Saturday, 22 July 2017

Teaching teachers to make something out of nothing

Those of you who occasionally dip into this intermittent blog will be used to the pictures of Malawian primary schools: the classes without classrooms and the shabbiness, emptiness and unstimulating surroundings in which many children learn.

Of course, not all children learn in these kinds of settings. As in our own country, a significant minority of learners are fortunate enough to attend more exclusive and well-resourced private schools. This post is not about such institutions, however. It is about what can be done to motivate and interest children in the least well-resourced schools: the rural government-funded primary schools in which almost all school-aged children enroll when they're six or seven, and from which most of them drop out a couple of years later.

The parents of these children may be poor, and unfamiliar with the quality of education which more prosperous families expect their own children to experience. Nevertheless, many of them still realise that the circumstances in which their own children learn are unsatisfactory. And in a number of schools, parents themselves do what they can to mitigate this.

On the left you can see a classroom for Standard 1 which parents have built out of bamboo and tough grass. Most of the other pupils were taught outside. The roof is of thatch. The floor is of beaten earth, though in this village close to Lake Malawi, it was more like sand. The children are huddled together to avoid the sun beating through the window. When I saw this structure, I wasn't sure whether my colleagues would be condemning it as inadequate or commending it as a good example of community support. It was the latter.

In this school in the south west of the country, the classrooms recently-built by the government, were of a much better quality, though still without furniture.  However, there were no facilities for staff or school managers, so parents built an office for the headteacher (below right) out of mud and pole....

...and provided a fenced-off area beneath the trees for use as a staffroom.

However, although school accommodation is important, what really makes a difference to children's learning is what goes on during lessons: how teachers interact with learners and how they use visual and other resources to demonstrate and exemplify what they are teaching.

The classrooms are usually dreadfully bare with hardly any books either, let alone practical resources. If you were the teacher of the class on the right, how much time, energy or enthusiasm would you have for compensating for these lacks, day after day after day?

Of course, some of the teachers do make at least some attempt to provide some sort of visual stimulation or reminder of what children are supposed to be learning: a poster or, quite often, a shop, though perhaps without crucial features like prices and pretend money. I have never seen such displays actually being used, but 'high risk' activities tend to be avoided when visitors like me appear.

Nevertheless, producing resources using local materials is precisely the job of the teacher working in these circumstances, and it is what they are trained to do. The examples below all come from teacher training colleges where developing such skills among student teachers is an important part of the course. Whether students continue using such approaches when in their substantive posts is a different matter, of course.
Language resources are produced in both in English and Chichewa. About 70% of the population speak Chichewa, which, with English, is the official national language. However, that means that 30% of learners may be taught in an unfamiliar language when they first go to school. The recent Education Act expects that from now on, ALL teaching should be done in English from the earliest years, so effective language teaching will be even more important. Teachers are expected to make their own posters and materials for teaching phonics and encouraging visual recognition: flip books, flash cards, labelled objects and so on.

Similarly, in mathematics and science  (here blood transfusion), homemade resources are essential.

None of these materials may look particularly noteworthy or inventive to a British teacher, most of whom also make many of their own resources, though not quite as high a proportion as in Malawi. However, remember that schools in Malawi do not have the 'lavish' supplies of sugar paper or modelling materials which British schools have, let alone scissors and glue. Paper and cardboard will usually come from waste. Teachers are unlikely to ask their pupils to bring in yoghurt pots or cardboard cylinders from toilet rolls, because few homes may have such objects. However, they may be asked to bring small stones, sticks and bottle tops for use as counters, and branches and bunches of grass for use as brooms. Plastic water bottles may come in useful and can be scavenged from rubbish. Yet even 'shops' can be tricky to stock in a society in which few families eat food from tins and packets.

And there are challenges, in making your own materials, as you might imagine. Fancy making a globe, for example?  The roughly drawn geographical features on the left would be so much more convincing if they had been traced in some way. Other resources cause fewer problems, however.  There are probably an ample supply of creepycrawlies to use in 'nature study' (above).

Locally made resources come into their own, however, in the expressive arts. This is hardly surprising for Malawi is a country where traditional crafts have not died out. Home-made balls are common, with string knotted around raffia padding or as here, waste paper or carrier bags. Next to them are home-made hoops also for PE.

Raffia weaving skills are used to make mats and baskets. All young people, and teachers themselves, need to have more than one way of earning their living and selling handicrafts is a common supplementary source of income. Clay modelling is easy enough, for the raw materials are just outside the door. Just don't think about what's in that mud!

I was surprised to observe several examples of knitting, macrame and sewing. You get so used to seeing clothes falling off both children and adults because buttons or zips have burst or rips been left unmended that I have always assumed that no one knew how to sew. However, students are taught dressmaking skills using methods which I recall from my own school days.

Students also learn to make musical instruments similar to those used in the villages: shakers on the left below made from gourds or bamboo pipes, on the right various homemade stringed instruments, a drum and a xylophone.

And last but definitely not least, both learners and teachers will have to grow their own food, so expect to see examples of types of seed, farming techniques, even chicken and goat houses and granaries.

Even home made watering cans are made from scavanged materials - not for use in flower gardens, which are quite rare, but a key tool in irrigation, a technique relatively underused in Malawi.

I would love to say that I have seen all these artefacts actually being used in classrooms. I have seen some things, of course: posters, raffia dolls and bowls or models of animals made from sun-baked mud - oh, and the ubiquitous and chaotic 'shops'. However, after graduating from their two-year course, the young student teachers currently in colleges, and those coming along after them, will have different skills, values and expectations from those of the tired, disenchanted and minimally trained practitioners who were rushed into schools a few years ago to cope with the impact of universal basic education.

A lot is expected of these young teachers, some of them only a couple of years older than the pupils they teach. They are sent out to rural villages by central government, to live far from their families and friends and the 'bright lights' of urban centres. Yet that is essential. It is where they should be for that is where the need is. The villagers among whom they live will also be trying to make something out of nothing, attempting to feed their families on the meagre crops they are able grow on dry and exhausted land.  

Everybody will be 'making do' just as the teachers are. At least the colleges are teaching them some basic survival skills. Let's hope their skills are also successful in motivating their pupils and kindling a love of learning.

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