Learner-centredness and the class of 130

Author/Producer Dr Jenny Moon
Published in Summer newsletter 2008
Date Published 21 July 2008
Pages 3


Dr Jenny Moon writes about how her Teaching Fellow award helped her to travel to Tanzania and take part in an Oxfam project (EQUIP).


I stood in the midday sun today, feeling puny white, and struggling with how I should feel in the midst of three hundred primary school children who were singing and clapping for us. All were in school uniform but many danced on the baking dust without shoes. It seemed that they all had bright eyes and round smiles but a closer look at the uniform showed shirts that must have been worn by several older siblings, and skirts on seven year olds bought to last for six years. This is professional development for me? If professional development and personal development coincide this was some of the most important professional development in my life. I keep thinking that I feel privileged to be here – but what is the sense of privilege – looking on poverty and the effects of drought? I am here because I wanted to use some of the National Teaching Fellowship award to get involved with some education work in the third world[J1], and Oxfam have given me this opportunity. I am working on a Primary School project in rural Tanzania (EQUIP) for three weeks, mainly helping the local project workers to structure the documentation of the project in order to promote its uptake in other areas of the country. The singing children were in a poor rural school. The track to the school was for foot or bicycle. Normally no cars come near it. At this midday, few children would be having lunch. The focus of the project is to improve pupil learning by initiatives that support the teachers in their teaching. The underlying philosophy is to engineer a shift from the teacher or curriculum-centredness of traditional education, to a learner-centred education. The traditional methods are epitomised by ‘chalk and talk’ where the teacher writes notes on the board, and children copy them. The project sought to get learners participating and actively involved and it sought to institute a recognition that learning happens everywhere and that the teacher is not the sole possessor of knowledge. The hurdles are high and many but there has been a noticeable shift. In the EQUIP project schools, it seems that everyone is happier – they remember how it was. More children are passing Standard 7, and going on to Secondary Schools –- if their parents can afford the uniform and shoes, and can allow for them not to be working. For the first day or two in Tanzania, I was in the Oxfam office in Dar-es-Salaam, learning about the project and then we flew north to Shinyanga. I met the Programme Officers with whom I would be working and over the next three days, was taken on visits to schools. We talked with teachers, head teachers, pupils, the school committees (governors). The conversations were translated for me from Swahili, though the project team works in English. I kept writing over those days, endeavouring to make sense of it all in order to develop a three day course on documentation that I ran the following week. Everyone works very hard here. Teachers worked hard in their EQUIP training too. In their vacations and at weekends, all teachers in the project schools have undertaken a series of modules over twenty four days on learner-centred approaches, some techniques for participatory learning (groupwork, discussions, brain-storming and so on), some subject specific work and ways of developing resources from the local environment (seeds, sand, building with cassava paste and shredded paper and so on), and how to get learners involved in these processes. The teacher’s modules are run by trainers, who also have undergone training as trainers. Trainers are trained teachers who have implemented what they learned particularly well. They are educated as trainers by College tutors. Also supporting the system are mentors (also selected from trained teachers) who also undergo mentor and coaching training. They meet the trained teachers on a regular basis to discuss the implementation of the new ideas. Some of the training work is done in newly built Teachers Resource Centres which provide some more resources, a room for meetings and sometimes a computer and photocopier – though outside the town there is no electricity. I mentioned hurdles. I watched a forty minute lesson on fractions. There were 130 children in the small room, often four to a desk. There were bare grey walls and a rough concrete floor. The class was ‘doubled up’ because of the seven teachers in the school, three are away. The teacher showed us how he was involving the children, getting them to come and write on the board and asking them questions and he used sticks from outside to demonstrate fractions. These may seem little things, but they are different from the traditional ways. Other hurdles are that many children do not get anything to eat during the day. There are government moves afoot to institute school feeding. Oxfam started it but it is extremely expensive and does not bring about sustainable development. A previous Oxfam project ensured that there is water at the school to allay thirst in this area of drought and some work was done on buildings and sanitation. HIV/AIDS affects one in ten of the population and teachers and children are lost to the system through their own infection. Things are harder for girls who may become pregnant, are more often affected by HIV/AIDS and in traditional families may be seen as dowries and not worthy of education. There are so many difficulties and there is so much to do. How could there be anything that UK teachers could wish of this system? But there is one thing – and I think that without it, none of this project work in Tanzania could happen. Pupils do not talk or mess around or fidget or prod each other into misbehaviour, but they attend to the teacher. They sit and listen, even in their fours, squashed at one desk. They show respect for their teachers and they seem to be appreciating that their teachers are themselves so much happier now. This compliance is essential in a class of 130 children (the average class size is 70), even though it somewhat flies in the face of a truly learner-centred system. I have some concerns that this is a bit of a honeymoon period during which the compliant behaviour of the traditional classroom has not get subsided within the system that should really support more liveliness in the classrooms. I will be on my way back out of the sun soon – and am still wondering what I mean by ‘privileged’. I think the more usual phrase is ‘developing world’ these days – any reason not to use it?