The Social Innovation: bridging the gap between student and teacher.
By Jessica Barratt
Talk of high dropout rates, unsatisfactory grades and school leavers ill-prepared for the job market is nothing new. But where we look for inspiration in educational reform might be changing. In his 2010 report, “Learning from the Extremes”, Charles Leadbeater suggested that, rather than always looking at the best schools and the highest achieving educational systems in the world, turning to the bottom of the pyramid might reveal the most exciting innovation from where we in the developed world can take inspiration.
Having spent the last year running a youth-led education programme in Mozambique for NGO AZLera, I have learned that inspiration can indeed come from the most unlikely places.
Ranking third from bottom in the UN’s 2013 Human Development Index, Mozambique is a country with immense resources and human potential but still riddled with poverty, corruption and the hangover of colonialism, the slave trade and civil war. The fact that five year olds are encouraged to bribe their teachers to get a good mark at school would depress even the most optimistic advocates of educational and political development. Officially, the country boasts almost 100% primary school enrollment rates in line with the UN Millenium Development Goals, and yet the huge class sizes, poorly trained teachers, lack of resources and culture of corruption mean that the average kid still faces a colossal uphill struggle in the quest for an adequate education.
And lo and behold, it was in the midst of these extreme conditions that I stumbled upon a really exciting (and low-cost) educational model.
The concept is simple. A group of young secondary school students are the young leaders of the education programme. They design and conduct a range of activities, both academic and extra-curricular, for the benefit of their peers, younger kids, and even adults.
Picture this: secondary school kids teaching pre-school and primary kids how to read and write, and basic maths, Portuguese and English classes. The younger kids love the classes – they receive that dedicated attention that is often lacking in school and at home due to oversized classes, teacher absenteeism and the million and one other things on the average family’s plate in order to get by on a daily basis. The young teacher cultivates a different, more relaxed and creative learning environment, becomes a real-life role-model and inspires the children to study more and achieve more.
In turn, I saw the young teachers literally light up as they taught, and they couldn’t get enough of it – going out of their way to fit more lessons into the timetable and recruit more kids from the poorest parts of town. They develop their own leadership, communication and entrepreneurial skills at the same time as nurturing an invaluable sense of purpose and the power to help others.
And so it followed that more peer tutoring and problem-solving sessions materialised naturally when our aspiring young teachers got a taste for how they could be of support to others and consolidate their own knowledge at the same time. In this way, they also began to value their own education more, and were motivated to aim higher in school and in life.
So, what does it take to make this happen? Just a little bit of organisation, encouragement and empowerment. Access to a classroom, a blackboard and some chalk helped, but wasn’t entirely necessary. The young teachers are given a modest stipend each month as a reward for their contribution to the work of the project, and as a first insight into a professional working experience, with contracts and specific responsibilities to fulfil – but the money is by no means their motivation for being a part of it, a secret that is only revealed after they are fully engaged.
Up and running for several years now, the programme is self-perpetuating: the young pupils learn lots both on an academic and a personal level, feel attached to the project, and that’s our next generation of young teachers right there.
Maybe they will be inspired to become teachers and contribute to the educational reform of their country; maybe not. Either way they have gained skills and insights that will stick with them forever, and already played a part in the provision of a better education for their community.
Perhaps this kind of thing happens more naturally in places like Mozambique where kids have to deal with all sorts of responsibilities from the moment they can walk and talk, and where looking out for one another is inherent in the prevailing extended family system, fostering a certain strength, resilience and social awareness that we could probably learn a thing or two from. But there’s absolutely no reason we can’t foster a similar culture in schools here too.