Sunday, June 21, 2015


I began a unique teacher education project last August in Maasailand, Kenya. This blog focuses on one of the complex challenges that was evident in the classrooms and a major obstacle to providing quality education in schools across the developing world. Future blogs will talk about other key issues in the quality of education crisis and what I have learned from my first hand experiences in Kenya and Ethiopia. 

Kindergarten Kimuka Primary School, Maasailand, Kenya 

Picture this. You are five or six years old. You could be living in a rural part of Kenya or in any other country in the developing world.  Your mother tells you today is the day you are going to start school. As she gives you the shirt, sweater and skirt that your older sister wore when she started school, she tells you, “You will have a teacher. You will learn. School is very, very important.”

The Way to School

You walk out into the chilly morning air with your mother and follow her as she deftly makes her way around the slippery craters created by last night’s down pour. Once at the road, your Mother points and tells you, “This is the way to go. Follow the road until you see the big house I showed you.” You do as you are told. If you are frightened you do not show it. Your pace is slow but you are serious about reaching your destination and eventually the unfamiliar shoes binding your feet carry you 8 rough kilometers (4.9 miles) to the place called “school”.

The way to School

Your long, throat-parching walk had been exceedingly solitary save for the grazing goats, plodding cows and the occasional motor scooter that, most days, will blanket you in a thick cloud of dust as it zooms by. However, when you arrive at the tall iron school gate you are dazzled by the sea of children on the other side, more children then you have ever seen. Waves of them are flowing towards doors where teachers are stationed outside. Swept up, you land in a bare room with walls the color of milk. The teacher starts speaking in words, many of which, you have not heard before. You take in all the clues your young mind can comprehend. The other students are squeezing their bottoms into the rows of benches. You squish in too. 

The way to school

The teacher makes white marks on the blackish wall. She points at them, speaks, points again, no one knows what to do. The teacher speaks again, points again, you can tell from her face she is waiting for the children to repeat what she says. They finally do. You and the others follow her lead and do this many times. You don’t know it but your teacher wants you to learn the names of colors although they are not the names you have heard at home and there are no colors in sight.

As I write, the vivid image of a five-year old girl is as still fresh in my mind as if it were one of the mornings when my car driver stopped his Toyota in the midst of our jaw-jarring ride to Kimuka Village Primary School in the Rift Valley. On the days that our coordinates converged, the sweater-clad, runny-nosed Kindergartener, making her way to the same destination, stops, looks and recognizes the cheerful man behind the wheel and the Mzungu (Kswahili for white-skinned person) in the backseat. She waits for the signal to climb in.

The way to school

The little girl’s solitary hike to and from school each day, looking like a speck against a vast and rugged landscape, was and still is, incomprehensible to me - the walk is extremely strenuous and rife with serious hazards. The child, so unprotected! My mind is crowded with clashing images of my own children, at that age, blithely hopping on their school bus. My concept of a five-year old comes into question. Then my thoughts lurch and I’m stunned by a bigger picture. I’ve been working with the teachers in this child’s school. I have visited her classroom everyday for weeks now and I know that the hopes of the mother and the obedience and effort of the child are invested in a young woman with an eighth-grade education, equipped to provide little more for her students than good intentions. I know the consequences of that disconnect are enormous. 

The way to school

The way to school

The education that hopes are pinned on in the developing world is the education that is leaving 2.5 million children, who do get to go to school, without being able to read a single word by the end of third grade. (There are 58 million children worldwide who are out of school.) The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is responding to this crisis that is key to a better life and stronger economies, by planning to support up to $1 billion in activities over five years. The “Advanced Basic Education: All Children Reading” contract concentrates on improving student reading for children in grades 1 - 3.

5 year old girl at classroom door

The causes for the failure in basic education are complex and numerous and correction will require some heavy lifting. Governments will have to distribute its funds equitably to all segments of society. Teachers in developing countries will have to be paid a living wage. Beginning reading books written in the many mother-tongue languages will have to be available to all school children. Infrastructures for connectivity will have to be in place. Those are just a few of the challenges. However, a correction that is at hand is providing teachers, preferably at the preparatory level, with the models for teaching students to be thoughtful, competent readers, writers and self-guided learners. College partnerships, online interactive programs, and projects such as the one I brought to Kenya are just a few viable options for connecting and educating school leaders and school teachers.

To read more about the learning crisis in the developing world, I recommend Lant Pritchett’s, powerful book The Rebirth of Education: educating ain’t learning. 

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