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    Volume 6 Issue 17 | May 4, 2007 |

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The Beginnings of Change?

Andrew Morris

Learning by doing

Hang on, there's something a bit odd going on here. The scenario is familiar enough: I'm sitting in a typical classroom in a girls' school in a small provincial town. Neat rows of students, well over a hundred of them, from Class 8. Dark wooden benches, and a blackboard that's seen better days at the end of the long narrow room. The place is swept clean and fairly well lit though, and there is an air of studious discipline. Outside the window, the traffic rumbles on, as the bustling place goes about its business this springtime morning.

I've been in five hundred classrooms like this since I started working here many years ago, so why is there this strange sense of novelty? The answer suddenly dawns on me. There is a hubbub in the class, which is an entirely new experience, and good grief, was that the sound of laughter just now? Now the girls have turned round and are working together in groups of six, sharing their ideas, genuinely listening to each other, while their young teacher walks from desk to desk checking progress. She smiles at them, and they respond with enthusiasm to her comments. And, miracle of miracles, she moves beyond the front benches and commands the entire room. Hands shoot up from the back bench every time she asks a question.

I have waited a long time to see a scene like this, and I can still hardly believe it, but it's certainly happening right here in front of me. And as I visit more and more classes that day in other schools throughout the town, I see the same scenes being played out time and again. In a co-ed class, a teacher hands out a flower to each group, who then eagerly label each part. Another teacher invites students up to the board, to measure distances, hold jugs of water and describe a syringe. The lessons are well-planned, engaging and pacey, and time, which used to stand as still as a stagnant pond, now whizzes by.

What unites all these teachers is that they are students on the one-year B.Ed course at government teacher training colleges (TTCs). This course has long been the entry qualification into the profession for teachers, but in recent years great changes have taken place. The curriculum has been entirely revamped to include a much more professional and practical approach, in place of the rather theoretical course that existed previously. Crucially, the materials used for actually running the course have been rewritten under the Teaching Quality Improvement (TQI) project. TQI has set itself the goal of reconfiguring not only the quality of teacher training in the colleges but the entire policy and infrastructure of the teacher education system at secondary level. For my part, I've been closely involved with the textbook writing teams, who have focussed on a shift from lecture-based training to a more participatory approach. Now I'm out and about seeing whether or not the new methods used in TTCs have actually impacted on the classroom teaching practice of the trainee teachers.

I set out on these visits with an open mind, knowing that change can take a long time, especially in conservative educational cultures of the type which exist throughout Asia. If I see one teacher asking students to work in pairs, or using a visual aid, then I will be happy. But as it turns out I am genuinely astonished by the degree to which these twenty-somethings have adopted the new approach and made it their own.

It's been an enormous help that they have experienced for themselves the same methods practised by their own teacher educators (as teacher trainers are known) at the government TTCs where they study. These colleges have made huge efforts in the past two years to implement the new approach, and are succeeding in significant ways.

A new dynamism in the classroom.

However, their situation is not made easier by a veritable explosion of charlatan private teacher training colleges and universities offering substandard courses for a price, and therefore easy access to a B.Ed certificate without having to put in the effort. With a few honourable exceptions, (such as in towns like Kushtia where there is no government provision), these bogus institutions are doing real damage to the state of education in this country. If you're thinking of becoming a teacher, I'd urge you to enrol at a government college every time. At least there you will get some real support, from professional practitioners.

At the schools I visit, every lesson these trainees teach is observed at least in part by an assigned teacher educator, who is on hand to give feedback after the lesson, building on what went well and suggesting constructive changes for future lessons. The relationships between the teacher educators and their charges are themselves indicative of a sea-change in attitudes. Gone are the rigid hierarchies, replaced by a more collegial atmosphere in which there is still the required amount of “sirring” and “madaming”, but, underneath the courtesies, a sense in which both trainers and trainees are practitioners in education striving towards a common goal.

Naturally, there are some rough edges to these young teachers' practice which need smoothing out, as you'd expect of any teacher in their first real classroom experience. But in general the shift from lecturer to facilitator is clear to see, and as I go from room to room, it's equally clear that this is now typical practice for these trainees, not something concocted for the day of my visit (announced only the day before). When called upon, these trainees are all able to give a considered and articulate account of the choices they have made in their lessons.

So what is the response of the students? I sit down with a small group of teenagers and press them to give me their honest reaction to this new way of learning. They strike me as being as independent and self-assured as their counterparts in any other country I've worked in. Try as I might, I can't get them to complain. “This way we can actually understand our lessons, through discussing with each other” they say, “and get the message without memorising”. Their parents, they report, are also supportive, which is crucial in a context in which guardians have, and often use, a great deal of power.

In addition to simply providing a more engaging and probably more effective learning experience, this approach is producing all kinds of side-benefits. Sure these students are probably better able now to digest the facts of this or that geography or biology lesson, but that is only the superficial gain. More importantly, under the watchful eye of their young teachers, these students are learning to think, to develop confidence in their own opinions, to be independent, and to work together with others, skills which will stand them in good stead when they leave school and enter adult life.

In this way they are fulfilling in a much clearer way the goals of any decent education policy. Education is there, after all, not only to transmit our collective social wisdom from one generation to the next, to pass on the best that's been said and done. It also exists to promote socialisation: preparing the young to work together as a society, follow its customs and achieve collective harmony, and of course to equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need for independent life and the demands of the labour market.

What I am seeing in these lessons is only a start, but it is a much better way of achieving these goals than the dry and dusty classrooms in which I languished during my early years here. There are challenges ahead, not least when these youngsters enter schools and risk having their enthusiasm squashed by more rigid senior colleagues. But in the end, this new wave may prove irresistible. Perhaps, given the right support, this could be the beginning of something very positive for Bangladesh.

The views expressed here are those of the writer.

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