Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Disappointed Leaf

Yesterday I walked into my biology class and was met with a chalk board completely covered by wonderfully detailed and labeled drawing of the male and female reproductive systems in colored chalk. I contemplated my students’ offering for a moment and then turned to face the class. “It looks like you’ve been studying,” I said “keep up the good work.” Razzing the teacher must be a quality of students worldwide, though Malawian students certainly express themselves a bit differently from their American counterparts.

The Malawian school system is divided into grades much like American schools. Primary school has eight standards corresponding to American grades 1-8. Secondary school is four years, and grades 9-12 are called forms 1-4. That is where the similarities end. Unlike the American system where free public education through the age of 18 is mostly taken for granted, a Malawian education is highly valued, yet often unavailable commodity. In the region where I am teaching, 60% of children aged 6 to 13 years attend school. Public education is free through primary school and available to any child, supposedly, but then there are other expenses to consider- a uniform, pens, a ruler, calculator, extra notebooks, and transportation. Other than expense, probably the main reason students don’t go to school is that there simply aren’t enough schools. Many students don’t have a school within walking distance and those that do find themselves in hopelessly overcrowded classrooms, often spilling out of the school to sit under trees with portable blackboard. Class sizes of over 100 students are common. And these are seven-year-olds. Either student discipline is extraordinary or no one actually learns anything. I hate to be a cynic, but based on the preparedness of my students for secondary-level work, I’m more inclined to think the latter.

After standard eight, students must pass a national exam to continue their secondary education. Around Mangochi, 80-90% of individuals do not receive the primary school certificate. Public secondary schools only accept those who pass, but there are orders of magnitude fewer public secondary schools than primary schools, so the overcrowding remains an issue. Hence the proliferation of private secondary schools. I have had mixed reports as to whether private schools are “better” as we usually think in the United States. Certainly private schools are less crowded since school fees are 10 times higher than the public institutions. In fact, higher fees are enough a deterrent that, except for the more prestigious academies, private schools are hesitant to turn away customers. This leads to the situation where some students have not even passed standard eight, and is the reason why many Malawians hesitate to label private schools as “better”. Its all about the balance between class size and class quality: too large and the students in the back shouldn’t even bother showing up since the lesson has dissipated before it reaches them, too small and the school has to accept sub-par scholars just to maintain the budget. Private schools seem aware of their uncertain status and hide the lack of the government’s seal of approval between two parentheses. A typical private school sign reads, “MANGOCHI (PVT) SECONDARY SCHOOL”.

Should we accept into secondary school those who have not passed their primary education? The teacher’s job is certainly made more difficult when half of the class does not have the prerequisite mathematical skills or English ability. It is hardly fair to the other half of the class who are able to handle secondary level work, but are held back by the pace of their peers. In a place like Malawi where there is a shortage of schools and teachers, is it fair to disadvantage the more promising students to give those who have tried a failed a second chance? But then, the failure of many primary-level students is probably due to a combination of circumstances not within the students’ control. Maybe their class was too large and they had to sit at the back and couldn’t hear or see the teacher. Perhaps they missed several weeks of school due to familial issues. If they work hard in secondary school, perhaps they will be able to overcome their lack of sufficient primary education and go on to a job with a living wage, or even to university. Should we take away a person’s chance for an educated life just because of circumstances they couldn’t control as a child? Yes the world is unfair, but shouldn’t we work to make it less so?

My gut-born belief that primary and secondary education should be freely available to any person is probably a result of growing up in a country where this is true and intrinsically valued. Otherwise, why should I draw the division between right and privilege at grade 12 rather than after college or graduate school? It is only recently historically that any education at all was thought of as a right and not a privilege. So, the question is not a matter of morally how much education a person deserves, but a question for the community of how much education a person needs. Now this is a question that there is a chance of answering.

In Malawi I see a few ways to respond. We could educate people for the skills that they will need in day to day life: basic mathematics, Chichewa, agriculture, fishing, community values. Certainly a modified primary level education is sufficient for these goals. But this is an authoritarian way of thinking. To define educational need as only what a person will immediately use is to halt creative enterprise before it has even blossomed. Where is the opportunity for growth if none are given extra nourishment? A developing country like Malawi surely needs all of the creative and intelligent minds it can afford to cultivate.

So now we see the community’s need for education beyond basic skills. But how much and who shall receive it? Yes we know what would best, but what should we do? What concessions do we need to make in order to have a successful education system in Malawi now using current resources and allow for improvement in the future? Here are some suggestions from someone who deigns to imagine that she can offer advice after only four and a half months of limited observation.

1. Re-examine the primary curriculum and make free primary education village-based by hiring a village adult as a teacher. This gives every child the chance to learn the basic skills needed, allows communities to tailor education to region-specific needs (e.g. fishing), reduces class-sizes giving students a better chance at success, and decreases the cost of school for the government as well as the family. A village has more invested in its own children and will strive harder to insure their success.

2. Establish free public secondary schools in major towns with boarding facilities. Entrance should be by examination and only the top students are admitted up to and not exceeding the capacity of the school. This answers the question of whether failed primary school students should be allowed into secondary school. For Malawi the answer is ‘no’. There just aren’t enough resources to divert. Let them study and try to take the test again. That would be the fairest way. As the government is able, it can build more schools, thus increasing the capacity for secondary education, and perhaps then arrangements can be made for slower and disadvantaged students.

3. Create a national university whose tuition is need-based and where admission is dependent on aptitude. Establish relationships with universities in other countries. Find something to exchange: students, research opportunities, cultural exchanges, etc.

Of course even I can immediately identify problems with these suggestions. Regional differences in wealth will result in regional differences in education so that in some areas no students will be able to achieve access secondary education. How to avoid this discrimination? That’s an issue the US is still sorting out. Furthermore, what will be the influence of private schools on this proposed public education system? Probably further educational disparity between the haves and have-nots. However, at this point the existence of private schools is a net benefit to the system since they provide education to those who can afford to pay, leaving room in the public schools for those who can’t.

Gracious Private Secondary, the secondary school where Jesse and I are volunteering, seems to be in a unique and somewhat incongruous position. The school was started in affiliation with the Malawi Children’s Village and receives support through donors with that organization. It has the most beautiful and well-built campus that I have seen of any school public or private. Clean, well built and attractively finished concrete walls support a vaulted metal ceiling which keeps the classrooms relatively cool. The grounds are grassy, well-watered, and landscaped with colorful flowers. The blackboards were just repainted and almost all students have their own desk and chair. It is a superior environment for learning by Malawian standards. I wish that I could say that the students are similarly excellent. Despite the attractive grounds and able teachers, many of the students simply do not have the capabilities to perform secondary-level work.

As far as class size goes, I have nothing to complain about. I teach two classes of form three mathematics, each class with approximately 35 students, and I teach two classes of form four biology of about 30 students each. The school itself has around 200 students. Truly I am privileged to have such a small group to work with, but still the time is only enough to give a handful of the students the few minutes of one-on-one that is so crucial, especially to this population whose lack of basic skills could be fixed with just a few hours of individual help.

The problem is augmented by the fact that my training as a teacher is limited to four years volunteering as a tutor and one semester of ED100 in college. I feel as if my skills are sufficient, but in the way that a ‘C’ sufficient: not nearly satisfactory for my personal goal of student success. Teaching without worksheets, posters, manipulatives, laboratory equipment, textbooks, or the internet requires so much more creativity if a teacher is to avoid falling into the same old pattern of just writing and explaining notes on the blackboard. The task of engaging students during a lecture is a skill that I wish I had more thouroughly developed during my college education. The lack of resources here is fairly debilitating for a teacher raised in the American school system . Every day I find myself thinking of things I could do if only I had X. But then I think to myself, “Hey, at least I have colored chalk.”

Rita, the owner of Palm Beach Resort who recently established a nearby private primary school, told me this story from her first days in Malawi that perfectly captures the resource shortage in Malawian schools. Rita’s profession is teaching and upon arriving in Malawi she sought a primary school so that she could observe how things were done here:

Rita pulls her car up in front of a school and is immediately greeted by a teacher who says that she is welcome to observe her English lesson that was taking place outside under a tree. The teacher has a box at the front to the class filled with sticks and leaves. The lesson begins; the teacher rummages through her box and produces a leaf. Very slowly and with drawn out vowels and ‘r’s shaped like ‘l’s she declares, “This is a green leaf.” “Dis iz eh gleen leaf,” repeats the class. The teacher bends down again, and when she straightens has another leaf in her hand. Holding it high, she again intones, “This is a yellow leaf.” “Dis iz eh yehloh leaf,” chants the class. Again she goes back to the box. After exhausting all possible leaf colors, she moves on to shapes. “This is a round leaf,” she announces holding out a suitable candidate. “Dis iz eh lound leaf.” Next she presents a long skinny leaf. “This is a pointed leaf.” “Dis iz eh pointed leaf,” drones the class. At this point Rita is wondering how many more words the teacher can possibly get out of a box of leaves, and for that matter how much longer a class of seven-year olds will sit still. The teacher reaches down yet again and holds out a somewhat heart-shaped leaf. “This is a …” the teacher pauses, looks down at the leaf, glances toward Rita, and looks back at the unfortunate choice in her hand. “This is a disappointed leaf!” She proclaims, and promptly moves on with her class.

Other than the immediately obvious misuse of the word ‘disappointed’ this humorous vignette demonstrates two things: the teacher’s sheer ingenuity in designing a lesson about adjectives using only materials that she could scrounge up, and the utter lack of creativity in the method by which students are supposed to learn. Do these children actually learn the use of English words by simply repeating after their teacher? I’d have to ask a language teacher. However, I’ve noted in my class that they have learned the art of copying if nothing else. If I write on the board the definition: a ‘species’ is a group of living organisms that can interbreed, and then ask on a test, ‘Give an example of a species.’ At least half of the tests will come back with the answer, ‘A species is gloup of living olganisms can intelbleed.’ Or some permutation of those words. A few will actually answer correctly with an example and the rest of the tests will be blank. If I further give the question: ‘A certain type of plant is mated with a different type of plant, but no seeds are produced. Are the two plants of the same species?’ I would probably receive 8 correct answers out of all 70 students.

The lack of educational resources has led to stagnation. Without other options, teachers fall back on the easiest method available which involves lots of chalk, a blackboard, and a little talking. For the students, this means that the primary method of learning involves copying notes from the board and memorizing them. Test questions cannot deviate from the exact subjects copied from the board or students will not have any memorized phrases to write down.

Note-copying is only a way to remember facts; it is not a way to learn. I would define learning as the process of assimilating particular facts and general rules so that a person can later connect these into ideas which can be analyzed and applied to novel situations. Based on the reasoning ability of my form threes and fours, it seems as if most of them have never actually learned anything in their entire educational careers. Harsh? Yes. But in order for Malawians to become competitive in the international arena this system needs to change.

One of my goals as a teacher at Gracious is for my students to actually digest the concepts or mathematics and biology. So I use the teaching methods that I encountered as a student which cause me to think about the ideas I was learning and not just the facts. I ask my class questions. I try to encourage group discussions. I bring students up to the front and we act out various processes such as natural selection or osmoregulation of the blood by the kidneys. I draw diagrams on the board, but specifically try to avoid writing so that students will have to put the ideas in their own words. But, I have found that if I don’t write notes on the board, students cannot put the ideas I am trying to teach them into writing and I am met with a stack of blank tests.

It’s as if my students have become so used to note-copying that they are unable learn any other way. So I must compromise. I write notes on the board, making neat little lists of facts. It galls me that the whole of biology is reduced to learning the function, advantages, and disadvantages of every part without discussing the connections to the whole. At this point I am at a loss for how to gradually bridge the crevasse between memorization and comprehension. And yet, the national syllabus suggests that we as teachers do such enriching activities as facilitating group discussion, assigning research reports, and administering laboratory investigations as part of the standard curriculum. Unfortunately for my students, their previous teachers have not adhered to these suggestions from the beginning and thus students at the secondary level have a very difficult time adjusting to these more interactive teaching methods.

Even the national exam in biology has moved away from a multiple-choice fact-based bucket for regurgitation to a lined workbook in which students are supposed to interpret diagrams and explain the reasons behind how biology works. Since I am supposed to be preparing them for this exam, I populated my end of term exam with diagrams and lots of “explain why/how…” questions. The results were atrocious by American standards. The average score was 39% and 9 students scored better than 60%. The mathematics grades were even worse. The average was 28% with 10 students scoring better than 60% (though none were better than 80%) and 16 scoring less than 10%.

At first I thought that these test scores resulted from a combination of my American accent and lack of experience as a teacher. However, after seeing similar test scores from other teachers’ classes, I suspect that the poor performance has less to do with me and more to do with a deficient academic background. The other teachers here blame the students. They say that they are lazy and not serious here at this school. They blame the culture in this region and the influence of Islam saying that families are new to the idea of education and do not value it. I instinctively recoil from this prejudiced explanation, but I suppose it could be somewhat true. As a visitor I do not have the cultural knowledge to make an assessment.

As low as these test scores look from an American’s perspective, they should be viewed with a couple facts in mind. First, to pass the national senior secondary exam (MSCE) in each subject, a student only needs to score better than 40%. The standard of sufficiency is set remarkably low. However, the standard of excellence remains competitively high; 80% is required for the highly-sought mark of “distinction”. Most students are not overly concerned with a grade of 60%, since there is no expectation for them to do better.

Why should the bar be set so low for these students? To answer we should look at the second fact: that all subjects (except Chichewa) are conducted in English, a second language at which many students are not very proficient. Rather than simplify the exams, the powers that be decided to expand the range of acceptable scores so that students who are truly exceptional can still shine while those less fortunate in their educational background will not be overly punished for their difficulties with a language.

English is especially problematic for students at Gracious since most of their guardians do not speak it and hence there is no opportunity or pressure to practice at home. Recognizing that a good percentage of the student’s failure is due to poor English ability, the school has been trying to enforce an English-only rule on campus, so that students are forced to practice speaking English to their friends. The most recent development in the crusade against vernacular languages are wooden necklaces that read “vernacular” in block letters. Students pass the necklace amongst themselves to whoever happens to speak Chichewa or Chiyawo and the one at the end of the day stuck with the necklace is punished with yard work. Though I find the method ridiculous, I applaud the intent, since English is vital to passing their national examinations; however, it is impossible to enforce the rule unless the students do so themselves.

The lack of English proficiency is another factor contributing to teachers’ reliance on note-copying and memorization. Students need more time to comprehend material presented in English and since students do not have textbooks to read for themselves, a teacher’s notes must be a substitute for them to read them and digest on their own. Thus an inordinate amount of class time must be devoted to providing textbook reading material on the board. Orally, students have fairly good comprehension of English, but when it comes to the written language, their reading comprehension is mediocre and writing skills are quite poor. If I write directions for a laboratory activity on the board and tell the class to follow the directions, the entire class will sit staring at me until I read the instructions out loud. Then about half will understand and get to work while the other half will require me to come around individually and explain. This is very worrisome to me since test-taking is completely reliant on a person’s ability to follow written instructions. I’ve decided to make this a priority this semester with the hopes that the next final exam will have better results.

All of the problems in education stemming from a lack of resources are compounded by the difficulty of learning in English. Administrators cannot set the passing score on the MSCE too high because students with poor English ability, but who are otherwise smart will fail. But, by setting the expectations so low, students are not accountable for enough of the material and are not competitive. They cannot teach creative and abstract reasoning because English confines teaching styles to notes which can be copied and read and re-read until students memorize the material. It seems like students would benefit most if they were allowed to learn in Chichewa; however, this is not the answer. If anything English is what gives Malawi a leg up as they try to develop. To drop English from the schools would be to discard one of their very few advantages.

So what is the best way to learn for students who have to struggle with a second language- memorization or thinking? Should I try to teach my students to think if it only makes school more difficult and confusing and doesn’t help much on the exam? These are the issues I continue to struggle with as I learn to teach. Hopefully by the end of the year I will have some answers.