Elizabeth and I have a lot of experiences walking into classrooms. We’ve done it hundreds upon hundreds of times. The basics of the scene are generally the same. The teacher usually talks while students listen and take notes. Sometimes students work in groups or independently while the teacher circulates. Either way, it’s normally possible for us to find a few students to talk with. We ask students what they’re learning and if they can explain it to us. This is one of the most informative parts of any classroom visit. But at St. Andrews International School in Blantyre, Malawi our attempts at conversation were continuously foiled. The students were simply too busy working together to have time to talk with us.
We walked into a science classroom where students stood in groups of four around lit Bunsen burners. Each member of each group was focused and occupied. They were using sulfuric acid to make some kind of salt. Occasionally students would turn to each other to discuss observations or next steps and record their findings. The teacher circulated, but the only thing we heard him say was to emphasize elements of the safety protocols.
Next we were taken to an 8th grade classroom where students were preparing food. They chopped vegetables, walked around with pots of boiling water, and spoke quickly to one another. The teacher told us about the emphasis on healthy eating and about how after the pizza lesson last week many students went home and cooked for their families.
We visited a geography class where students were analyzing different methods countries use to control population growth around the world. In a French classroom, every student was engaged and the teacher consistently asked questions to put thinking on the class. When students made jokes, she laughed along with them and redirected the conversation.
We were invited to join a meeting of the heads of the math department and asked the department head about his priorities. “First you must love math. Love is contagious,” he said. “First comes love and then comes progress. If students don’t look forward to your class then you are failing. And ‘chalk and talk’ is not going to work.”
The visit ended in the drama classroom where students were finishing their monologue unit. Over a dozen students were spread around the room dressed in casual clothing (they change for drama class). Each of them was in the midst of an animated performance of their own monologue. As time passed, some would naturally pair up to offer one another feedback. At the end of class, students gathered to take turns videotaping their monologues so that, they could be sent to England for evaluation.
Like I said, Elizabeth and I have visited a lot of classrooms in a lot of schools. Sometimes we find a school where one or two classrooms have this level of student engagement, but we’ve never seen a school where the quality of engagement was so consistently high across every classroom. We were impressed, but we were also alarmed at how different St. Andrews was than the other schools in Malawi we’d seen or heard about.
St. Andrews is an International school, which means it teaches the British curriculum to the children of ex-patriots from around the world, as well as the local families who can afford it. Since the ex-pat community in Blantyre is relatively small, there are a large number of local students, but they come from the super-elite of Malawi society. Most people in Malawi make less than two dollars a day. St. Andrews costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Our experience with other schools in Malawi was very different. Most students are in overcrowded classrooms where they engage in antiquated curriculums that focus entirely on identification and repetition. They end up learning more about following directions than they do about the world. The result is an education according to one’s class. The wealthy learn to think, and the poor learn to listen.
The consequences of this reality are disheartening. Education should be the great equalizing force in a society, the foundation for development and social mobility. But the failure of this promise isn’t unique to Malawi. The way education perpetuates inequality in the United States may not be quite as pronounced as in Malawi, but that’s not saying much.
We can and should learn a lot from the quality of the learning at St. Andrews. But we can also use Malawi’s system as a whole as a window to judge our own. Do we think all students deserve access to the same educational opportunities? How many American families can afford to pay for college? What kind of country to we want to be?
For more about the different types of education offered to students of different income levels in the US and Latin America, check out our previous post about poverty and education.
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