The week of June 26, 2016

Can technology and a new way of teaching help Ghana’s schools?

By Rachel L. Martin, Ph.D.

The dust of the Sahara swirled through the classroom’s open windows. Inside, 24 teachers clustered around slanted wooden desks, pushed together to make four discussion groups; the school had no electricity, no running water, no library. There was no air conditioning—one of the teachers had tucked a towel into his collar, the only concession to the heat. I had already soaked through my sleeveless top. At the front of the classroom stood a stack of computer equipment and a screen on which appeared the image of two more teachers, beamed into the classroom via a solar-powered two-way interactive live video feed.

I was in at Akroso Salvation Army Junior High School in Ghana, 30-odd miles from the capital city of Accra. The teachers had gathered for a training session as part of Train for Tomorrow (T4T), produced by the Varkey Foundation, a British educational nonprofit, and funded by a two-year, $2 million grant from Dubai Cares. It’s modeled on another teacher training program the foundation operates in Uganda. It’s a bold program, one that looks past very real infrastructure problems—a lack of potable water, drivable roads, even electricity—to focus on technologically facilitated training of the type I was now watching.

“My dear instructional leaders,” one of the teachers onscreen said. “You will now share what you discussed in your groups.” In Akroso, one of the teachers stood and picked up a wireless microphone, ready to relay the responses.

In T4T, two master teachers lead lessons. In each session, they moderate up to six hub schools like the one I was watching in Akroso. They repeat these sessions twice a day, training 800 teachers every fortnight. The teachers then return to their schools and share their knowledge; every two weeks, the same 800 teachers receive new lessons. The Varkey Foundation estimates T4T will reach 5,000 teachers in its first two years. From there, the program can expand to all of West Africa. By providing “more frequent and high-quality communication and support for teachers,” Vikas Pota, the foundation’s CEO, hopes T4T will be “a real game changer for education across sub-Saharan Africa.”

The foundation chose to begin in Ghana because it’s one of the most stable and prosperous nations in western Africa. While Nigeria and many other neighboring countries are ripped apart by radicalized Islamists or civil war, Ghana has remained relatively peaceful. Corruption exists, but again, compared to other locales, its manageable. The country also spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than any other country in West (or North) Africa.

Yet Ghana faces a severe teacher shortage. UNESCO estimates the country will need almost 189,000 new teachers by 2030, but 10,000 leave the profession every year, according to the Ghana National Association of Teachers—and only 9,000 new teachers graduate annually.

Without the money to fire and replace all the unqualified teachers, the country needs to find other solutions.

Teachers leave the profession for a number of reasons. Salaries are low, requiring second full-time jobs, which forces some teachers to skip school. According to the Ministry of Education, teachers at 41 “deprived district” schools have an 80 percent attendance rate; in the lowest-scoring district, the number is just 58 percent. And because the government sees education as a means to mitigate traditional tribal divisions, teachers have limited input in where they are posted.

Even those who stay can find conditions difficult. Most schools, including those in Akroso, have no electricity, no potable water, and no bathrooms. They lack basic supplies, including desks, chairs, and exercise books. Earlier this spring, teachers in Eastern Ghana ran out of chalk, and the district office said they did not have any money to buy more. Some schools began billing their students. Others reduced the number of hours the schools were open.

When they are open, classrooms are severely overcrowded, particularly in rural regions. Many people told me of teachers instructing as many as 80 children at a time. At least one junior high school has created 90-student classrooms. As I wandered the courtyard in Akroso, I counted heads: even in this model school, the smallest class I saw had more than 40 students.

In addition to poor teaching conditions and overcrowded classrooms, Ghana’s Ministry of Education claims only 55 percent of primary school teachers are properly trained for their jobs. Without the money to fire and replace all the unqualified teachers, the country needs to find other solutions. “The key to rectifying the teacher shortfall in Ghana,” one education official told the GhanaWeb News Service, “is not through conventional teacher training but rather the rise of distance education.”

In the T4T training, master teachers modeled techniques they wanted the student-teachers to use in the classroom. My dear instructional leaders,they said, you have three minutes.They introduced each new segment with a short lecture that explained not only the concept but also the reason it was important. Then came a timed group discussion or activity, with each group sharing their conclusions before moving on. When a few teachers seemed to be slipping into a daze, the master teachers stopped everything for a silly game.

This is a far cry from how most teachers in Ghana conduct their classrooms: the chalk and talkmethod is frequently used, lining children up behind rows of desks, driving them through recitations of facts, literature, and lessons. It’s the way most teachers learned, and they perpetuate the technique.

“I would suggest that it takes a generation or two to truly change things.

They also rely on corporal punishment: despite legislation against it, according to one survey 74 percent of students had been caned. Other students reported teachers had knocked them on the head, forced them to kneel or raise their arms for long periods of time, made them do squats or sent them out to do maintenance around the school.

All of these punishments are designed to shame students.In any forum you attend you find people talking about caning because it is seen as a child rights issue,Stephen Adu, the director of basic and secondary education of the Ghana Education Service, told Dr. Afua Twum-Danso during her investigation into child abuse. This is because the emotional ones are more difficult, not easy to describe in the teachers handbook.Already stressed by overcrowded classrooms, teachers lack the training and energy to help children with developmental, behavioral, or learning disabilities. Even common challenges like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder can force students out of school before theyve finished their primary education.

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The day after visiting Akroso, I toured the Varkey Foundations studios in Accra. There, I watched the master teachers deliver the same lesson to a new set of hub schools. Two Ghanaian computer technicians managed the exchange, one keeping an eye on the broadcast, the other monitoring the feedback from the hub schools. Across the hall, another pairing of teachers and technicians broadcast elementary-level math lessons for Making Ghanaian Girls Great, the foundation’s other distance learning program.

At first glance, T4T looks like a textbook example of appropriate technology, one that doesn’t confuse gadgets for solutions. It meets the Worldwatch Institutes requirements that newly introduced technology be accessible, affordable, easy-to-use and maintain, effective—and most importantly, it serves a real need.That’s a stark contrast to the many developmental technological projects that have proven to be too expensive or have turned out to be more gimmick than substance.

The gadgets installed in Akroso and the other hub schools were innovative and reasonably priced. The teachers seemed willing to try the new pedagogical methods; the classroom facilitator could correct any equipment malfunctions. More than anything, however, the responses from the children were compelling. In Akroso, I was surrounded by wide-eyed students who talked about how wonderful it was to be asked thinking questions and offered engaging activities. They were so much happier now than they had been a few months earlier, back when these same teachers demanded they memorize facts and hit them when their answers were wrong. One boy said that now he wants to be a teacher.

Unfortunately, I tend to be a cynic.

Successful use of appropriate technology requires local collaborators. In Akroso, we were greeted by the municipal director of education, who introduced us to one of the districts guidance counselors and to the director of girlseducation. They sat in wooden chairs around the outside of the classroom, watching the lessons. At the end of the day, the minister said he was so glad to have the foundation investing in his teachers; he was excited to see the good T4T could bring to the children in Akroso and elsewhere.

The program, however, has cost his office nothing. Theyve contributed no money, and theyve been asked to put in few man-hours on the project. With such nominal investment from local communities or their governments, what happens when the two years of funding expires? The minister has little money for continuing the experiment on his own dime. At the moment, the government is struggling to pay two years of salary arrears owed to 29,000 teachers.

At the end of my day in Akroso, I wandered back along the galleries, looking into the classrooms. Children chattered in their groups. I peeked in and saw hands shooting into the air as kids called, Me! Me!They were lively, vibrant places, far from the typical “chalk and talk” scene of uniformed children lined up on benches, reciting their multiplication tables or reading aloud from notes on the board. Could these changes stick? Even if they did, would changing the teaching methodology have a lasting impact in schools without bathrooms or electricity?

I suspect the teachers will go back to caning and the rote method,Phil Murphy told me. It is what they know.Murphy is the executive director of Hunger Education and Resource Training, a Christian missionary nonprofit that helps to train cross-cultural workers.

It reminded me of another story I’d heard. Daniel Dotse, a charismatic 29-year-old, recently launched Teach for Ghana. As a young student in Ghana, he’d earned a spot at a prestigious private high school. Dotse then moved to the U.S. after earning a scholarship to Arcadia University and continued his studies in Cornell University’s engineering graduate program. While attending Cornell, he raised money for a 30,000-book library in his familys rural home province.

When Dotse went to visit the library, however, he realized none of the children had ever been inside. The adults didnt want them to get the books dirty. Every country and culture is very different,Murphy continued, but from my 21 years in Haiti I would suggest that it takes a generation or two to truly change things.

It struck me as a hopeful but realistic thought. Maybe years from now, the boy who’d been inspired to be a teacher would remember seeing a different kind of pedagogy—he’d cast off “chalk and talk” in favor of a more vibrant, engaging classroom. Maybe some of his classmates would also become teachers. They might join forces with other reformers, and slowly things would change. And maybe a generation from now—or maybe two—they’d look back and marvel at how far they’d come.

Photo via Rachel L. Martin