Detailed Teacher Guides will help Uganda to Solve Learning Crisis in Schools

Published on 16th January 2018

Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) 2017 results are expected in a few days. So, on January 10, 2018, I teamed up with Mr. Fagil Mandy, a legend Ugandan educationist to discuss anticipated results and broadly, the state of the education sector in Uganda. Ms. Mildred Tuheise hosted us on Uganda’s premier public affairs talk show - the Morning Breeze - delivered by Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) Television. Our conversation reflected on Uganda’s systemic education problem and offered some proposals on ways forward.

For starters, since 2009, without significant statistical variation, every Uwezo report “Are our Children Learning?” published by Twaweza has come to one conclusion: Our children are not learning! The 2017 World Bank report “Learning to realize Education’s Promise 2018”- capped it by ranking Uganda second worst country in the world after India where 80% and 61% children can’t count or read.

With a degree of certainty – and with a foresight of not losing a generation, all of us hope the executive branch of government and specifically the Ministry of Education,  Parliament, and the committee on education – must be busy figuring out and working out a plan to get the country out of this learning malnourishment and education crisis. For, it is a robust strategy and concrete actions that will reverse this prevailing trend – an education trend that has over the years focused more on schooling and less on learning. It is from this context that I continue to share insights and experiences, perhaps so our policy makers and other stakeholders like parents, communities, faith foundations and media can leverage to put in place a new actionable plan. With the plan we have had over the years, it is now self-evident and very clear; – we are bleeding and in need of a makeover.

There are indeed lots of ideas from a range of actors. Pupils, parents, teachers, policymakers, researchers, Ministers of Education, NGOs, businesses: all are working hard to find solutions. It’s even inspiring to see Uganda’s political leaders and education bureaucrats acknowledging the extent of this problem, and rigorously debating the ways forward.

Yet, what we need as a country is to examine, much more aggressively than we do now,  the daily classroom experience of a typical child in Uganda. Often the “learning crisis” discussion drifts into things economists and researchers specialise in: class size, teacher compensation, teacher incentives, etc. All interesting topics! – but one ask is; what if we shifted focus towards the 10-30 hours that a child spends in his/her classroom, with her teacher, each week?

This would be an eye-opening and informative exercise. Consider a typical Ugandan child’s daily experience in a school – what does she/he work on during a, say, 40-minute period in 5th grade maths? How much practice does she/she get with something like adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators – and how is that topic introduced to her, and her peers? How do her /his learning experiences fit into a larger, coherent “whole”?

These questions are fascinating, and get to the heart of this crisis: the quality of the teaching and learning in schools across Uganda. Thinking about this requires us to engage with what a child actually experiences on a daily basis. At Bridge, we’ve found this frame to be helpful – less ideological, less fraught, more practical. It also forces an urgent question on us: what teaching strategies have been shown to “work”? And by that I mean show real learning benefits for the child.

There is some good news here. One tool that has proven unusually effective in developing world classrooms is detailed teacher guides. Organisations such as USAID and RTI (in Kenya, Liberia, and elsewhere) have effectively deployed them at scale, leading to large learning gains for thousands of children.

Teacher guides are however controversial. Critics argue that teacher guides blunt the inherent dynamism of a classroom, or that they rob teachers of autonomy, or that they unproductively restrict kids who may need more attention, or to move at a different speed.

One of the notables who has studied this debate for the last decade is academic Sean Geraghty who argues that teacher guides are much more effective than any conceivable alternative at scale, and that we’re only scratching the surface of their potential. From an educator’s point of view, he argues:

1. Guides create more dynamic classroom environments.

Walk into a typical classroom in a low or middle-income country and (provided the teacher is present, and teaching), you will likely see a lecture, or some version of “rote instruction.” Alas, evidence is increasingly clear on this topic: these strategies are not effective! Lecturing is inefficient; rote instruction doesn’t lead to meaningful learning. The structure of a guide can facilitate a different learning environment. This is why at Bridge schools Uganda, through teacher guides, we have been able to “mix it up” more in the context of a typical lesson – moving away from lectures, and moving towards varied, evidence-based pedagogical strategies.

Take maths, for example. Instead of a teacher endlessly talking about a problem, our maths lessons (through our guides) are much more dynamic. Structured, but dynamic. Compare this typical maths period in a Bridge classroom: (a) Guided demonstration of a problem broken down into manageable steps (“I do”); (b) Practice problem set with incrementally harder problems (“You do”); (c) Feedback from teachers to individual pupils (“We do”); (d) Guided demonstration of another problem (“I do”); (e) Practice problem set (“You do”); (f) Feedback (“We do”).The foregoing is a stark difference to a period driven by lecture , or to a teacher writing problems on the board while children passively copy them in their exercise books as is done in most schools. These teacher-guide driven lessons are more feedback-driven, more pupil-centred, and more effective at helping kids learn.

2. Guides can increase the opportunities pupils have for practicing a core set of skills

Well-meaning teachers everywhere can tend to over-explain, often cutting into precious practice time for pupils.  Notice in the maths structure above that pupils have two opportunities to both a) practice and b) get FEEDBACK. Every educator knows how critical this cycle is. Pupils learn by making mistakes, getting feedback on those mistakes, and trying again. One of the central arguments against guides is that teachers cannot specifically respond to individual pupil needs. We have found the opposite. Through carefully scaffolded problem-sets and well-sequenced instructions/demonstrations, teachers are able to pinpoint precisely where a pupil is struggling. All they need are frequent opportunities to respond. The guides provide a backdrop for that.

3. Guides support teachers with lower subject-matter knowledge (or lower “pedagogical content knowledge.”)

Teachers in Uganda often acutely struggle with subject-matter knowledge. Indeed, a Uganda government report found, for example, that ~78% of its Primary 1 and 2 teachers could not solve basic primary-level mathematics questions (Uganda Ministry of Education, 2014, Uganda National Examinations Board, 2015, Uwezo, 2015).Guides can provide support for teachers who may struggle with the “basics” – either on the content itself or how to TEACH that content. Teaching emergent readers, for example, takes real craftsmanship, and it’s unrealistic to think that every teacher is up on the latest or most effective ways of getting kids to read. Bridge removes the burden of finding the most effective pedagogical strategies from teachers, and allows them to focus intently on supporting pupils.

Teacher guides are an unusually effective tool in helping pupils to learn more. Teaching and learning improves when guides are used. The Uganda Government and a rosary of stakeholders would be judicious to study their use more, and to experiment with implementing them in more classrooms across the country. As always, Bridge schools Uganda is ready to  serve and partner with government to expand frontiers of quality education. Let’s keep this conversation leaping skyward.

By Morrison Rwakakamba,

Country Director, Bridge Schools Uganda.

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