small foundation with a big impact

Ngorika school: a work in progress

In ‘Under African Skies’, Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon sing: “His path was marked by the stars of the Southern Hemisphere/ And he walks his days under African skies”. That was in 1986, when the world was a different place. At the time I made the first of many trips to Africa, sometimes for work, and sometimes just because life is different there. That song came to mind after I had arrived at the lodge and stood on my balcony looking up at the immense starry sky. The drive from the airport on a dark road, the smells, the sounds, and those stars: it all came back to me.

Last spring I came into contact with Happy Watoto. Apparently, the board was looking for an education specialist who was interested in reinforcing its team of advisors. And I was looking an opportunity to work as a volunteer helping to improve education. After a few initial discussions, it was agreed that I would join some of the board members and advisors on a planned visit. My specific task would be to research how Ngorika school could be improved over the coming years. My baggage consisted mainly of a lot of questions about what is currently being done, about the conditions in which that takes place, about the people who do the work and their ambitions, about the children in the classes, their curriculum, and the teaching facilities. And I particularly wanted to find out if there would be a connection between the management, the teachers and me.

During the final workshop, the team and I were able to report that there is indeed a connection. We are going work together to see if, over the next five years, we can make the educational methods slightly more modern than they are now. It will be a question of trial and error, delays and acceleration, of setting standards but also of giving people scope for development. But everyone agreed that it can and should be accomplished.

Things going well, aren’t they?
The Ngorika school is performing well by Tanzanian standards. Its place in the rankings has been satisfactory for many years, although there is some evidence of a slight decline. Good education is more than a number on a ranking list. It is not only about how students score on tests and exams. It is also about (and perhaps mostly about) whether what the students take away from their education is also useful in the next phase of their lives and work. Not only is what they learn relevant, but how they learn it. For teachers, this often calls for a different orientation. The contents of subjects studied are important, but much more attention should be given to the process of developing competence. This involves learning skills and attitudes which go beyond the subject matter, and which can help you in later life to solve problems, cooperate, make choices, show initiative and to continue learning. These are in fact the same skills embodied in the school’s motto. And skills that reflect the Tanzanian government’s objective of developing a new curriculum for the future. Even the teachers, who are sometimes hesitant about such objectives, cannot deny that change has to come. Future tests and exams will undoubtedly be different than they are now. And if there is no change, that high position in the ranking will inevitably be endangered.

Look and listen
The days were quickly filled with observing the lessons, which was unnerving for the teachers. Not for students: they sing a song after entering the classroom, someone gets you a chair, and in the first few minutes some of them turn around to look but after that they forget you.

It was easier for some teachers than for others to have a mzungu watching them. On the first day I had agreed with the team that I would enter a classroom at random. No one knew which class, and all were assured that I would not share anything I saw in the classroom with management. The observations were not intended as a judgement. I had a brief conversation with each teacher so that I could ask why he/she had done a particular thing. And I gave every teacher one tip. This worked very well and within a day everyone was used to me.

I saw some very good lessons, given by teachers who are capable of engaging their students for the full forty minutes. There are teachers who really help children learn from their mistakes, and others who simply forget such students. There are teachers who are not in the classroom when the lesson starts, which in the Netherlands inevitably leads to rowdiness. Not in Tanzania, where the children wait patiently, sometimes for up to five minutes. But that is not the point; there is no excuse for a teacher not being in the classroom on time.

Some teachers try to have the students work in groups, and that can be difficult in such relatively small classrooms full of (almost) indestructible furniture. If they are successful, it is a joy to see how the group members put their heads together to solve a problem. They are even more enthusiastic when the teacher organises a competition between the groups, and they are encouraged to help one another correct mistakes. These are the moments other teachers can learn from.

The relatively small class size (35 pupils) makes initiatives like this possible. It is a worry that there is sometimes a bit a fudging where class size is concerned. I counted 38 pupils in some classes; the norm is sometimes exceeded in order to avoid having to say no to parents who want to enrol their child.

The text books contain errors. Several decades ago Tanzania decided to let the free market regulate the writing and production of classroom materials, apparently without exercising sufficient quality control. Following questions in parliament, that policy is to be abandoned and the government will once again be responsible for publishing new textbooks. For the time being, this means extra work for the school because teachers have to identify errors and warns students about them. In short: there is work to be done in this area.

The first steps
I discussed with the team and the school management some of the initial steps that can be taken to improve the level of education. The first step is to put our house in order. And then we need to think about removing superfluous and non-functional objects from the classroom. A clock that is not working, a three-year old poster, a broken chair: they can all be thrown away, along with the pile of non-functioning batteries in the IT classroom. But it is also important that teachers arrive on time for the lessons. The next step involves the serious study of the new curriculum, and determining what it means for lesson planning. Once that has happened, we can determine what the teachers need to learn in order to meet the requirements of the new curriculum. Because some of them are already farther along on this path, they can learn from one another.

As far as the first steps are concerned, I can probably offer long-distance assistance. Arrangements for this have been made with the school management. We will have to wait and see how this works out. They have confidence in the plan, and so do I. In any case, it was a wonderful week, and I look forward to the follow-up in 2018.
Boudewijn A.M. van Velzen
Member of the Advisory Board
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