Most of the children in poor countries are failing from their schools

“You good job!” shouts Pauline Bika, when a group of school children completes the hokey-kokey. “Good job me!” His class does the chorus. Ms. Bika runs a small government primary school in Edo State, southern Nigeria. It is accessed by a dirt road that does not start outside the state capital, Benin City. There are 140 students in his school, but only three teachers. She seems both pleased and a little embarrassed to be offered a plastic chair to a visitor.

FILE PHOTO: Children perform during a drumming workshop in Lagos, Nigeria February 4, 2023.  REUTERS/Sean Senn (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Children perform during a drumming workshop in Lagos, Nigeria February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Sean Senn (REUTERS)

Despite all this, Ms. Bika’s school does have one advantage. Early last year, the state’s education ministry gave each of their teachers a small tablet with a black-and-white touch screen. Every two weeks they use it to download detailed scripts that guide each lesson they offer. These scripts tell teachers what to say, what to write on the blackboard, and even when to move around the classroom. Ms. Bika says this new way of working is saving teachers time they used to spend writing their own lesson plans—and their students are learning better, too.

This is desperately needed, because most of the education provided in most parts of the world is very poor. Many school children in the developing world learn very little, even when they spend years in the classroom. According to the World Bank, less than half of children in low- and middle-income countries can read a small fraction by the time they finish primary school. In sub-Saharan Africa, it may be as low as 10%. Experiments such as the one underway in Nigeria mark an attempt to improve things. They also face fierce opposition from critics who believe they mark a wrong turn.

Improvements to Edo began in 2018. State Governor Godwin Obaseki says poor schools are one reason youths often leave the state for greener pastures (some falling prey to people-smugglers promising a better life in Europe). Since then, the government has provided tablets and training to over 15,000 teachers. In return, they have brought new learning to more than 300,000 children, most of whom are in primary school. On any given day, students across the state receive the same lessons, as determined by the tablet.

The training and technology is provided by NewGlobe, an education company founded in 2007 by three Americans (Pitchbook, a data firm, valued the company at $250m after a funding round in 2016). NewGlobe developed its approach by running a chain of low-cost private schools, mostly in Kenya, under the “Bridge International Academies” brand. A study by academics including Michael Kramer, a development economist at the University of Chicago, found that, over two years, children attending NewGlobe’s elementary schools achieved nearly a full year of additional schooling compared to their peers at other schools. Earned equal profit.

f is for factory

Although Edo was the first state in Nigeria to strike a deal with the firm, NewGlobe’s approach has since been implemented in Lagos, the country’s largest city as well. The firm is starting operations in Manipur, a state in north-eastern India, and Rwanda. Nearly one million children are now studying in classrooms that use NewGlobe’s model – far more than in its private schools.

Although it seems to have been able to find plenty of customers, the company tends to provoke brutal arguments between teachers. Its private schools have long faced vigorous opposition from trade unions and some international nongovernmental organizations, many of whom hate the idea of ​​profit-seeking companies playing any role in education. Others see the application of mass production as a skilled, artisanal profession.

Dennis Sinolo of Education International, a global group of teacher unions, says scripted lessons “undermine pedagogy” and encourage “rote learning and exam drilling”. He says that good lesson plans are written to match local contexts and the needs of individual students. The freedom to change mid-lesson is invaluable if a lesson plan isn’t working. “There is no one-size-fits-all in teaching,” he says.

A tour of the schools in Edo provides some perspective on what is happening. There are of course many ways to badly teach a written text. But the idea in Nigeria is that they will try to make the classes more compelling. Scripts enforce instructional practices that are routine in the classrooms of many wealthy countries but often neglected in poorer ones. These include techniques such as frequent pauses in class to ask questions rather than long lectures at the blackboard, or encouraging students to try to solve a problem by talking to the child next to them.

Detailed, instructional lesson plans are also great for relieving teachers of the burden of writing their own. Advocates hope that, however, they will have to spare more energy for other jobs – such as making sure their charges keep up. Teachers in Edo were trained to lead their classes in short games and songs whenever they sensed that the students had become restless (hence the hokey-kokey). Ms. Bika says things are better than ever. Earlier, bored children would wander home sometime during the day. Inattention was sometimes punished with the cane.

The changes do more than change teaching styles. A study published in 2010 estimated that about a fifth of Nigeria’s primary school teachers were absent from their classes on any given day. Earlier research suggested that only a third of class time is used productively. In Edo, tablets register when teachers arrive. They can tell if the teacher has scrolled through a lesson faster than is appropriate, or if they have skipped a lesson. Underneath is a low-tech foundation: a team of officers—about one in every ten schools—who oversee lessons and train teachers, who are helped by data from tablets.

The depth of its script and the playfulness of its bullets served in addition to many other efforts to reform schooling in Edo. But things remain the same with a broad family of reforms to the program burdened by the unsightly name of “structured pedagogy,” most of which are less controversial. It argues that sporadic spending on goodies such as textbooks often fails to bring benefits. It seems that many levers need to be pulled at once to make big improvements. Hence the idea is to provide more material to the students and better lesson plans to the teachers along with fresh training and repeated coaching.

In 2020 a panel convened by the World Bank and other bodies concluded that these are some of the best things education reformers could spend money on. Over the years this approach has been implemented in The Gambia, Ghana, Nepal and Senegal. A program in Kenyan government schools helped increase the number of children reaching the national level in English by 30 percentage points.

e is for everywhere

But it is not only poor countries that follow a tightly structured approach to schooling. In the US, for example, there is growing awareness that schools cling to modern but ineffective “child-led” methods of teaching, which have been discarded by other developed countries such as the UK. Literacy programs that were dismissed as old-fashioned are coming back into favor.

McGraw Hill, an American publishing company, sells a series of highly scripted curriculums aimed at elementary-school children. Brian Wickman of the National Institute for Direct Instruction, a charity in Oregon, says it’s important to use the simplest, clearest language possible when teaching young children. He says that the idea that scripted lessons inevitably bore children should surprise anyone who enjoys other things that are scripted, such as drama.

Success for All, a program used in some British and American schools, puts a lot of faith in “cooperative learning” – which involves encouraging children to solve problems together in small groups. But everything that happens in its classes is structured and written. Nancy Madden of Johns Hopkins University, one of the Success for All creators, says this kind of prescriptiveness helps teachers adopt techniques that research shows work well. These include providing quick and frequent feedback to students and maintaining a fast pace to keep children’s interest.

Ms. Madden says that teachers who have become familiar with the techniques of her program are not expected to follow the script to the letter. But while, in the past, her team relied mostly on training workshops to spread their approach, they found that only a fraction of teachers maintained new practices once they returned to their classrooms.

She acknowledges that teachers sometimes stumble at the constraints that scripts impose: “It’s not what they teach you in teacher school.” Skeptics often emerge when they see kids making rapid progress, she says. Mr. Wickman points out that other expensively trained professionals, such as pilots and surgeons, also have procedures they must follow to the letter. After some initial complaints (similar to those expressed by skeptical teachers) such disciplined approaches have become widespread in those areas. They help reduce mistakes, and spread better ways of doing things.

Back in Edo, Mr. Obaseki’s transformation still has much to prove. An analysis published in 2019 by the state government and NewGlobe claimed that during the first year of the reforms, children learned as much in a single session as they did in the year before. But the project has yet to undergo a rigorous independent evaluation. Most of the existing evidence supporting scripted schooling pertains to basic literacy and numeracy among the youngest children. In Edo, lesson scripts are being used to teach almost every subject, and are being applied to teenagers in junior high schools.

Whether or not a strict script is necessary remains a matter of debate. (For example, a World Bank panel argued that word-for-word scripts are less effective than simple guides.) In 2018, RTI, an American nonprofit group, analyzed 19 school-reform efforts, finding 13 countries were involved. including Ethiopia and Uganda. It concluded that programs with a slightly shorter instructional guide—one page of notes per day, say, rather than a full script—produced better results. Advocates of the more relaxed approach say another advantage is that it can help teachers gain their support with a little freedom to tinker.

Yet it appears that Edo’s approach has convinced most local teachers of its worth. Mr. Obaseki, the state governor, says that the school staff had long felt neglected and unappreciated; Providing more training and equipment, he says, has provided new impetus. He insists that support for the project among unions was crucial to his re-election in 2020. It is, he says, “one of my best investments”.

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