Lessons from Uganda

My school has links to one in the remote South West of Uganda. It’s good and places are highly coveted. We do a lot of fundraising for it, most recently paying for new dormitories. Every year we take around 20 Y11/12s over there to see the school, meet some students, observe and teach some lessons and where possible make ourselves generally useful.

No doubt there are lots of firmly held opinions on this sort of trip. Feel free to share. But what I want to focus on is what I saw in the classroom and what conclusions I drew.

Class sizes there range from about eight in the Sixth Form to 60 in Y9-11 (there is no Y7 or 8). Students sit at wooden desks in groups of three. Classrooms have no IT whatever, just a blackboard and white (only white) chalk. Walls are overwhelmingly bare. The teacher is the undoubted expert in the room. There is lots of call and response and repeat after me. There is no group work. There are very few resources. There is lots of writing, some of it for homework, and not much marking. Discipline is good. The relationships with teachers are respectful.

What struck me about much of this was its familiarity from a range of recent books and blogs. There are probably many teachers, perhaps particularly those of a “traditional” bent, who might practise or aspire to something a little similar. No gimmicky IT which takes ages to master, serves only to distract and will be superseded next year; no worksheets to slave over and jam the photocopier; no displays of work which no-one reads; no lazy group activities which benefit no-one; no personalised but ultimately pointless feedback.

Foolishly I didn’t ask whether the school has adopted this ethos of necessity or by design, but I suspect the former. The structural limitations make anything else impractical. Indeed I’m not sure how much of a trad v prog debate there would be in Uganda.

It’s different over here, though. We have better facilities, smaller class sizes and more resources. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that and neither should we use or do things just because we can. But we should be absolutely sure that if we eschew, say, group work in favour of teacher talk, we do it for the right reasons.

If you are attracted by “traditional” teaching, great. But don’t just read Battle Hymn and swallow it whole. Question it, and then read and question some other trads. Do the same for progs, and perhaps even those who claim “no best way”. Then decide on your approach, based on what you believe is best for your students.  You have the luxury of choice, so choose wisely. We owe our Ugandan colleagues that professional courtesy.

 

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