Hands-on and playful learning: this is Zambia’s education revolution

For those of us working to improve quality of education, few things are more inspiring than watching children truly enjoy their time in a classroom and learn. Last month I had the chance to visit Zambia, where the government is participating in a transformation of teaching by applying innovative methodologies to boost children’s literacy and numeracy skills. I was accompanying a delegation from the Ivorian Ministry of Education that was very inspired and can’t wait to join Zambia in their leading role in solving the global learning crisis.

By Sabina Vigani

As the sun rises over Lusaka, the forecourt of the hotel where we are staying is swarming with people. Some thirty representatives from India, the United States, Europe and about ten African countries, sent by governments, funders, research institutions and civil society organizations have converged in Zambia at the invitation of J-Pal research center and the Pratham Foundation of India. We are here for a closeup look at the educational revolution initiated by the Zambian government.

The Ivory Coast delegation consists of the Deputy Chief of Staff and the Deputy Director of Pedagogy of the Ministry of National Education, the J-PAL representative and of myself, the TRECC program Coordinator. We are heading for the Chikankata district, located 150 km from Lusaka in the Southern Province, to visit the primary schools providing a remedial program called Catch Up. This program takes its inspiration from the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) model, developed by Pratham in India since the 90s. TaRL was triggered by Pratham’s findings that a lot of the disadvantaged children in Bombay’s shanty towns, in spite of attending school, couldn’t read, write or do math.

An Indian solution for a global issue

This trip to Zambia falls at just the right time for the Ivorian delegation, because the Ministry of National Education is getting ready to pilot the TaRL approach in 50 Ivory Coast schools. Implementation will take place with J-PAL and Pratham’s technical assistance, and the project will be supported by  the Jacobs Foundation and chocolate companies Cémoi and Tony’s Chocolonely as part of the TRECC program. After a successful pilot study, Zambia is in the process of gradually generalizing the Catch Up program, with two out of ten provinces having already adopted the method. The Zambian experience is now of particular interest to other African countries facing the learning crisis. This crisis is hitting the Ivory Coast hard. According to the 2014 PASEC evaluation, 47.3 % students in the last year of elementary school still don’t know how to read. For mathematics, the results are even more disturbing: 73.1% of students are not able to do the basic calculations. How is it that the educational system can no longer fulfill its mission?

Huge fields of corn have pushed out the purple jacarandas that embellished Lusaka. Without taking his off eyes off the passing landscape, Raoul Koné, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Ministry of National Education, who has devoted his career to education, helps me put things into perspective. To understand this learning crisis, we need to go back to the 70’s and think of Ivory Coast’s televised instruction program. Raoul Koné explains that “From the outset, this program answered a concern for quality and achieved the standardization goal in the context of progressive growth in the rate of school enrollment.” He continues, “The televised instruction program was headed by a handful of qualified instructors; this meant that every child in Ivory Coast had access to high quality teaching, and made up for any weaknesses in particular teachers.” But televised instruction, with its one-way communication style, also introduced an element of rigidity as teachers mirrored it. “Teachers have lost all their autonomy and initiative in managing the classroom,” he laments. “Most of them just roll out the curriculum like automatons; under these conditions, teachers are more concerned about finishing all the lessons specified in a program than about making sure their students are really learning.”

Teachers adapt to the actual level of learners

We finally reach Kalundu’s school, which has around 700 children, from preschool to the end of the primary cycle. Taking double shifts into account, a Catch Up session takes place outside of class time, during the noon break, for children who attend school in the morning as well as for those who go in the afternoon. Mr. Lazare Golly, deputy director of Pedagogy at the National Ministry of Education of Ivory Coast, has been wondering about how to go about motivating teachers to accept sacrificing their noon break. The local educational authorities explain that no financial reward is involved, because the Catch Up session is held at a time when teachers are expected to be at the school anyway and they are keen on using their break time for this purpose.

The school’s principal explains that the Catch Up program aims to develop basic literacy and numeracy in children in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. Catch Up is based on established principles of behavior: children learn faster when teaching is adapted to their level and their teachers encounter fewer teaching issues when the children in a classroom are at a more homogeneous level. Based on these findings, Catch Up recommends that the children in grades 3 to 5 be regrouped, an hour per day, in three groups in line with their performance levels, respectively, in literacy and numeracy. Their performance level is determined using the ASER test, a practical evaluation tool developed by Pratham.

Without further ado, we join the students to observe a Catch Up session devoted to mathematics. We are immediately surprised by how the classroom space is arranged: the benches are arranged in clusters, or plain and crammed into the back of the classroom. What purpose does such a spatial disruption serve? Devyani Pershad, the head of Pratham’s international partnerships, tells us that rearranging an area reflects the philosophy of the model: “we integrate fun activities favoring learning and we promote collaboration and support among peers, letting the students work in small groups.”

Children learn in practical and fun ways

We continue to be surprised by what we are seeing. The usual dividing line between teachers and their students seems to have been erased. The children are respectful and don’t appear to be cowed by their teachers. The latter serve as facilitators: they draw upon the children’s knowledge and stimulate their intelligence, rather than having them recite a lesson. They let the children talk, rather doing the talking themselves. The teachers pay attention to all the students, rather than just the best ones. Moreover, when they reach the expected level, the best ones are invited to move on to the next higher group. That way, they can each learn by their own pace.

But what amazes us most of all is the joy and motivation the children display when they are actively engaged in the learning process. While our visit constitutes a disruption, the students are not the least bit distracted by our presence. They are completely focused on learning about units and tens, thanks to the playful, stimulating techniques the teachers are using.

For instance, the teacher asks a student to draw two big concentric circles on the ground with chalk. He then gives a second student a handful of pebbles and asks him to throw them, aiming at the two circles. Meanwhile, a third student draws two columns on the blackboard, one for units and the other for tens. He fills in the units column with the number of pebbles drawn in the little circle by a fourth schoolmate, and the tens column with the number of pebbles drawn in the big circle. This helps children visualize the differences between units and tens and solidify their understanding on the building blocks of numbers.

An approach based on solid evidence

After a fine family photo with the teachers and students and a promise to invite them to Ivory Coast to continue this exchange of experiences, we head back to Lusaka. Raoul Koné is not concealing an enthusiasm that comes from seeing children confident in their abilities, because they are making progress in learning. While he is aware of the challenges that still face us in Ivory Coast, he allows himself to believe that solutions to the learning crisis are within easy reach. “What reassures me about TaRL, he explains, is that there is a lot of evidence demonstrating how effective the solution can be when it is properly implemented. We are going to do whatever it takes to corroborate these insights in Ivory Coast so our children can complete the first cycle with solid basic skills.”