Incredibly excited that Edutopia has published a synthesis of our observations about education!
You can check out the article here: https://www.edutopia.org/article/lessons-learned-from-great-schools-around-world-will-minton
Incredibly excited that Edutopia has published a synthesis of our observations about education!
You can check out the article here: https://www.edutopia.org/article/lessons-learned-from-great-schools-around-world-will-minton
After hours of driving on sporadically paved roads, we parked in a small and remote village. The stars were brilliant above and the air was quiet enough to hear the chewing of a water buffalo in a nearby pen. We turned a corner and there was this circle of light lined by the silhouettes of children. They each had a small notebook and a pencil and looked curiously at us as we approached. The children here spend their days taking livestock to graze, but for the past six months they’ve been assembling on this patch of cement at night to learn.
There are dozens of these night schools in the surrounding countryside, most of them much more established, and all organized by the TED Talk famous Barefoot College. Barefoot is most famous for its adult learning programs, specifically its program to train semi-literate grandmothers to become solar engineers. The women come from all over the world, and when they complete their 6 month training they return home to solar electrify their villages. The women I spoke with (one from Namibia and two from Colombia) were five months into their program. They all said that, at first, it was very difficult. Most of the women don’t share a common language, and the food took some getting used to. A Colombian grandmother gave me a look of surprised concern when she said, “The food. They don’t eat meat. And there’s no fish.” I asked one of the trainers what it was like on the first day. “On the first day, there is a lot of crying. They are thinking too much about their husbands or their children, and they are missing home. We do a lot of hugging and watching to make see who is not eating. But after two weeks most of them are OK.”
But the women talk about these early challenges as distant memories. When I asked how they felt about what they had learned, their faces lit up in flashes of joy. One Colombian grandmother looked up from her screwdriver and circuit board to explain, “For me, to learn something like this at this stage in my life. It’s something to make me very proud.”
This kind of pride is found all around Barefoot. There is a disabled man who trained to become a blood pathologist and now runs tests for thousands of people in nearby villages. There is a Barefoot dentist who was trained informally by an Italian dentist during her six month visit. She now does regular exams, fills cavities, and educates children at the night schools about dental hygiene. The entire complex was designed by a Barefoot architect. He was awarded a national award but refused to accept saying that he was just one of many people who came together to make the new campus a reality. None of these people have any formal credentials. In fact, there is a general disregard for ‘paper’ qualifications and the stuffiness that comes from people who hold them.
A morning meeting of the staff at Barefoot College
Barefoot is a living testament to the wisdom and capacity of poor people. It’s a statement against those who think solutions need to be imported to places like these. I asked the Barefoot architect how he learned to design buildings if he never studied. “From each other,” he said.
Of course, efforts here are not always easy. A long-term volunteer told me that, after being here a while, people started to open up to her about how for every success Barefoot has had there have been 5 or 10 failed attempts. But what allows people here to keep going is that these are their ‘failures.’ Missteps can be treated as learning experiences. There is a palpable sense that Barefoot is an institution of, by, and for the people who live here and in the surrounding villages. This feeling of self-determination is powerful and ripples out to the culture of the night schools as well.
When we left the night school, we couldn’t help contrasting it with what we had seen in rural schools in Malawi. In Malawi, the attempts at education took the form of imitation. Once they had the appearance of learning (a physical school, teachers, desks, uniforms) there was pride that education was happening. But the reality was far different. Students weren’t learning much of anything in the classes we saw. Here they had none of these things. Children were circled up on the ground outside in the same clothes they wore all day. But they were engaged. They knew that this space existed to serve them and curriculums were adjusted to be more relevant to their daily lives. Children led each other through phonics drills and corrected the teacher when he made ‘mistakes’ in his multiplication tables. Hours away from any city and kilometers from formal electricity, in a circle lit by solar powered lamps that were engineered by semi-literate grandmothers, children were sitting and eager to learn. I asked them what they enjoyed the most about night school. “Everything,” they said. It was beautiful.
When we walked into the Teach For India office, Elizabeth and I almost felt like we were home. We were introduced as Teach For America alums and former staff members, and the TFI staff greeted us like old friends who were eager to catch up. We didn’t know these people, but we felt connected by a common passion and set of values.
Over the next several days, we couldn’t avoid comparing what we were seeing with the organization where we’ve spent much of the past 10 years. We knew that TFI had borrowed a lot from TFA, but we were eager to explore the ways TFI had charted its own course. We wanted to know what TFA might be able to learn from its sister organization on the other side of the globe.
Several things stood out to us, but the one that made the biggest impression was TFI’s institutional commitment to student voice. We first noticed it when Sanaya was explaining how the Maya program (which we wrote about here) came about. TFI staff kept pushing their teachers to go beyond basic academics with their students. They urged them to focus on values as well and to help students develop leadership skills. The teachers agreed that these things were important, but they didn’t know how to translate this advice into action. Teach For India realized that they didn’t have a clear idea of what their advice meant either. So they decided to have a staff member create a program for students to figure out what this could look like. It worked. Maya has been successful and every TFI teacher I asked about it has spoken about how inspiring it is. Now TFI is trying to add a staff position dedicated to student voice in each of their regions. That’s a TFI staff member whose only role is to work with students to provide a model for teachers on what values based leadership programs can look like.
The next time we noticed how serious TFI is about student voice was when they invited us to participate at their Education Innovation Weekend. The three day conference led teams of staff members and teachers through a Design Thinking sequence to develop ideas to improve education in Pune, India. Each team also included one secondary school student, and their perspective was taken very seriously. Often the student voice ended up being the most influential at the table.
The adults in my group were having a heated debate about why most children didn’t enroll in secondary school. Eventually we calmed down and asked the student with us why many of her friends didn’t go to school. She told us matter-of-factly that it was because their parents would rather they find a job and earn some money. Later on, a girl from another group added a layer of nuance by explaining that parents didn’t respect the quality of the education offered at the government schools. The confidence in their assessments grounded us. These two comments became the foundation for the proposal we eventually submitted.
Individuals at Teach For America are passionate about student voice as well. This is something people can get quite emotional about. But at TFA, there is hardly ever the institutional commitment to student voice that we saw at TFI. There are no staff positions dedicated to student voice. Staff members rarely, if ever, work directly with students.
Students are common at Teach For America events. If the event is at their school, they might help with setup or with registering people as they arrive. If it’s a larger conference, there will certainly be some kind of performance by students. This type of involvement can be a valuable experience for students, but it is also scripted. I have never seen students given the opportunity to be active, unscripted participants at a TFA event. I can only imagine that, if they were, their voices would prove just as valuable to the dialogue as they did here in India.
TFA knows student voice is important and they try to prioritize it by providing professional development to teachers about why it’s important. TFI realized that this alone isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s time TFA does too.
For the record, I in no way mean this as a ‘criticism’ of TFA. I’m offering these observations with an understanding that TFA is an organization that’s deeply committed to continuous improvement and always eager to hear new ideas.
A young girl speaks up first: “Before Maya I wasn’t confident in how I talk with people and I wasn’t sure what my life would be like in the future. But Maya has given me the chance to say ‘Yes, there are lots of things to do in life.’” The kids around her nod and smile. All of the children in the circle are between 11 and 15 years old, and they all come from very low-income communities in Pune, India. In 2014 they were part of an original musical called ‘Maya’ that they performed for over 10,000 people across India.
Another student speaks up, “What Maya was for me, it was a platform for us kids to figure out, ‘what is our light,’ and what is our potential, and how can we use it in different ways, to help other kids or spread the knowledge that we have… I have grown in Maya. My confidence has increased. Now I can talk to people with more confidence…” Most educators would be glowing with pride if their students spoke like this, but Sanaya, the facilitator, has heard this all before and she doesn’t seem impressed. She cuts into the dialogue, “OK, I’m going to push you a little more. All of your confidence has increased. None of you spoke earlier, all of you speak now. What else?” A murmur of giggles rises in the circle and Sanaya looks up to Elizabeth and I, “At the beginning, they didn’t speak more than a few words of English. They were quite shy. They didn’t have opinions and if they did, they were afraid to voice them.” She looks back to the students, “OK, beyond that?”
The students don’t miss a beat. A young boy speaks up, “If we don’t know something, we used to leave it. We used to not ask about it. But after Maya, we learned to ask ‘Why?’ If we’ve been taught something we ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ or ‘What is the reason behind this?’ The reasoning skills that we have, have increased.”
Another girl chimes in, “I’m more aware of the things that I want to do in my life and the things that I did wrong. Maybe I’m a little confused about things, and about what’s happening in my life, or around me. But I’ve started thinking more about what’s going on around me. I’ve started to become more wise. Now I ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”
Maya is a program of Teach For India, an organization similar to, but distinctly different from, Teach For America. Maya came about because TFI kept telling their adult fellows that they should focus on values and expose students to experiences in addition to academics. The trouble was that they didn’t have any real examples of what this meant. TFI decided to start a program dedicated to values development and student voice. At about this time, there was a fortuitous introduction to someone connected to Tony Award winning talent from Broadway. The arts seemed like a good place to start and the idea for Maya began to form.
The results are unquestionable. Not only did the students eventually perform an original and elaborate musical (about Maya, a princess who fights to bring light back to her kingdom and, in the process, finds the light inside herself) but their academic test scores ended up over 50% higher than other TFI students across the country. Maya did have a minor academic component where they would break down vocabulary and discuss the musical’s script as a text. But there wasn’t nearly enough time dedicated to this type of discussion to account for a 50% difference in test scores.
The students in Maya talk about the group as a family. They highlight the importance of trust and the fact that their individual voices are valued. It turns out that when young people feel part of a positive peer community like this, it has an immeasurably powerful effect that ripples through every other part of their lives.
Too often we treat children like they are rational systems. We have a goal for them, like academic success, and we push them toward it in a narrow and prescriptive fashion. We want them to be motivated because it makes sense for them to be motivated. But children are not rational beings. They are emotional beings. To find the fire of self-motivation they need emotional experiences. Some students can find this emotion inwardly and nurse their motivation in isolation. But the vast majority of young people need programs like Maya to set the spark that will help them find their ‘light.’
“You should ask them about their apprenticeships” suggested Melissa, the dynamic English teacher who had let us take over her classroom for the period. We had been asking the Swiss students our usual questions. With some shyness, they had just shared that, if they could change anything about their school they would have less homework.
“What type of apprenticeships will you have next year?” we asked. One student, sitting up straighter than before, said he wanted to be a businessman and would be apprenticing at a bank three days a week. The other two days, he would take classes in English, German, and economics. “And how much will you earn?” asked Melissa. We had no idea the apprenticeships were paid. “800 euros per month for the first year,” the student replied with a smile, “but I don’t know how much for the second and third years.”
Other students in the class proceeded to tell us about their apprenticeships. One student will apprentice with city government, another in computer science, many in business. All spoke with confidence and excitement about this next stage of their lives.
There is a marked difference between the type of responsibility expected of students in Switzerland and the United States. In the US, we often mistake compliance for responsibility. Students act “responsibly” when they decide to follow directions – getting to class on time, cleaning up after themselves, doing their homework, etc. While complying with rules does build good habits (rules are there for a reason), it does not actually transition our young people into adult decision making.
Swiss schools, in contrast, give students responsibilities in preparation for adulthood. They are required to make judgments that will affect not only their present classwork, but their future jobs and economic stability. This seems intimidating, but it’s not if responsibility is released gradually. At The Ruggenacher School, teachers and administrators ready students for the transition to apprenticeship by requiring them to manage 7-8 hours of independent work time each week and plan their own large-scale social events. When students falter, grown-ups provide support. Students are trusted – not only with their behavior, but with preparing for their life paths. This builds confidence, empowerment, and investment in school. It communicates to students that they are about to become contributing members of society and they are trusted to learn, and be strong, and do the right thing.
We also visited Gymnasium Unterstrasse. At this school, most students are preparing for university rather than apprenticeship. Even so, teachers and administrators trust them to make real life judgments. Students plan and attend a week-long ski retreat every year without any adult supervision. “Aren’t you afraid something will happen?” we asked the headmaster.
He said there is always the risk of an accident, but students have been trained to know what to do. Every four years the adults at the school turn the building over to the students and allow them to run the entire school for three days – including all teaching, administrative tasks, and building management. It has always gone well.
At both schools, teachers and administrators prepare students for their responsibilities. Ruggenacher provides students with apprenticeship application support. They have a special program to prepare students who are not yet fluent in German or are weak in math. At Unterstrasse students receive specific training in the jobs they perform when adults are not present. This gives students confidence that they can handle the responsibilities they are given.
It’s a common teenage-ism in the US to be waiting for real life to begin, to be itching for the real world. Schools have the opportunity to induct students into the “real world” and adulthood earlier, and more gradually, building investment in the lessons they learn today because those lessons will come into swift practice tomorrow. While many of our thirteen year olds are still required to walk in line to lunch, Swiss students of the same age are planning their careers. It is hard to let go of control, especially in today’s climate of high stakes testing. But gradually trust students with more, and we may be surprised at the investment, empowerment, and adult-teenager relationships that develop.
Olaf and I were wrapping up our time together when I asked him a final question, “What makes an excellent teacher?”
“There is not ‘the excellent teacher,’” he said. “There is the teacher who can make a connection with the students. The student has the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ He can be hard, he can be loud, but the student always has to have the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ This is the relationship piece.” He went on to add that the teacher should know their subject and how to make it exciting. They should know ‘how we talk’ at the school, and they should add insight to school discussions. But it was clear that the relationship between students and teachers was the keystone for everything else.
As soon as Elizabeth and I decided to focus this trip on education, we knew that we had to go to Switzerland. According to the last PISA test (talked about here), Swiss teenagers are both the happiest and highest performing students in Europe. We would have been happy to visit any school, but we were lucky enough to be invited to Ruggenacher, which had recently been nominated as one of the best schools in Switzerland.
Olaf, the school principal, picked us up from the train in his Nissan Leaf. During the short drive to the school, we made small talk about our trip and the unusually warm weather. Once in his office, he gave us some materials and started to explain the approach of the school, “We think the most important thing is to have a good relation from teacher to student. If there’s a good relation, and if teachers are in their topics very well, then we have a good school. That’s the bottom of our thinking.”
Switzerland is known for its affluence and this is one of its best schools so, we were somewhat surprised to learn about Ruggenacher’s demographics. The majority of the students are working class and over half are from immigrant families. Olaf spoke as much about the supports offered to students who act out or fall behind, as he did about anything else. On the way back to the train station, he told a story about a representative from PISA who came to visit. He asked the man about how he can tell if a school is good or not. “It’s all in how a school treats the bottom 10%. That is everything,” he said.
Now, I’ve heard lots of schools talk about the importance of relationships, but how this priority actually looks in a school can be a tricky question. I asked Olaf what they do to make sure relationships are a lived priority in the school, not just words in a vision. He was quick with examples.
It’s true, we could feel it. The students at Ruggenacher are no different than students at any other school we’ve visited, but unlike students at schools with similar demographics they feel that school is for them. They feel that school is on their side, and they feel this way because of how they are treated when they’re there. Relationships are a priority and the systems of the school actually reflect that priority. Of course, there are other factors in Ruggenacher’s success and we’ll talk about them in future posts, but positive relationships, Olaf insists, are the foundation of everything.
One of the first things ‘Love Support Unite’ did when they began working with the school in Mkunku village, Malawi was to create a women’s group. They had noticed that women didn’t speak up in the larger community meetings so, they wanted to create a space where women could share their thoughts and experiences. Here women could support one another and speak freely about taboo topics such as sexual abuse and their role in the community.
After the women’s group was established, the organizers at Love Support Unite noticed that women began to speak up more in the larger community meetings. At one meeting, there was talk about new construction related to the school. The male leaders declared that the women would carry the water necessary to make the bricks. In the past, this sort of direction went unchallenged. But on this day, the women spoke up. They said that only some women would carry the water and stipulated that they would not do so during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. The men would need to adjust their schedules around what the women were willing to do.
I love this story. It’s a story of women standing up for themselves in a community where their voices have not been historically valued. But it’s also a story of how outsiders can believe deeply in the importance of local self-determination without sacrificing their own commitment to cross-cultural rights like women’s empowerment.
We met with Lara, the co-founder of LSU, at a small table in the eating area of our hostel. She wore a purple t-shirt and spoke with passion about LSU’s approach to their work, “The village will say, ‘We need desks for the school, can you give us desks?’ And we have to remind them that we don’t give away resources. That’s not the type of work that we do.” This frustration with the historical approach to aid in Africa was echoed by another non-profit director we met. She said, “It’s difficult to teach people to grow their own food when, the next week, UNICEF or Feed the Children might show up and say, ‘Don’t worry about growing your own food. Here’s a check, go buy some.’”
The type of work LSU does has less to do with resources and more to do with sharing technical knowledge and facilitating conversations. They bring in volunteers from England, but the community always does the vast majority of the work to keep the projects growing. Their greatest contribution seems to be expanding the community’s idea of what’s possible.
Of course, all of this work is centered around the new village school. Mkunku is operating in a context where they can’t expect anything from the government. This reality has forced the community to come together to problem solve a variety of challenges. The result is a school that’s remarkable in many ways. 1) The community built it, literally from dirt and water. 2) They are beginning to grow food to feed the students and the teachers. 3) They want to grow excess food to sell to be able to pay the teachers. 4) They are starting small businesses such as, a solar powered phone charging station and barber shop to further finance teachers and the school as a whole. 5) There are no desks, and that’s ok for now. Active engagement has a far more powerful effect on a school than material resources.
I find Mkunku a remarkable story. It’s a story that’s left me pondering the power of a community to find solutions when the possibility of resources from the government is written off completely. It has me thinking more deeply about what it means for a school to be part of a community, or more specifically, how a community can be part of its school.
Photo Credit: Emma Scarborough
Whenever we visit a school we try to make our questions responsive to that school’s unique context. But there are a few questions that we like to ask everywhere we go. This is the first in a series where we compile the voices of the people we’ve met around those questions.
First up: What is the Purpose of Education?
Miluska, Instructional Coach with Ensena Peru:
“To help form people who are sensitive to the needs of others and the feelings of other people. Also, there’s a lot of social responsibility. There are always challenges to accomplish this; the labors of a teacher, not enough time, documents… But we need to better prioritize. We need to ask what our children need.”
Elementary Teacher at SPARK Schools in Johannesburg, South Africa:
“We’re not teaching content. We’re using the content to develop skills where they can use those skills in different areas. So, yes, the content is important, but that’s not our main focus. It’s equipping students with skills and personality traits so that they can deal with conflict so that they can independently go into university and be successful. So, it’s teaching them those additional critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and using the content to drive their development with that.”
Shaun Simpson, Headmaster of Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town, South Africa:
“You often read things that say, ‘The days of the teacher as the holder of information who gives it to the kids who are the receivers, those days are over now. It’s the time of the kids engaging and the teacher being a facilitator.’ That’s the sort of talk, and I agree with that. I don’t necessarily disagree with that… But intelligent conversation requires having a little bit of knowledge about a number of things. I don’t want to be standing as a stunned interloper in a conversation thinking, ‘I’ll quickly google that thing.’ Education should give you a very broad grounding to interact, to be able to draw from different places. When you listen to intelligent people speaking, they don’t just speak about their specific area knowledge. They draw from everything to make their points. And I think we’re doing kids a real disservice if we say that, ‘We don’t need to give the knowledge. We don’t need to give them information anymore.’ We’d live in a void.”
Senora Mamani, Principal of a school in Arequipa, Peru:
“Education is the only way for children to progress, to move forward and achieve big things in their life.”
Javier, English Teacher at Domingo Santa Maria in Arica, Chile:
“School, besides giving content and showing the way, needs to be inspiring. Yes, we should be inspirational, not just informative. And we should always help develop and cultivate values, human values. We should help students see the joy of finishing work. Now, they just do it because it’s graded or to avoid punishment. We need to get students to embrace learning for its own sake. Schools should be taught how to do that.”
Mr. Bamda, Head Teacher at a rural school outside Nkhata Bay, Malawi:
“As a developing country we have problems in our villages. We need leaders who can actually lead people into doing the right things. A good leader thinks of his or her own people. What are the problems they’re facing? How can those problems be sorted out? We are looking at that. If you can entrench someone who can look at the needs of the community, the needs of the village the needs of the family, then you’ll be achieving something substantial for development.”
Shannon Watt, Head of Elementary at Southern Cross in Santiago, Chile
“To help students acquire knowledge and common social skills that will enable them to be good citizens and help this country grow… As a whole, education should be the way a country helps itself be what it is.”
These are lofty, and surprisingly consistent, ideas about education. For me, they underscore the fact that there are two seismic shifts taking place in the relationship between education and the greater world. The first shift is social. Paul Griffin pointed out at the very beginning of this trip that, schools today have a greater obligation to create community and teach character than they ever have before. People point to a variety of reasons for this: parents are working more and there are more single parent homes, neighborhoods are more isolated and community organizations are on the decline, students socialized in virtual communities are slower to learn the physical and verbal cues that are such an important part of polite interaction, and there’s a growing recognition that ‘soft skills’ are just as important for success as knowledge. In this environment, the school has become a clear center of community and an obvious place for social-emotional development to be considered in a patient and deliberate way.
The second shift is economic. CEOs have been saying for years now that, skills like critical thinking and the ability to work in teams to solve problems, will only become more central to their work in the decades to come. Managers now focus less on how to do something and more on just what needs to be done. Even entry level positions require people to be able to think creatively. People on a factory floor used to be engaged in repetitive movements, but now they must diagnose and solve problems on their own.
And so, education is changing in fundamental ways. Or rather, we know education should be changing in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, the education community tends to be more thoughtful with goals than execution. As Dee Moodley pointed out, “Listen, people always say, ‘We teach critical thinking.’ But what do you mean? How do you teach critical thinking? If you really drill down when individuals say that. No one can give you an answer… And changing seats doesn’t mean that it’s a collaborative space where the teacher is a facilitator. It could just mean that you’ve seated the kids in eights instead of twos.”
Photo credit: Emma Scarborough
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.
Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*
I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.
James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.
Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.
When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)
One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.
Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.
But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.
At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.
This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.
*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.