I have recently been thinking about 2009 (a little late I know) this was an unusual year for me as I spent 6 months working in a primary school in Malawi. I thought I would use my blog today to write about how this experience influenced some of my ideas about education in the world as a whole. I guess one of the main reasons why I am doing this is to dispel a myth I heard soon after I got back home. Soon after I got home I visited a primary school and one of the teachers naively said something to the effect of; 'It must be nice to teach children, that are really well behaved and want to learn.' I heard it many times before I left as well, that children in Africa are really well behaved and just want to learn. Like every myth I guess there is some truth in it, but it is also true that children are children and behave in similar ways across the globe.
Problems Facing Educators
Lack of resource
It was easy to be at this school and think about the lack of resources. Our resources consisted of blackboard, some flip chart paper and children had books and pens and a limited library. Then I visited a neighbouring primary school and realised that they didn't have any desks to sit at. This obviously presents serious challenges to teaching. But for me the biggest problem was that the few resources the school did have the teachers didn't always use to best effect.
I don't want this to seem like I think African education is substandard because I really don't and it's amazing to see children triumph in the face of adversity. But one fact remains 'Rote Learning' is in, in Africa! That's how teachers teach and how children learn. The reason is that most primary school teachers are only educated up to secondary level, so they simply don't have in depth subject knowledge. As a result they can only teach things the way they were taught and children asking questions is frowned upon. The reason behind this is that teachers don't want to be shown up and be asked questions that they are not sure about the answer. The impact of this is that the failure rate is high and children either repeat grades continously until they turn into adults without reaching secondary school.
The gender Gap
A quick visit to the secondary school was revealing, you could count the girls on one hand in a class. Even in the primary school the higher the grade the less girls. This was really down to girls getting married or getting pregnant and dropping out of school. There is also a general bias against equality in Malawi which can hide under the veil of christian ethics. It's not uncommon to read about womens natural role in society in the national newspapers. I don't want to be another whiteman preaching to Africans as there has been enough of that already. I know many African women would argue the case that this is part of African culture for women and men to have very clearly defined roles. My only hope is that this doesn't stop everyone in Africa getting the education they deserve.
Deforestation has resulted in tornado's that blew the roof off the school the previous year. It also meant the school's football posts got stolen for firewood. It's a serious problem in Malawi with a logging industry and sixteen million people that all need wood to cook.
Absenteism particularly amongst girls who get pregnant as teenagers. The amount of girls in the secondary school was dramatically low. This is also caused by the transient nature of the refugee population. It was often common for children to be late after being held up by household chores.
Work On any given school day in Africa, if you go on a road trip you'll see lots of children not in school and selling snacks at the roadside. Primary education in most african countries is now free. But children still can't afford to go, they need to work. True this was less of a problem for me being in a refugee camp. Most school have a compromise that they finish early afternoon, so children have time to help their families, but many children are still being missed.
The Phala Issue
My school like some others in Africa had a food program and this is the reason why many children, who feel that they have no hope of suceeding in school still come. We gave each child a cup of porridge (phala) and it was the highlight of the day. Personally it was my least favourite part of the day. Why feeding 2000 children is a logistics nightmare and it often interupted lessons. It also didn't always happen. The phala was made by volunteers and to make it they also needed the flour and firewood, we normally had at least two of these neccesities in school, but there were many days when we didn't have all 3. Then you can really notice the differance in the childrens concentration, who are hungry, tired and feeling like they've missed out.
The quirks of African education
Children in Africa are tough and it's not suprising because they have such a tough upbringings. Caning children in Malawi is illegal and the school I worked at being funded by western organisations was very much opposed to violence. Having said that I think most children still get hit at some point. Many teachers still use such tactics in Malawi, but I think gradually it becoming less comon. But parents definantly don't have such qualms and it's not uncommon to see parents beating children in the street or elder siblings discplining their younger family members. Many children came from countries where caning wasn't illegal, so parents were suprised if their children had done something wrong at school and the teachers hadn't taken such actions.
The Good Points
The community One thing about Malawi it has to be probably the most friendly place i've ever been in my life. As well as this they still have the strong community strucures and neighbourly compassion that has almost withered away in Britian. One strange thing was that I taught many orphans, but there was no orphanage. I'm not sure whether this was a good or a basd thing, but it did mean that orphans looked after orphans and elders in the community looked out for the vulnerable.
The well behaved! Ok it's true there are many children in Africa that are really well behaved and they follow the international code of sitting on the front row. There are quite a few children that know that if they worked hard at school it will give them oppotunites and they will do there homework and have a phenomenal memory for learning their exercise books off by heart. This is obviously great, but they don't get the oppotunity to develop those wider skillls that are the sign of a well rounded education. I mean the ability to reason and way up the facts and analyse, those critical skills that we so value in the west. It's also really hard to teach these skills. I initially wanted to go into my first lesson and wow the children with creative ideas. But the children just don't get it and aren't used to it. I quickly learnt that like many things in Africa, you have to introduce and teach these skills, little by little.
The Red Tape
Malawi definetly has a curriculum and you do have to teach it. Schools get inspected and teachers do plan their lessons. Children sit assesment tests and get school reports at the end of term and parents can attend school open days to hear how their children have been doing. Sound familiar. Like other countries this sometimes aids good teaching and sometimes hinders it. Things do happen a little slower and this can cause problems. I was amazed to see that a few days before the end of term and school reports are given out they kind of give up teaching. I learnt why it takes a long time to work out the average score for 220 children in 2 different subjects without a spreadsheet.
Things that could easily be improved
I wish the schools would saxck the bad teachers. The majority of teachers I met were really commited and really good at their job. But their were a few bad teachers and a few that I would call corrupt. I did speak to a teacher from a neighbouring school, who was also on the exam board and offered to sell me the tests. If schools would sack the teachers that didn't bother to go to their lessons and teach or were not commited to children and I think African teachers would quickly get a good name.