like this? To me this is also endangering the children, and we also saw recently in Machakos where some students attacked journalists. What are we learning in school? Sometimes I say schools are like ‘torture’ chambers, not all schools of course - and yes, I am exaggerating, I am exaggerating to drive home the point.  Because in many schools, the kind of punishments they use have longer term psychological and physical impact and consequences.  Sometimes we use punishment without realizing the unintended dangers or because we do not know how else to deal with the situation.

Let me give an example. Like now, when I was drinking water, there was plastic paper sealing the bottle top. Because there was no place for me to throw it when I unsealed the bottle, I put it inside my bag; I could not throw it on the floor because that is what was instilled in me at home and in our school. In our school we never slashed grass (as punishment) but we were told to be proud of our school. Keeping the school clean was something to be proud of. But in many Kenyan schools when its end of term or year, you go to a dorm, you will find books torn and strewn all over the place - thrown on the floor, littering the compound and even stepping on them because the children are not taught to value books. You see we are going back to values. When we are forming character - and earlier we talked about role models - we must remember that in the school the child, the boy and the girl, are at the centre. We must always think of the girl and the boy at the centre; they have so many influences. Right? And even as we say parents blame teachers, teachers blame parents; I think everybody is to blame. Then we say parents are not spending enough time, and even if you spend enough time what values are you teaching? We have to ask ourselves that. Are we having quality time with our children? Are we teaching positive values or negative values (because values can be negative). Like in Kenya today, success is judged in terms of money, right? Like when we talk about corruption and greed - those are what many people value, the greed. So it’s a negative value according to me [as a sociologist]. A positive value is something positive like tolerance, peace, justice, equity, equality and many more. What happens in theory? Our constitution is beautiful; we have so many positive values. The Education Act (2013) and many of the policies have positive values; but what are we doing? Negative values are stronger. That’s why I am saying that with regard to values we have to make sure the positive triumphs and not the negative.

Learning from the Positive

Now having said that, let me not finish, on a note of negativity. Another study that I can refer to is a study on positive deviance in public primary schools in Kenya. The study was comprehensive. We used a very extensive process through which we picked on six public primary schools from over 17,000 eligible schools in the country. You must be wondering - But, the concept of “positive” and “deviance” do not go together, do they? So what do I mean.

Like, for example, Kwale county [in the Coast region] has been consistently below average in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations; their mean score has been consistently low over the years. The same applies to Muranga [in the Central region] and many others, which do not perform very well. And when you look at the poor communities in these counties where  we [Jaslika] “discovered” the Positive Deviant schools, they looked generally very poor and resource constrained. The teachers from schools in these communities would say that they don’t have resources. But, despite this, we have some teachers and schools that are doing very well in spite of not having all the resources. Those are the schools we are saying are Positive Deviant schools. 

Today  I won’t talk much about Positive Deviance. I will only point out that in these schools children have been given space to develop. True, they do use the cane once in a while - I won’t lie - but not in the way other schools do. You find the schools are encouraging life skills like creativity and critical thinking and the teachers, the head teachers are very committed. They have discipline without using corporal punishment excessively; they consult, they care, there is compassion. You can also see teachers going to homes looking for children if they did not come to school to find out why.

I just want to end by saying, those schools are there, the inspirational schools.  They don’t have resources - it does not mean they should not get more resources - but with the little they have, they are able to form the characters of the children very well with love, with  compassion with commitment. You know we talk about role modeling; we cannot talk about role modelling and then emulate the behaviour reflected in the images I showed you earlier - like the “honourables” and our “learned friends” who were fighting each other -  and then we say, “Oh no, you should not behave like this one”. No, that’s not how it works. Children learn from observation, by copying the behaviour of those they look up to. 

Parents should behave. We have so much gender-based violence. Women are battered every day and sometimes men too showing we do not know how to resolve our conflicts peacefully, and that is part of character. To me one of the greatest things my parents  as well as the school taught me is success is not judged by wealth alone, success is your integrity, your compassion. My parents, who risked their lives to save Hindus who were being slaughtered because of bigotry, exemplify this model of success. There is no reason to kill another person; my parents would risk their lives to rescue the Hindus and give them protection. I was caught up in the war when I was 14 years old, and others rescued us and gave as shelter and protection and its people you would have never imagined they would help. So let us end on the note that yes, there is a lot of bad things, but if we form characters through tolerance, modeling and emphasizing values that embrace inclusivity rather  than exclusion - and it can be done - then we shall be able to fight the negative and change the world. 

So connect the dots…… what happens in schools is a reflection of the society and unless we break that vicious cycle and stop what happens in schools so that they do not grow up as adults and repeat the same negative things. Money is not everything.

I was told when you ask a question you stand. Mine is more of a comment to say thank you very much for your presentation. I could feel and sense it in your heart that what you were taught when young and in school and I can assume all your students did enjoy and that is credible. I was listening to the silence here; it was calm when you presented. And I wanted to tell the people here who were listening to you, when you are choosing your leaders from now henceforth listen to them, how they present: Do you get inspiration? Do you get the peace in you and feel them? And the connections and dots, I will let you connect from now to 2022 when you will be selecting leaders. Listen to them very carefully. As for you Daktari, I will interact with you and we would like you to come to our school. We will be inviting politicians and give us just very few things, I have found an answer in you. Come to our school and make our future leaders together. Thank you. --- Bishop Emiritus Alfred Rotich reacting to the presentation

Three Disconnects

[These are the points highlighted in the Concluding Plenary Session of the Conference. The main speakers at the conference were Prof Wambui Kiaii of the University of Nairobi; former Deputy Governor of Isiolo County, Mohammed Guleid; former Speaker of the Kenyan Senate, Hon Ekwee Ethuro; and Kenyan politician Hon Musalia Mudavadi who was formerly a Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister at various times].

Judging by the number of people who go to churches, temples, and mosques, shouldn’t this country be heaven?  But is it heaven? [Audience responds, somewhat startled by the question: ‘Nooo’] We are all people of faith here, are we not? So what is the problem? What is missing? Values - there is a disconnect between what we preach in theory and what we practice. There is hypocrisy.

  1. Judging by the number of people who go to churches, temples, and mosques, shouldn’t this country be heaven?  But is it heaven? [Audience responds, somewhat startled by the question: ‘Nooo’] We are all people of faith here, are we not? So what is the problem? What is missing? Values - there is a disconnect between what we preach in theory and what we practice. There is hypocrisy.

  2. With all due apology to the honourables seated here, no, remember “It is not only politics. Politics is very important - politics is the air we breathe, it is the food that we eat. Bad politics is the result of the polluted air. Bad politics is the food that is contaminated. So kindly, Honourables, do not dismiss bad behaviour as “Only politics”. No, it is never “Only politics”. Politics is very important.

  3. There has been reports in the media that a section of the clergy and some Members of Parliament are lobbying to have corporal punishment reinstated in schools. I am concerned by these reports. First of all, how can you reintroduce something that has never gone away? It is true that corporal punishment was banned in Kenyan schools by the Ministry of Education as early as 2001 though it was not until the Education Act 2013 that it became entrenched in our laws. But the reality is almost every single school uses corporal punishment to discipline children. Secondly, the argument that the use of corporal punishment will help to enforce discipline in children and redress problems of violence and negative practices is fallacious. Your colleagues, the Members of Parliament and the clergy lobbying to bring corporal punishment back, argue that they experienced it themselves at school and at home, and it made them what they are today. That scares me; because what I see out there are some political and religious leaders who are behaving badly, and then pointing fingers at our young people for emulating them. We see many examples of leaders who resolve conflicts through the use of violence and wonder why we have so much violence in schools!  Clearly corporal punishment did not work to instill the values of peace and tolerance, or even of integrity in these leaders, just as the continued use of corporal punishment is not inculcating positive values in children. So let us rethink the meaning of the word ‘discipline’ and divorce it from ‘corporal’ and other forms of humiliating and abusive punishments that violate the rights of our children and perpetuates cultures of violence.


I think I would like to stop there. Those who are interested, these are just a few of the research I have been involved in that  informed this talk. 

  1. “Learning outcomes among public primary schools in Kenya - A positive deviance inquiry” Jaslika Consulting for Twaweza EA June 2018

  2. Baseline Study of Value-based Education in Kwale and Mombasa” Jaslika Consulting for AKF EA 2017

  3. Value-based Education in Kenya: An exploration of meanings and practices” for WERK Nairobi, Nov 2015 

  4. Education, empowerment and marginalization: Do schools empower girls?” WWW Qualitative Study #1 for WERK for DfID May 2015 

  5. “Impact of one pre-school intervention programme on later school success of Muslim children in Mombasa: A tracer study” for AKF Feb 1992

  6. Educational situation of the Kenyan girl child” for ERNIKE/UNICEF Mar 1992