Seeing individuals in classes of 100

Initiative urges child-centred learning in developing nations

More than a quarter of a million teachers in the developing world will be encouraged to abandon traditional "chalk and talk" teaching methods in favour of child-centred learning.

A multi-million-dollar teacher training scheme, which has been piloted in Uganda, is to be expanded to cover five countries across two continents in a bid to "personalise learning", even when teachers are faced with class sizes of up to 100 children.

The initiative - backed by the Varkey Gems Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Gems Education private school chain - will be introduced to parts of Ghana imminently and to India next year. Two countries in Africa and East Asia will follow.

The idea of focusing more attention on individual students might sound ambitious for countries that lack even basic facilities and money for teachers. But the $75 million (pound;43.5 million) scheme encourages methods such as group work, designed to make lessons more engaging than if teachers simply stand in front of a class and talk.

"Where class sizes are so challenging, with upwards of 50 to 100 kids, it is easy to understand why teachers would want to go on a teacher-centred perspective, because it is hard to get around the class," said Vikas Pota, chief executive of the foundation.

"But by showing them different techniques and becoming more student-centred, you get better outcomes and a greater focus on the needs of the individual learner. We have lots of success stories about teachers who have now realised there is a more effective way of teaching kids."

Ugandan education minister Jessica Alupo said: "As class sizes grow, improving the quality of teaching in Uganda is more urgent than ever."

The focus on improving teaching quality in developing countries was a key concern raised by Unesco in an interview in last week's TES ("How extra aid may vanish into a black hole of illiteracy"). Irina Bokova, the organisation's director general, said that narrowly focusing on getting more children into school would merely "replenish the army of 800 million illiterate people in the world".

Ms Bokova said it had been right to initially focus the United Nations Millennium Development Goals on improving school enrolment, but said it was now time for a shift in focus to better teaching. Without that, billions of pounds of investment was at risk of being wasted, she added.

In Ghana, the Varkey Gems programme is likely to make use of technology used in a separate scheme, which utilises webcams to give students in rural areas access to online lessons from "master teachers" working from the capital city, Accra. The Varkey Gems Foundation believes the distance-learning approach can be adapted to train teachers in the country's remote schools.

Mr Pota said the foundation had yet to decide which areas of India it would operate in, but added that it was likely to be on a bigger scale than Uganda. "India needs it," he said. "A third of the world's poor live there and you can't really effect change without having a strategy for India."

He added that although the training scheme would be adapted to reflect local conditions, it would focus on "student-centred" learning in all countries.

The aim was to try to move schools away from rote learning and the emphasis on remembering and repeating facts. Instead, the scheme would develop "higher order skills" in students so that they could also "apply, analyse and create, based on what they remember", he said.

One aspect of the course - training teachers to categorise pupils according to whether they are visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners - is increasingly seen as discredited in the UK.

But Mr Pota said: "I am not saying that our programme is by any means perfect. Things can change, things can go out of fashion, but surely anything we can do to improve how a teacher performs has to be welcomed."

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