As an ex-volunteer in the Voluntary Services Overseas, working in Nigeria in 1997, the VSO holds a very special place in my career.
Throughout my teaching career, traditional methods, as well as active learning and student-centred approaches have been at the centre of the classroom, the methodologies and the policies. Thinking, discussing, interacting, problem-solving…
Debbie Flowers (pictured) is now working in Ethiopia in a placement with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), where her role is to help and advise teachers to be less “chalk and talk” and encourage learners to be more participatory. Being a teacher where your students are doing these things is something she aspires to. Up until recently, she had never questioned that it wasn’t something to strive towards.
In Ethiopia, the recent boom of enrolment has shown a great promise to the future achievements of the students, but keeping the quality of education has not been possible. But how do we improve it?
The traditional teaching approach in Ethiopia, Debbie says, is indicative of a teacher-centred approach. The teacher speaks, the students listen. The teacher writes on the board, the students copy. The reality is teachers don’t know any better; this is how they were taught. So how do you improve the situation? One idea is to send a VSO volunteer with professional experience to work with these teachers to share experiences, as well as guide and train teachers in-country.
At first, Debbie was confident she could help improve the situation – “it’s easy to convince yourself of that from the comfort of your armchair at home. But once I was in Ethiopia, I had to get stuck in.”
One of the great things about VSO is you work at a local level with local people, so you immediately experience the reality of the situation, rather than idealising completely out of context. In reality, you walk into a classroom and 60 faces stare back at you of differing ages. They might have managed to find somewhere to sit, but there’s no wriggle room. There are not enough text books and when you ask a question or set a new task, you are greeted by silence – discussion is an alien concept.
Debbie says the lessons are 40 minutes long and that you see students once a week. Can you learn their names? How long will it take to judge their abilities and group them appropriately? Can you assess each student’s learning accurately? How will you ensure they are all learning and understanding, thinking and discussing, interacting and problem solving, when all they want to do is copy from the book so they can learn the answers for the test?
Of course there are strategies, and there are ways of introducing simple things to encourage students to engage and be productive. Students are so keen to learn and be given a chance. The phrase “I am a clever student” is not taboo in Ethiopia, and Debbie has heard many students say this proudly. Teachers have come rushing out of classes, exhilarated by a new idea that they’ve tried and saw working. They are so pleased and excited that they have learnt something new themselves.
There are also challenges when it comes to adopting active learning strategies, many of which are outlined in Tabulawa’s (2013) Teaching and Learning in Context. Not only are the conditions in the classroom difficult to align, there are restrictions from the outside. As controversial as it is, how important is it to work your students towards the end of course examination? Yes, you may want them to learn amazing life skills, but it’s their exam results that are important. And in Ethiopia, the exam results are all multiple-choice, fact-giving questions, with no reasoning, discussion or logical argument involved.
Despite the adversity, the most amazing thing for Debbie is the incredible teachers she says she is working with in Ethiopia, even in the face of low salaries, poor social respect and challenging conditions. Teachers are desperate to improve the experience for their students and to help them learn as much as possible, in the best possible way. She says;
“We need to empower them to be able to make these decisions about teaching in the most informed way possible. Not just by prescribing “great ideas” from our comfy office chairs and ignoring the societal contexts and pressures that are inherent in the culture. Instead, we need to provide support, ideas and methodologies that they may never have heard of elsewhere, in a land where resources and trainings are often non-existent and provide with them with the opportunity – and the confidence – for them to employ what is possible.”
Debbie truly believes that the quality of education has a long way to go to help the students learn and achieve and by helping teachers to encourage their students to participate is an excellent starting point. It’s not going to be an easy journey and it will take some time. However, it’s a worthwhile one and if done considerately, it will change many people’s lives for the better.
By Debbie Flowers, 27, from Watford, England, is currently on a Voluntary Service Overseas placement in Ethiopia, where she is volunteering as an English Language Quality Improvement Program Advisor in the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional Education Bureau.
To find out how to volunteer with VSO, visit http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteer