One of the resolutions of this year’s National Leadership Retreat was the improvement of the quality of education in Rwanda at all levels.
It is not the first time this issue comes up for national discussion. It always does and there is an opinion about it from all quarters, from the very knowledgeable and from others less so.
It is clear that it is a serious question that needs urgent attention. But it is also evident that very often we go about it the wrong way.
Take, for instance, the way we talk about what goes on in schools, especially what goes wrong. It is all about teaching. Everything that is not right is because of how teaching is done. All the attention is on the teacher.
We do not hear much about learning or students.
In this model of education, the teacher is the active agent and the student a passive recipient or an empty vessel to be filled stuff. Because of this, our teachers are the type whose method is based on telling, and when their students have not heard because they are uninterested or their teachers are boring, they get frustrated and complain.
You hear things like, “I keep telling them this, but they still make the same mistakes.”
This is the problem. We start on the wrong premise. Education involves a teaching and learning process, with greater emphasis on the latter. Telling is not teaching. The role of the teacher is to provide situations for students to learn.
Again, we get it wrong from the base at both the pre-primary and primary school level. We regard pre-primary education, at least in the public sector, as a lower level of primary school.
And so there is a lot of teaching, drilling and instructing of 3-5 year olds.
Yet learning at this stage is more social than academic, more action, fun and play-centred than a mental activity. It is about learning how to live in a community wider than their nuclear families and the values that go with it, such as cooperation, sharing, tolerance, negotiation and so on.
It is at this stage that they begin to develop meaningful communication and language skills, which are now necessary in this expanded environment.
That is why classroom arrangement is so fluid, to permit greater interaction, comfort and space for doing things. At this level learning is about discovery, through doing, of the physical environment and relationships within it. Children learn by constructing things, dismantling them and putting them together again, or creating new structures altogether.
Another mistake: we think anybody can teach pre-primary school children. Not anybody can. It is actually one level that requires specially-trained teachers in early childhood development.
And so, if we want to expand early childhood learning (the plan is to have at least one centre at the cell level) and lay the right foundation for future learning, we must invest in training specialist teachers of infants. I don’t think we are doing enough of that at the moment or, if at all, doing it well.
The trend of emphasising teaching almost at the expense of learning continues at primary and secondary school level. Here there is no joy in learning. The fun has been taken out of it by harassed and overworked teachers, who in any case, have been educated in the same way.
Too much teaching has killed the curiosity to discover things and how they work or relate to each other.
And so, since everybody seems to be focussed on teaching as an important element of quality, we should start with the formation of teachers and change the way we train them. That will involve redefining their role.
They must begin to regard their function as that of facilitators in the learning process who probe and prod and guide their students to discovery; who respond to their curiosity and give it direction.
They should not be seen as the sole depository and dispenser of knowledge, which is where the temptation to ‘tell’ originates and dictatorial tendencies develop, both of which are not good for effective learning.
It is only then that we can awaken curiosity in our students, facilitate discovery and so nurture innovation. Innovation thrives on a mindset of adventure, challenging and even subverting existing things. That’s what our schools should be- places where seeds of innovation are sowed.
That will come when we refocus on the primacy of learning. The anecdote told of one teacher in an East African country is instructive.
It is said an inspector of schools, having sat through half a lesson of a language lesson in which the teacher had lectured expertly and the class had listened politely, their admiration tinged with boredom, passed a note to the front of the class. It read: ‘Stop teaching and let them learn’.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.