Have you ever tried to alter someone’s opinion on how to do something? Something they have been taught to do and told that it is the best and really, the only way, to do something? Changing a mindset is not easy.
I have been in Tanzania, working at a rural secondary school for nine months now. One of my many tasks has been to make a monumental shift in how education is taught at our school. I say monumental as I am trying to help my teachers see that “teaching-to-the-test,” and copying and memorization are not enabling comprehension, but rather creating, year-after-year, students that do not have a depth of knowledge or the tools to understand the world. They are thus unable to use their education to problem solve, look at or analyze issues/concerns from different perspectives nor see how they can make a positive change in their own lives, let alone in their country.
Back in September, I designed a few mini-workshops focused on shifting away from the government regulated, teacher-centered style. My thoughts were that if I could help the teachers learn how to create a spark that asked students to question and ponder, and actively engage their students in interactive learning, their classes would become much more interesting and their students would have a greater depth of comprehension. And because in Tanzania the main focus is on testing as a gauge of understanding, these methods would ultimately enable students to actually do better on the tests.
I explained that asking an open-ended, “big essential question,” at the beginning of a unit would spark student curiosity. I showed them how to start a lesson, how to spend less time writing/lecturing and how to build student-centered activities that required the students to question, discover and find resolutions without being told the answer. And I shared strategies for informally assessing students to ensure all were learning and then to re-teach those that needed extra support.
I was feeling pretty good about my efforts. Then in November, I worked with the teachers on year-long planning. I wanted them to come back in January (the beginning of a new school year) with all their courses outlined for the year and their first unit’s daily lessons planned. This would then allow them to start the year relaxed. They would easily implement the myriad of ideas I had given them (and continued to provide) as was appropriate and possible.
If I had flown away in December and not returned, I would have patted myself on the back and told myself “well done!” But the reality was and continues to be, not that simple.
Altering Life-Long Learning
Five weeks into the new year, I find myself very frustrated and uncomprehending as I witness uninspiring lessons, and devoid of energy teachers. Exactly the opposite of what I was expecting.
Some of the teachers have been doing their best to interpret my strange ideas and implement as best they can. But most are overwhelmed. Many have defaulted to distributing the notes (instead of writing them on the board) and then asking the students millions of questions. Students then search for the answers in the handouts and read what has been written by the teacher, to the teacher, who applauds them. This often consumes the entire class period. The teachers that are defaulting to this method are bored and feel over-worked. Deeper learning and comprehension are definitely NOT happening. What have I done?
Every night I go home exhausted. I’m trying to be in everyone’s classroom at the same time, as well as outside the classroom supporting teachers as they lesson plan, etc. (this is also only about 2/3’s of my job responsibilities). But I have not taken seriously enough (even though I often say it out loud) that making this monumental shift in teaching pedagogy will take time and that this is understandable.
The reality is that the teachers are as much a product of this government’s education system as the students they teach. Teachers were taught to teach rote memorization. They learned that a good score on a test (that you memorized the answers to) is a sign of good learning and a worthy person.
The Risk Takers
But there are a couple of teachers that are actually exploring the odd (yet proven!) ideas I have shared and are actively reaching out for my support. They are researching ideas on the internet, reading blogs and looking for alternative ways to add interest to their classes. They are attempting “the big essential question,” spending much of their class period with student-centered activities, etc. And guess what? They are smiling – both teachers and students. Their collective energy and excitement for what they are learning radiates from the classroom. It is thrilling to see the change.
So, I have hope.
While I want all the teachers to drastically change – Immediately – I know this is such a ridiculous expectation. I need to step back and remember that most of the teachers have not ever really been on the internet (or at least used it as a resource). They were led to believe that they are experts in their field and students that question them are disrespectful. Continuous learning to gain a wider base of knowledge is unheard of. Since they passed the exam, they could teach – as long as they wrote the information provided by the government on the board and the students copied and memorized it, all would be ok.
My workshops, that basically debunked that life-long learning, were fun, but not applicable. If your mind is set on the fact that you already know everything, why change?
Changing a mindset is not something that happens after a month of PD (professional development). Nor does it happen quickly when the tools you have been taught to use (once) are ones you have not ever seen or used yourself prior to the PD (ie. how to search for resources on the internet). And then there is the level of English comprehension. If you are not a high-level speaker/reader/listener in English and yet all the resources being offered to you are in said language, the challenge to actually utilize the resources quadruples.
I have allowed my US-born and educated self to expect from the teachers following my workshops and hands-on guidance to immediately become curious, creative, outside-the-box thinkers. How unfair is that?
What this all means is that my expectations must be more appropriately leveled. Patience is a virtue – Right?
The problem is I can’t really go back now and suggest to change just one aspect of a lesson. It all needs to change so our students reap the benefits of a more interactive, hands-on education immediately.
So What’s My Plan?
More one-on-ones – more patience – more allowances.
Right now I really need to rebuild some confidence in the teachers. My expectations may have stifled their ability to even try – at least for some. So back to slow-burn mode. I never should have allowed myself to leave it.
The kids here are at Mungere Secondary School deserve the absolute best that we can give them. They have such potential. So – I continue to make mistakes, but I learn, regroup, and reteach and keep the faith that I know positive change will happen. The teachers here are very capable and I just need to learn how to best share my knowledge so that it is understandable and implementable.
Meanwhile – I promise to keep trying to have more patience, more understanding, more ideas on how to explain myself, more, more, more…. so that I can make a positive and lasting impact.