Malawi as a country is often overlooked by those keen to travel to southern Africa, which is why I’m delighted to report that Angela Sacha will be visiting it this month, and that I’ve had the opportunity to interview Rachel Ormrod, a friend and teacher who first visited it five years ago, and who more recently spent time there establishing an education project which she designed as part of her PGCert in NGO and Development Management.
Since Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa, the education system is less developed than a lot of other surrounding countries.
‘I designed this education project which my tutor then persuaded me to put into practice. The aim of the project was to improve children’s literacy, with a particular (but not exclusive) focus on English. From the fifth year of school, everything in Malawi is delivered in English – maths, science, life skills, everything – even though that’s not their first language, so this can be a barrier to them accessing the rest of the curriculum. Often, even the teachers struggle with the language.
‘At first I felt a bit uneasy about the idea of flying out to Africa and teaching an ex-colonial language. I wanted to empower people, and this seemed counterintuitive. It seemed like it would be better just to campaign for pupils to be taught in their first language, but aside from the fact that Chichewa isn’t the only first language spoken in Malawi, higher education and employers will often only hire people who can speak and write in English as it’s the language of much international business and trade, and it has a wider vocabulary. Also resources such as books and internet content are limited in Chichewa. Maybe creating strong bi-linguists will help address this over time.’
Rach went on to say that whilst she believes in preserving first languages, the reality of it is that to learn Chichewa alone probably wouldn’t serve Malawians economically or academically well, and that most of the people she met were keen to learn English.
‘So after a lot of deliberation, I reached the conclusion that the most helpful thing was to share what I could about English as a native speaker but also concentrate on effective teaching strategies which would help with learning in any language or subject. I knew it would be beneficial to encourage more interactive lessons – using visual aids and games so children understand concepts better – because from what I had found from my time in Malawi before and in my studies, was that the teaching tends to be very rigid, largely just copying notes from the board or chanting phrases for the entire lesson.
‘When I got there, I found that teachers were eager to embrace new ways of doing things. I spent a lot of time observing their lessons and as the course went on I saw incredibly positive changes in their style of teaching.’
Starting by running sessions with representative teachers from five different schools, Rach’s hope, first and foremost, had been to create a platform for teachers to be able to discuss their ideas.
‘I wanted to facilitate teachers in discussing their problems and potential solutions, going away to try them out and then regrouping to discuss further. The reality was different. They didn’t seem to have the confidence or creative experience to draw upon. It seemed that they expected me to teach and they would listen. Perhaps this is what they had been used to in their training.’
She went on to explain that whilst this was a little uncomfortable at first, it provided in itself a chance for her to model some interactive teaching strategies and to introduce a bank of activities which over time some teachers have begun to adapt to suit different topics and abilities. Slowly, they grew in confidence and these one-sided sessions turned into group discussions.
‘By the end of my time there, they had created a song for learning letters and sounds, and they now have a huge bank of vocabulary cards with pictures on that can be used for explaining concepts and for sorting and sentence-building activities.’
Her project was not only to teach teachers new skills and knowledge but also for them to pass these on to their colleagues.
‘I wanted it to be sustainable after I left. My aim was to work with a few teachers from several different schools, equipping them to be able to go and train their colleagues; establishing the position of subject leader in the staffing structure, so there’d always be someone responsible for literacy and for sharing good practice, whether they stayed or had successors.
‘Part of the course was getting them to observe each other. I was training them up to be mentors to other teachers and part of this involved observing and giving feedback to their colleagues. It’s a real skill to be able to mentor someone and give constructive feedback, particularly in an environment where it’s not usual to give your colleagues advice.
‘To start with, I went into the schools to observe lessons with other literacy leaders. After the lesson we’d compare feedback, so I’d check that they were noticing the right kind of things and then we’d give feedback to that teacher. Then we moved to two literacy leaders observing together and now they’re at the stage where they’re observing on their own. The majority of staff have welcomed this and the literacy leaders have a waiting list. Even the head-teachers have asked to be observed!
‘We are already starting to see an impact at this early stage, including better attendance in some classes now that lessons are more interesting and improved test results in others. It’s an encouraging start to a long process.’
Rach told me a great deal more about what it’s like to live in Malawi. ‘It is a beautiful country. I met many lovely people, it’s very peaceful and there’s a lot to see in terms of landscape and wildlife as well as the chance to experience a different culture. I recommend a visit.’
If you’d like to know more about or support Rachel Ormrod’s project or are interested in visiting Malawi, please do get in touch. Angela’s back at the end of the month, and I know she would love to help.