Meet the quiet revolutionaries

4th April 2014 at 01:00
Teachers in Uganda are in pedagogical uproar after being encouraged to abandon traditional chalk and talk in favour of a student-centred approach. But with up to 100 children in a class, can they really deliver? William Stewart joins them to find out

The cloud thrown up from outer Kampala's unmade dirt roads barely has time to clear before the values of Kireka Primary School are spelled out. As the dust settles, visitors are greeted with a carefully painted pink and white boundary wall rising up out of the red Ugandan earth. It is decorated with a giant version of the school badge, complete with its stern Old Testament motto: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

This is one of the world's most religious countries - a place where taxi drivers adorn their vehicles with references to biblical verses and coaches roar down the highways with "God is the best" emblazoned across their windows. But Kireka Primary, a private school run by the evangelical Seventh Day Adventist Church in the capital Kampala, feels conservative even by Uganda's standards. Inside the compound wall, clipped hedges, immaculate gingham uniforms and well-drilled students only add to the sense of a place where order and tradition are paramount.

It is the last school you would expect to be at the forefront of a revolution in child-centred teaching. But that is exactly what has happened in the past year. Kireka's teachers have abandoned their traditional chalk-and-talk pedagogy in favour of group work, classroom "energisers" and a new role as learning "facilitators". Thousands more teachers in Uganda are following in their wake. They are part of a scheme that was aiming to have transformed lessons for a quarter of a million children in the East African country by March, with millions more in other parts of the developing world expected to follow over the next decade.

Kireka principal Racheal Semakula has already seen a big positive impact on her students. "The learning has become more effective," she says. "They enjoy the lessons more than they used to and the discipline in the classroom is really coming up. You find each group discussing their work seriously."

That is exactly what the organisation behind the changes - the Varkey Gems Foundation - had been hoping its low-cost teacher training scheme would achieve. Like many, it argues that it is not enough simply to increase school enrolment in the developing world, but that the quality of education provided must improve as well.

Key to the affordability of the plan is a cascade model that trains two senior staff from each school, who then tutor their colleagues when they return. To make this multiplier effect work, the senior staff - ideally including the school principal - must quickly grasp the methods during a five-day course so intensive that "the art of teaching" is covered in a single day.

"I did not like it," Semakula says, laughing. "It was hectic. On the first day I didn't really understand what was going on. But on the second day, as the tutors explained it, I started to be interested. Later, on the third day, I started enjoying it." That slow start has not prevented her primary from being praised as a "star school" by the foundation. Kireka's management team has thrown itself into ensuring that staff embrace all aspects of the programme, from collaborative learning to critical thinking skills.

Every morning at seven, Moses Kawesa - the school's training instructor - gathers all the teachers in a cramped staffroom and, after a collective prayer, spends 35 minutes going through an aspect of the course. "It relieves the teacher of the stress and strain of using a lot of calories and talking all the time, giving instruction and doing all the work," Kawesa says, almost breathless with enthusiasm about his school's departure from teacher-centred habits. "We have come to realise that when we have discussions with children they discover, they learn and they enjoy. And in that way they start thinking and they don't shout."

Making it personal

The foundation - the philanthropic arm of Gems Education, a Dubai-based international private school operator - wants its scheme to "create a culture of personalised learning" in Ugandan classrooms. That might seem a tall order in a country where classes often contain more than 70 students. Kireka, which charges fees of 600,000 Ugandan shillings (pound;150) a term to boarding students, has the resources to use teams of three teachers in its bigger classes. But there are plenty of schools in Uganda where a teacher will be expected to take a class of more than 100 students on their own. How can learning possibly be personalised under such circumstances?

"It is very challenging, most definitely," concedes Charlotte Oloya, the foundation's programme manager. But, she says, rather than limiting the impact of the training scheme, scenarios like this are where the pedagogy really comes into its own. "The first resource we have is the students themselves," she explains. "This is about putting them in groups and using them to monitor each other's learning - getting them to think, share their thoughts and then share them with the rest of the class."

Of course, this approach relies on having students who collectively want to learn. But the foundation believes this is a more effective approach than expecting every student in a supersized class to concentrate on their teacher's words for an entire lesson.

Bugayi Foundation School, about a two-hour drive west of Kampala, has more resources than many Ugandan schools. Lessons take place in buildings with corrugated iron roofs rather than outside under trees. But life at the rural village school is far from easy. Many of its teachers live three miles away in the nearest town, Mpigi. That means spending a large percentage of their salaries - which often turn up weeks late - on "boda boda" motorcycle taxis to get to work. Once they arrive, before any lessons or even preparation for lessons can begin, they must walk with jerrycans to the local borehole to fetch water for the school. Then they must sweep the school compound. Keeping the all-pervasive Ugandan red dust out of the concrete floored classrooms is not just about making things tidy, it is important for the children's health. Left unchecked the dust is a perfect habitat for jiggers, sand fleas that burrow into the soles of human feet, creating infected sores that can leave their victims unable to walk.

Now, in addition to their normal duties, teachers at Bugayi are being asked to make big changes in the way they teach. The Varkey Gems project is based on learning by example. So the school's deputy principal Peter Kalibala leads his staff in a training session structured and run in exactly the same way he wants them to start teaching their own lessons. Learning objectives and "ways of working" are clearly set out at the start of the class, there is a brainstorming session and the teachers sing as an "energiser". It seems to work. But there are times when you wonder just how relevant aspects of the course are to a typical Ugandan school. The teachers are told that it is important to move away from a 19th-century to a 21st-century pedagogy because it makes greater use of technology. But they are sitting in a pockmarked classroom containing nothing except Victorian-style wooden school benches and a blackboard. It doesn't have glass in its windows, let alone running water, electricity or computers.

Primrose Subiza, the principal, bursts into uncontrollable laughter at the idea that her school benefits from technology. "We do not have!" she says. So why does she think that emphasising it in her school's new pedagogy will make a difference to her students? "It will make a difference," she insists, "because they have to be modern. They can use computers to get information." However, the principal concedes, laughing again, that most of her students, who come from families of peasant farmers, won't have access to computers at home either.

But Subiza is convinced the training scheme will improve her school because the teachers like it. The Varkey Gems team are also happy with the way the session has gone and tell the Bugayi staff to give themselves "flowers", shaking their open hands to symbolise the notional floral appreciation. It is a strategy for giving praise in class that resembles "snaps" - the mass finger-clicking used in some of the best US charter schools and now spreading to the UK. Much of the pedagogy being introduced by the foundation in Uganda also brings to mind the varied, carefully planned lessons being taught in the best urban state schools in these countries.

A new era

But while in richer countries it is often the students who need motivating, in Uganda, according to Kireka's Semakula, "it is harder to teach teachers". She says that her training did include student-centred learning but admits that she and her staff had "gone astray by using the teacher-centred methods". In countries like the UK, where child-centred approaches were introduced in the 1960s and are now seen as misguided by a growing lobby of influential teachers, some might question the whole emphasis of the Ugandan scheme. One section of the course - suggesting that students can be categorised as visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or multi-sensory learners - would certainly raise eyebrows in the UK, where the approach is increasingly seen as discredited.

But the pedagogical pendulum is at a very different place in Uganda and teachers there are seizing the opportunity to make their classes more engaging. Semakula estimates that three-quarters of her staff previously gave lessons resembling lectures. She says that teachers were thinking on the students' behalf - "giving the introduction and an explanation for everything without them working in groups to look for answers for themselves".

"Then at the end of the day, after you teach and you preach, you give them the exercises and you give them a tick or a cross, not even telling them why," she says. "I was not taught to teach like that. I was just, as we say, passing the easiest pass."

Others say that although initial teacher training in Uganda already touches on the idea of child-centred learning, there is no real attempt to explain how to make it work in practice. The government is now lobbying hard for the Varkey Gems Foundation to extend what it praises as a "very, very good scheme" into the country's teacher training colleges. Harriet Kagezi, a senior official at Uganda's Ministry of Education and Sports, says the work taking place in schools represents only a "drop in the ocean". A pilot scheme is due to begin in a Kampala college this year.

But Moses Kawesa, in charge of the training for Kireka, warns that the methods do not always stick. "When we were in college they emphasised very much the need to concentrate on the children," he says. "But we as children were taught by teachers using the teacher-centred methods so that is what we go back to. Somebody has to change."

In an effort to make sure they do, a lawn in the middle of the school's neat quadrangle has been renamed Teachers' Island. Small blue signs planted among the palm trees remind staff of the key points of the scheme, with slogans like "allow pupils to teach peers", "use rewards" and "minimise threats". The tone is in marked contrast to the older white signs bearing tough messages for students like "suffering brings success".

But Semakula says that some teachers have still been slow to understand. "They were saying it is wasting their time," she says. This term the school is naming and shaming such malcontents. Record cards for every teacher have been pinned up in the staff training room where the marks they receive for training exercises will be recorded. "If you don't want to do the exercise it means your card with your name will remain there empty," explains the principal. Kawesa, her right-hand man, is similarly uncompromising: "When innovation is coming up, they don't want it but they will learn to like it."

The teachers I watch using the new methods almost certainly do like it. In a few, old habits appear to die hard and, although the overall lesson structure might have changed, they spend a lot of time ensuring that the class repeat in unison everything their teacher has just said. At other times you wonder how much lesson content is lost because of the valuable minutes spent setting out lesson objectives and ways of working for the students.

But Rogers Nabuli, principal at the Mackay Memorial Primary (another Kampala school that has welcomed the new methods), is sure the changes are allowing "deeper learning" to take place. "Even if they mean teachers only cover 80 per cent of the content they are supposed to and that 75 per cent is retained then that is preferable to covering 100 per cent and only 50 per cent going in," he reasons.

Kawesa is just as convinced: "Previously students sometimes didn't like the school, they got bored and they wanted to go home. Now they say: `How can we work more?' It brings children near to you because they feel free. They feel happy when they are learning."

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