By Ruth Naylor, CfBT, Reading.
Working as a teacher in Tanzania at the turn of the millennium, I was struck by the resilience of the incumbent culture of teaching and learning in the face of an onslaught of teacher training, new curricular materials and other interventions all promoting the adoption of “participatory teaching methodology”. Teachers would enthusiastically participate in training activities involving groups working on different training exercises at the same time. But when I asked them informally if they would consider using this method in class, they laughed and said that it would be impossible, as different students would learn different things.
In my own science classes, I would work together with the students in a participatory way to develop a description or definition of a scientific term, so the wording of the notes I gave would differ from one class to another. But when it came to the exams, any question that included that term would be answered by students from all classes with a common definition, or at least with a set of words that had similar phonetics and intonation to the “correct” definition. The “correct” definition often bore no resemblance in wording we had used in class, nor was it in the official textbook (which espoused participatory techniques so did not provide rote definitions). So where did it come from? I eventually uncovered the “yellow pages”: hand written notes passed on from teacher to teacher, student to student, generation to generation. These notes served as the most authoritative text, and were treated with an almost sacred reverence, transcribed and repeated with unquestioning acceptance and without (intentional) alteration. They were written in the format of examination questions and answers. My ad hoc class notes produced through participatory methodology did not pass muster, and students turned to the yellow pages when studying for exams.
In my PhD thesis (Wedgwood 2007) I speculated that this often tacit, but “sacred text” had gained authority partly as a result of the gap between the aspirations to have a ‘modern’ education system with ‘proper’ science and taught in English using ‘modern’ methodology, and the reality of a system where students and some teachers struggled to understand basic English, and where schools lacked books and equipment. Reliance on a sacred text was in part a survival strategy that enabled students (and teachers) who lacked access to knowledge- due to lack of books, experience and literacy English, to memorise sentences and phrases that could be reproduced in lessons and examinations. However, transmitting this sacred text had become part of an entrenched underlying culture of teaching and learning that was difficult to shift through teacher training, new textbooks or new teaching and learning materials.
This aspiration-reality gap is epitomised by curricula that race ahead of the rate of learning of the majority of students, and force students and teachers worldwide to revert to reliance on sacred texts: from “this is a pen” to “relativity is the dependence of physical phenomena on the relative motion of the observer and the observed.” Learning becomes equated with the ability to reproduce the sacred text, rather than the ability to understand, analyse, apply and manipulate new knowledge. The result is that a large proportion of students learn very little (Pritchett and Beatty 2012).
Attempts to improve learning outcomes in low income countries often look to the top performers in international achievement tests, which are often the most well resourced systems in the world. Whilst valuable lessons can be learned from these top performers, attempts to transplant their practices and pedagogies directly into low-income contexts may be doomed to failure if they do not address the underlying cultures of teaching and learning. At worst, transplanting new pedagogies can widen the aspiration-reality gap even further, perpetuating the conservative culture of teaching and learning that the new pedagogies were designed to overcome.
Wedgwood, R. (2007) Aspiration and Reality in the Teaching and Learning of Science in Tanzania. PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.
Ruth Naylor is a Senior International Consultant at CfBT, Reading.
This blog is based on an article in NORRAG News 50 on ‘The Global Politics of Teaching and Learning: The Real Story of Educational Cultures and Contexts’ – available free at www.norrag.org in May 2014. Another version of this blog appeared on 23rd April 2014 on the HEART Blog.