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A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

Phillip is a young man with a broad smile. He’s not a teacher, but the school where we’re sitting wouldn’t exist without him. He enjoys talking about how it all started; how he and the village chief met a British expat, named Kevin, and approached him about financing a school, “And then we needed bricks, and we could either buy bricks or we could make bricks. And since buying was too expensive, we decided to make the bricks.” He talks about how they built the ovens for the bricks, and how he contracted with bricklayers to make the buildings. And then there were issues with the government, who said they couldn’t open a school with only one building. So, they had to secure funding for a second building and make the bricks and create that building as well. Desks were built and latrines had to be dug. Phillip speaks with a smile on his face and a tone of kind-hearted ambition. When he finishes, I ask him something I ask of nearly everyone, “What are you most proud of?” He straightens his posture and smiles even more broadly, “I’m very proud because, before there was no school, and now we have a school. Now we have education.”

At first, I was enchanted by the story of the school. But as I visited classrooms and talked with students, that enchantment began to sour. I saw very little evidence that ‘education’ was taking place.

making bricks in malawi

Bricks must be stacked and burnt before they can be used in construction

I visited four classrooms. All of the rooms had students but only one had a teacher, and she was a visiting teacher from Belgium. The rest of the teachers were in the administration building, chatting and watching a Nigerian soap opera while students were left to socialize. In one classroom, I asked students to tell me something they had learned in class this week. After a bit of silence they began to stand, one at a time, “I am studying English.” “I am studying physics.” “I am studying math.” I thanked them and asked if they could tell me something more specific. After a brief silence, Mr. Bamda, the head-teacher escorting me, explained that their English wasn’t strong enough to answer that question. This struck me as problematic, since all of their national exams will be in English.

This school, about a 40min uphill walk along a dirt road from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, has a lot of advantages. There are several shelves of donated books and a room with computers (though no electricity). The school charges fees that limit class size. (It’s common at public schools for classes to expand to fifty or even ninety students per teacher, but here the largest class I saw was around twenty students.) The faculty all have college degrees and the students are so committed that, many of them travel for hours each morning to reach the school.

school resources education in malawi

The computer and resource room

Later on, I met with the teacher from Belgium who had been enthusiastically leading her class through a text. I asked what surprised her the most about education in Malawi, and she said it was the attitude of the teachers, “They will just write on the board and leave the room. They’ll give students an activity and then go watch a DVD. There is not the idea that, they have a role to play when students are working.” She was also frustrated with the prescribed English curriculum, which focuses almost entirely on grammar, identifying parts of speech in sentences disconnected from any larger context. “And they never practice speaking [English] because there is no speaking on the exam. But I don’t know how you can learn a language if you never speak it.”

I asked about student participation and she said that they’re not used to it, “You ask them what they think and they don’t know what to do, because no one ever asks them that. It’s all just listening or repeating what the teacher says.” Still she hasn’t given up, and a couple months in she has one class where students are getting more comfortable with the idea of sharing their ideas.

head-teacher school in malawi

Mr. Bamda

When I spoke with Mr. Bamda, he talked inspiringly about the need for education and the school’s goal of producing quality students who can contribute to the development of Malawi. He talked of the need for leaders in Malawi’s villages and the importance of listening to other people’s opinions. He spoke about how people need to understand that education is not just for white collar jobs but that, it can help everyone. A farmer with an education will be a better farmer than one without an education.

But it was also clear that, he hadn’t given much thought to what must be true in the day-to-day life of the school for these goals to become reality. He explained calmly that they do not choose what to teach but follow the government curriculum. When I asked what makes a good teacher, he talked mostly about a teacher’s dress. When I asked what he meant by a ‘quality’ student he described someone who has good behavior. When describing his challenges and priorities, he focused entirely on infrastructure projects like building a new administration building, houses for the teachers, a new class block, and a girls dorm*. Ideas like helping teachers to improve or creating opportunities for students, didn’t come up. At one point, he even said that he didn’t need to worry about the teachers.

When I think back to this school, my first feeling is still one of admiration. I didn’t expect to find a ‘model of excellence’ in a rural village of one of the world’s most undeveloped countries. In many ways the visit surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to imagine many communities in the US organizing to build a school from mud, water, and cement. But there is an unavoidable sadness around my reflections as well. I think about parents around the community struggling to save for school fees, and the students who walk for hours each day as an investment in their education, and I wonder what, if anything, the sacrifices will bring.

The school exists, and people seem to be content with that fact. The resources inside are confused for the learning they’re meant to facilitate. Students show up, and there is an assumption that they must then be receiving an education. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. It actually takes a lot of focused effort to turn a school building into a place where education happens.


*The school does seem to be fairly progressive in its commitment to girls’ education. Phillip explained that the motivation for this came from the international community. He also explained that while it’s OK for boys to commute, girls should live at the school because, if they live at home, they end up being tasked with all of the labors around the house and can’t get away to attend school.

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

When we’re young, we tend to think that all schools are like the ones we attend. Even as adults, people who went to well-functioning schools tend to think that all schools offer a quality education. If students who attend some schools lack basic math skills, act out in class, or have trouble decoding a text written for their grade-level, then the problem must be the student or their environment. The problem must be poverty.

But the way students are treated and what’s expected of them, varies dramatically from one school to another. Even a school’s attitude towards itself, how seriously it takes its obligation to educate, can vary drastically.

I recently visited a school in Santiago in a relatively low-income area. We arrived during a break and students mulled about in the large courtyard. When the bell rang, I assumed that we would head to a classroom but nothing happened. Students continued to loiter. Ten, then fifteen, minutes went by. My host explained that the teachers were in a meeting that was running late.

Poverty and Education Students Loitering

Students loitering after the bell has rung

Class eventually started. The teacher had all the students stand and greet him and then spent about 10 minutes hooking up a projector. The lesson’s objective was on sorting information with charts. Students ‘accomplished’ this objective by watching two commercials and sorting the problems and solutions described by the commercials into columns in a table. The teacher then spoke over a chattering room to instruct them to apply this skill to interviews they had conducted. I circulated to three groups during this part of the lesson, but none of the students could show me the interviews. The class was essentially free to socialize. When I asked if all their classes were like this they laughed and said ‘yes.’

In the late 1970s Jean Anyon conducted intensive research to see how schools that served different economic groups in the U.S. treated students. What she found was troubling but, sadly, not surprising.

Anyon observed that working-class schools mostly prioritized order and discipline. Instruction was organized around copying and memorization, while larger concepts were ignored altogether. ‘Good teachers’ were those with quiet classrooms and discipline was often enforced with sarcastic or derisive language. Students resisted this treatment by rejecting the legitimacy of the school and the relevance of the work in front of them. When students were asked if they could ‘create knowledge’ the answer was almost uniformly ‘no.’

In Affluent-Professional schools (think accountants, lawyers, engineers, small-business owners) things looked different. Students wrote essays and engaged in projects. Creativity was valued and it was emphasized that each students’ work should be unique. Consequently, students showed immense pride in the products of their work. Discipline was maintained more by influence than outright control. The teacher would regularly initiate conversations with the class about the type of behavior she should see and why. When students were asked if they could create knowledge nearly all of them said ‘yes.’*

Poverty and Education talking with students

Talking with students at the working-class school

People often say that students in low-income communities have trouble focusing or act out in class because they are mimicking the unstable environments they live in. They come from ‘broken homes’ where they can’t be expected to have learned values like respect and responsibility. But in my ten years of working with low-income communities, I’ve seen that values of responsibility and especially respect, are emphasized more, not less, in low-income communities.

I have experience teaching in both working-class and affluent-professional contexts, and I know that if I treated my affluent students the way working-class students are treated, they would rebel. They would reject my legitimacy as a teacher and, at best, put forth some minimal effort to complete the work I gave them. Later, they would then talk with their parents, who would quickly express their concerns to the principal. The principal would listen to these concerns with a great deal of respect, and I would very quickly find myself in a serious talk about my teaching strategies.

“Teachers with other ideas, systems they bring from somewhere else, they generally don’t last,” said Shannon Watt. We were talking about how the affluent Southern Cross school was able to maintain such a strong culture. I asked what she meant. “For instance, we’ve had teachers who want their class to stand up and formally greet them at the beginning of class. No. Here the teacher comes in and they may say ‘Hi,’ but there’s no formal greeting. That’s not going to work here. If a teacher tries to be overly strict it’s not going to work for the students.”

When Shannon showed me around some classrooms, I saw 4th graders solving problems with multiple different strategies. I asked a student how he completed a math problem and he jumped right into an explanation, including the reason he used a certain the method.** Later the class was asked if there’s a relationship between multiplication and division. There was a thoughtful silence. The first student response was that, ‘they both involve numbers.’ This caused a laugh, but the teacher let them think about it some more. A few other students offered answers, and soon they were explaining how knowing your times tables makes division easier. When I asked this class why they like school, almost all of them said, “Because I like learning.”

Poverty and Education southern cross

Ms. Javier, the 4th grade teacher at Southern Cross

It’s true that many students from working-class communities put forth less effort in class and act out more often than their more privileged peers. But when they do this, they are not normally ‘bringing their home life into the school.’ They are simply having normal human reactions to the way they are being treated. If anything, students with unstable home lives are those who yearn the most for school to be a sanctuary of caring and support. When schools fail in this responsibility, these young people often feel it as a kind of betrayal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that poverty is a non-factor. The effects of poverty on young people are real and can be very deep. Nor do I want to suggest that teachers in working-class schools should go into work tomorrow and pretend that they can reverse their students’ relationship to school with a new management plan. Questions about where to go from here are tricky, and I’ll explore them later in this series. For now, I’ll just say that poverty, in itself, is not the primary problem holding schools back. The way schools react to poverty, how they choose to treat students from low-income backgrounds and the stunted expectations they communicate; those are the principal problems facing education.

  • Will

*Anyon also profiled middle-class and executive elite schools. For a full description you should check out her paper. But a general overview is that middle-class teachers give students some more choice but the focus of most work is finding the ‘right answer.’ Students are more engaged but don’t feel that the content is relevant. Executive elite schools actually offer less opportunities for creativity than the affluent schools but the workload is generally much higher. There is an emphasis on ‘excellence’ and students behavior is corrected by reminding them of the ‘responsibility to succeed.’

** I also visited a 1st grade classroom where the teacher talked about how challenging it was to get students to explain their work. But she also talked about why it was incredibly important. This was interesting. The 4th graders were obviously used to explaining their work and they were quite good at it. Some people may attribute this skill to their more affluent home lives, but doesn’t it make more sense to credit this skill to the perseverance of their earlier teachers?