Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

This was the first IATEFL where I saw talks which mentioned Africa at all. I know there must have been related talks at the previous conferences I was at, but they didn’t cross my radar. This year I had no choice but to notice them, as the Monday and Tuesday plenaries were both about the continent, and what a perfect choice that was.

The justice and imperative of girls’ secondary school education – a model of action – Ann Cotton

Ann Cotton’s plenary was truly inspiring and got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end. She described the evolution of the organisation which was to become Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education.

Camfed logo

Back in the early 1990s, Ann was doing university research which involved her visiting a Tonga village in Zimbabwe to find out why girls’ educational attainment was so low. What she saw there surprised her. Contrary to the standard belief that girls weren’t sent to school for cultural reasons, she actually discovered that poverty is the main barrier to girls’ education. The people in the village she visited had been moved there by the government when a dam was built, away from the river they depended on for their livelihood and to land which was not suitable for resettlement. To force people into the cash economy, the government also imposed many different taxes, like a hut tax, a dog tax, and a requirement for a fishing license if they wanted to use the nearby lake for food. There was food aid for the first two years, but after that the people were on their own. In order to meet the economic needs of their families, boys needed to be educated as a priority because they were likely to be able to earn more money later. When Ann arrived, there were seven boys for every one girl at the school. Although Zimbabwe had made huge strides in its education system after desegregation, there was still a long way to go to achieve true equality. It wasn’t that the Tonga people did not want to educate girls, but that they were forced to prioritise boys’ education because of the local economic situation.

They were making the only decisions they could on the basis of economics and survival.

When girls are poorly educated, it has many knock-on effects, including high infant mortality and the exclusion of women from the economy and decision-making. If a girl leaves school young, she will probably marry very soon afterwards because her family will struggle to sustain her financially. Both her and their security depends on her finding a husband. This means she’s likely to become pregnant while still a teenager, and in the villages Ann visited, she would be far away from medical services. If she had trouble during labour, she would be taken to a hospital two hours away for free medical treatment. However, if she died, the family would have to pay for the return of her body, leading to some incredibly difficult decisions. Some families chose not to let their daughters go to the hospital because they wouldn’t be able to get the body back afterwards if anything happened. The people at the clinic thought this meant families didn’t care about their daughters, but again poverty was the true underlying cause.

You have to make the decision that makes the best economic sense.

In all of the research she had done, she had never met the idea that poverty was a potential reason for girls not being sent to school. In fact, there was a huge desire for education, and this inspired Ann to try to do something about it. She felt completely out of her depth, but she knew it needed wider consideration. She abandoned her studies, and started to go to organisations to explain what she’d found, but she met repeated resistance and minds closed to the idea that there might be another explanation for educational and health issues.

When Ann returned to the Tonga village, the chief was very surprised to see her. They called a meeting about how to get more girls in school, and Ann was amazed when hundreds of people turned up. The chief sent out the word to local villages, and when the people came it proved that they really wanted their daughters to be educated. The chief provides the bridge between the traditional world and the modern world, and is trusted by the tribe. They built a committee to decide how to progress, including the chief, educators, people from the health system and the mothers’ support group, ensuring that women were represented in the decision-making too. The Camfed model endeavours to understand the girls’ lives both inside and outside school to make the system fit the child.

The child is at the centre of everything.

They draw on the social capital of the people in the tribe and of the girls who have been educated thanks to Camfed to strengthen their model. For example, there have recently been severe floods in Malawi which is likely to lead to severe problems with food as the year goes on. Camfed has been providing food which local mothers distribute. They are all illiterate or semi-literate, but can decide who needs extra food based on observing the way the children eat, without needing any tests or scientific basis for their decisions. Ann also mentioned learning a lot from James Rebanks in the book The Shepherd’s Life [affiliate link], where he talked about how much he has learnt from talking to semi-literate people. These are examples of ‘knowledge capital’ and show us that a lack of literacy does not mean a lack of intelligence, and that in fact some knowledge can be lost as the world becomes more literate.

There is an intense arrogance in seeing poor people as potential data points.

It’s important for us to gather information about the situation related to girls’ education. However, we need to be sensitive in how we do this and ensure that the data is returned to the community so that it can be used fully: often it goes up the system and the community never have access to it. Ann gave examples of the power of data to acknowledge and change behaviour. By demonstrating to families how the changes they had made in their approach to girls’ education had impacted on their lives, the communities felt hugely positive and were more likely to continue with these changes.

From a small start, they have grown and grown. In 1991, they supported 32 girls to get an education. In 2014, it was 1.2 million. There is now also a sister organisation called ‘CAMA’ made up of the alumni of Camfed, who are supporting more girls in their turn: 63,274 so far. The organisation spread to Ghana, and now works in five different countries, including Muslim communities where people said the system wouldn’t work. On the contrary: everyone wants their children to be educated!

Camfed has also worked to provide role models. Because nobody from the local tribes had got through the education system, none of the teachers spoke the tribal language. At secondary school, English was the language of education, and the children had had no exposure to it outside the classroom. One of the first things Camfed did was work to reduce the entry requirements for Tonga people to go to teacher training college. As well as the language barrier, there’s also a barrier in the metaphors and examples the children are expected to understand. In collaboration with women from CAMA and Pearson, they are working on materials to reflect the children’s experience more closely, to reduce the feeling of detachment and remoteness of the educational environment the children were entering. ‘Learner Guides’ are the bridge between these two areas. They are young secondary school graduates who work with teachers, bridging the gap between the ‘imported’ teacher and the local children. Because the learner guides are from the local community, they can help with the language, dealing with large class sizes, moderating materials, and providing a friendly face for the children when they come to the school. Parents can see their daughters progressing and earning respect in the local community, with teacher training college being considered the next step.

Ann gave some inspiring examples of some of the girls who have come through the Camfed system, entrepreneurs, doctors, and even a member of a UN advisory committee. Because of their backgrounds, they understand poverty in a way nobody else can, and they are more able to make changes because there is a bridge to their communities. Their communities celebrate them and are proud of them: they are not trying to hold them back at all.

They emerge as extraordinary global leaders who are fighting for change for others like them. What a loss to the world if they had not been educated!

Ann finished with these words:

When everyone thinks the way you do, it’s time to think differently.

Mark Twain

Ann’s slides and handout are available along with the session details on the IATEFL online site here. I would strongly recommend watching her plenary, because my summary does not do justice to it at all:

You can also read a summary by Lizzie Pinard.

ELT in difficult circumstances: Challenges, possibilities and future directions – Harry Kuchah

Apart from a brief stint volunteering at my old primary school when I was 18, and two months at a primary school in Borneo, all of my teaching has been at private language schools, where the largest classes had 16 students. More than half of the classes I’ve taught have had fewer than six students. The majority of the reading I do about ELT deals with similar situations, with the occasional diversion into primary or secondary contexts with up to forty students. I always knew that this was not the reality for many teachers and thought it must be very difficult to teach huge classes, with little chance of seeing progress in your students. Until Harry Kuchah’s plenary on the final day of IATEFL, I never really understood how teachers managed in this situation. He had an inspiring and positive message, and one which I hope to see more of at future conferences.

Harry was the recipient of a Hornby scholarship to study an MA in the UK in 2006. He learnt a lot, but it wasn’t always easy to apply to his context. Even the ‘difficult circumstances’ described in the literature he read were a far cry from his context. He’s from Cameroon, a country with 258 languages and tribes, where French and English are the mediums of instruction. As well as being a teacher, he works for the Ministry of Education as an inspector. The average teacher to pupil ratio is 1:72. It used to be 1:125! This doesn’t take into account the fact that subject teachers teach consecutively, not concurrently, so the maths teacher and the English teacher count as two teachers in the ratio, even though they will actually teach classes that are twice the size (125 each, not 63) one after the other. Many teachers also prefer to stay in urban areas, so rural classes are larger too. Seven or eight students share a single textbook, and three or four sit at a desk designed for two. The ‘Education for All’ movement has led to an increase in the number of pupils at schools, but no corresponding increase in the infrastructure available to educate them. Other initiatives from the ministry, mainly due to the offer of finance from interested third parties, have meant that teachers are constantly required to change their methodology: there have been 12 required changes in pedagogy since 2000, almost entirely influenced by Western pedagogy. It’s impossible to keep up with this rate of change. Teachers are constantly told that they need new training, but there is little or no acknowledgement of the effort they put in. There is severe danger of burnout.

In Harry’s classroom he had 235 teens in a classroom designed for 60. Temperatures regularly reached 46 degrees. Through a process of negotiation with his students, they decided to move outside, and started to have lessons under the trees. They decided that the best thing would be if all of them became teachers, and they worked collaboratively to help each other. His children didn’t have books, so they found texts and produced their own materials. As the teacher, Harry’s role was to check that the texts students brought to him were relevant to the syllabus. You can find examples of the materials he used and his students created on the IATEFL site, for example, a poem they wrote based on Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I’d highly recommend looking at them: in most cases, the first text is the sample, and the second is what the students produced in response to it, often with much longer and more complex language as they enriched their texts. Another idea was to take pictures students drew in response to a text in one class into another class, with the second class writing original texts based on the pictures. During the plenary, Harry showed us a video of one of his students telling a story based on these pictures: as well as the complexity of the language the child produced, what particularly struck me was the noise of the class. I find it hard to imagine being able to concentrate, having come from the luxury of quiet environments. The materials the students created served as a diagnostic tool for ‘accuracy therapy’ (I love this metaphor!) Harry published his story with Richard Smith in 2011.

English is the life-giving language for many people in the world.

Learners are partners. We can share the burden of low resources with the students, no matter how young they are.

Based on his own experience and the lack of correlation with what he had studied on the MA, Harry decided to do more research. The changes in pedagogy which teachers had imposed on them were confusing and often irrelevant to their context.

Context-appropriate pedagogy needs to be developed across the world.

Harry defines this as:

  1. The aspects of practice which are considered good by teachers (and students, I think – didn’t have that in my tweet!)
  2. Doable within that context
  3. Worth doing within that context

In order to facilitate the development of a pedagogy which is appropriate to the situation in Cameroon, Harry asked teachers and students for their opinions about good/appropriate practice within their context. He conducted interviews with teachers and students, observed classes, and videoed lessons which teachers felt were successful. As a follow-up, he watched the videos in workshop groups with 30 teachers, and fed in information from his interviews with students too. It was the first time this kind of discussion of learning had taken place for any of these teachers or students, and it had a very positive effect, since it emerged that teachers and students didn’t always agree about what was ‘good’. This was an eye-opener for some of the teachers, and led to changes in their approach. For example, one teacher believed that group-work would be too chaotic in his class of 87, then saw a video of it happening in a class of 120, with the children saying how much they got out of it, and was inspired to try it out. Another teacher said they used to underestimate their pupils, but realised they could do more than they thought because of the workshops.

Many of these practices also contrasted with what was recommended by the Ministry of Education, and Harry saw a huge difference between the lesson plans he was given before the class and what unfolded in front of him. Teachers told him that they write the plans to satisfy requirements by following the model they are told to use, but this is rarely what they do in class. The challenges they faced and the huge rate of change meant that many of them employ ‘survival teaching strategies’, which often do not respect the recommendations of the ministry.

Harry believes that teachers are more likely to accept pedagogic innovation when it is seen to come from their colleagues and/or their context, rather than being imposed from above. As a result of this, he is now working with the teachers of the Cameroon teaching association, CAMELTA, to do ‘teaching association research’. After a plenary, 170 teachers wrote three possible research questions each. Working with the IATEFL Research Special Interest Group (RESIG), a questionnaire was created on the basis of these questions and sent out to teachers in CAMELTA, asking for one problem the teachers face in their classroom, solutions they have tried, and whether they work. The idea is to build a bank of knowledge specific to the context which other teachers can draw on. This is still in progress, but they already have 504 responses, with more coming in all the time. The teachers involved feel a sense of ownership, and are participating in research and building knowledge in a way that they wouldn’t have time to do as individuals.

In conclusion, we need to:

  • Create an enabling environment, rather than just telling teachers what to do and how to do it;
  • Incorporate the perspectives of both teachers and students;
  • Negotiate the divergence between these perspectives through critical reflection;
  • …and last, but not least: Focus on the positives and appreciate teachers’ efforts.

Harry’s slides and handout are available along with the session details on the IATEFL online site here. Again, I would highly recommend watching his plenary yourself:

Talk English: from CELTA to volunteer ESOL in South Africa – Julie Douglas

The third talk I went to connected to Africa was about a volunteer teaching project helping .

Julie and one of her colleagues did the CELTA at IH Durban in 2005. At the end of the course, they discovered that many of the students who were coming to the free teaching practice classes wouldn’t be able to continue studying English because they couldn’t afford it. With the support of IH Durban, they started offering free classes to anyone who wants them, particularly refugees who need English to start their new lives in Durban. This has developed into a project called Talk English, which has gone from strength to strength, but still needs the support of as many volunteers and financial backers as possible. You can find out more and donate through their website.

Taken together

These three talks have changed my vision of how English teaching is done in Africa. I wish all three of the speakers continued luck with their projects. I fully intend for my future Kiva loans to go to Camfed projects. I would like teaching association research to take off as context-specific methodology is sorely needed in so many places. Finally, I hope that Talk English finds the permanent location it is searching for and the money to fund it.

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Comments on: "IATEFL Manchester 2015: Africa" (3)

  1. Excellent summaries of these talks, Sandy. You have really captured the essence of the message for those who couldn’t be there but also for those who were present as it is difficult to take such explicit notes and listen at the same time. Thanks for this, they are a valuable contribution to the Manchester conference.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] minus Harry Kuchah’s excellent plenary (you can find a great summary by Sandy Millin here) and Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry reading. For both of these I simply listened and […]

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  3. […] found Harry Kuchah-Kuchah’s plenary fascinating a couple of years ago, and wish I could have found out more about how their teacher […]

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