As the teachers look up in anticipation at an incongruous video projector, a passing cock crows and the sound of children playing outside echoes around the doorless classroom.
But the staff, huddled together on wooden benches, are not distracted by the cacophony of squawks and squeaks. They have travelled many miles to Akroso Salvation Army Junior High School to hear from “master trainers”. They are ready to learn.
During the two-hour session at this satellite-enabled rural “hub school”, the group follows instructions from the teacher trainers, who are standing behind a well-disguised mini-bar in a studio in the capital, Accra, more than three hours’ drive away.
The training is part of a project that uses solar-powered technology to broadcast studentcentred strategies live to teachers across Ghana in West Africa. The organisation behind the Train for Tomorrow distance-learning programme – the Varkey Foundation – wants to see a move away from traditional “chalk and talk” teaching. It believes that a change in pedagogy will increase the attendance and happiness of Ghanaian pupils, who were previously discouraged from speaking up in class and punished for wrong answers, and boost academic performance.
But there is a long way to go. Last year, Ghana finished bottom of the 76 countries included in new Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) global education rankings. As part of the new two-way interactive training project – the first of its kind in Africa – teachers of all ages are being made to see a lesson through a pupil’s eyes. They sit and work in groups, take part in quick, fun “energisers”, and give each other “flowers” – a hand gesture carried out in unison to show appreciation.
Giving children confidence
Leonora Dowley, the foundation’s project manager, believes that this style of training will challenge a deep-rooted attitude among Ghanaian teachers that children misbehave and cannot be trusted to work in groups. “We practically demonstrate what we think they should do in their lessons,” she says. “We try to get them to think like a child.”
Since the launch of the programme in November, changes have become apparent at Akroso Salvation Army Junior High. Despite a lack of resources, electricity and running water, teachers make the most of what they have and display colourful reminders of their new “ways of working”.
Ntiamoah Okoto Prince, a maths teacher, has embraced the change. “I feel that I don’t teach my pupils but I study with them,” he says. “Sometimes they come with information that I had never dreamt of giving them.”
A “jigsaw strategy”, encouraging children to teach their peers, has helped increase students’ confidence. Abidi Solomon, a 16-year-old pupil who has high hopes of becoming a doctor, says: “When the teachers come to class now even the students who do not like talking will talk because all their friends are contributing to their teaching so it is making them more confident.” It is hoped that these techniques will encourage more girls to come to school and overcome the demands on their labour at home. The aim is to challenge a belief that boys should be educated and that girls should be in the kitchen.
Mr Prince, a facilitator in the televised training sessions, says that the “order is changing” thanks to the student-centred methods.
Initially, some teachers were quite sceptical, he admits. “Handling my peers at the beginning was a little difficult. Some of them had the perception that they had been to the training college and had already learnt much,” he says.
But despite being taught student-centred strategies at training colleges and at universities, many Ghanaian teachers still employ traditional methods in the classroom.
Ms Dowley says: “A headteacher would have had some sort of training but it would have been decades ago and the chance of having anything since then is slim. In theory, they know the strategies but they have never seen it practically applied so they don’t know what it looks like.”
Schools without buildings
The fear of losing control of a class – which contains, on average, 40 to 60 pupils – appears to be driving a reliance on the “chalk and talk” approach that teachers would have experienced as pupils.
“There is a nervousness that if it goes wrong then they have 10 groups of kids who they have to trust are talking about the lesson,” Ms Dowley adds. “For many teachers, they think it is easier to be in front of class with a cane and to rule by fear.”
And there are even bigger problems in Ghana’s schools. Many teachers have had no training at all – 45 per cent of those in primaries and 30 per cent of junior high school teachers. Some schools have no buildings and teach under trees, and others have classes of 80 to control. Teachers may have to travel hours to get to work and many have a second job because the pay is poor.
But the Varkey Foundation is confident that teachers will embrace the new methods when they see the positive impact they can have on their lives, and their pupils’.
“The work burden has reduced as classes are lovelier,” says Anthony Akanlu, who is the foundation’s district coordinator. “So it is motivating for a teacher to come to class because he knows that he is going to have fun in his job.”
Teacher training by satellite
The Train for Tomorrow programme:
‘Master trainers’ broadcast live two-hour training sessions, from a studio in Accra, Ghana’s capital, to between two and five hub schools at the same time
The satellite-enabled, solar-powered technology has been installed in 40 hub schools across four regions in Ghana
Between 10 and 30 teachers attend fortnightly interactive training sessions in each school
A total of 800 participants then cascade the training to other teachers before the next session, bringing the total number involved up to 5,000 in a year
The Varkey Foundation hopes to expand the project, which is funded by the philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares and currently reaches 559 schools, to the rest of Ghana and wider in sub-Saharan Africa