“When will you come back?” – training teachers in Zambia

Lusaka traffic jam, detergent hoarding

Nearly five decades ago, when I left university, I wanted to teach in Zambia. The prospect offered adventure in an apparently stable African country, using my interests in language and education to do some good. But other interests and adventures intervened: I got married and began my career teaching in England. This year, I fulfilled my Zambian ambition.

Despite its long name, TTCSZ (Training Teachers for Community Schools in Zambia) is a small charity, set up in England on the initiative of Lyn Hall from Huddersfield University, with trustees in both the UK and Zambia. The purpose of the charity, as the name suggests, is to prepare local teachers for the challenging task of teaching large classes in primary schools which are not funded by the state. These “community schools” provide more than 40% of primary education in Zambia; perhaps another 50% of schools are state funded, and there is a small elite private sector. My three-week tour entailed my working in Lusaka during the Easter holidays with Lyn and local teacher trainers; we trained 26 local community school teachers in a classroom in a private Catholic school.

Divine Providence Convent School sign

Despite my career as a teacher of English in both the UK and the US, during which I wrote a doctoral study of adolescent literacy practices and became the editor of an International journal, I was apprehensive at the prospect of volunteer work in Zambia. I had never worked in Africa, I had never taught children of primary school age, and I had never trained teachers of such children. I felt almost totally unprepared.

Like the callow trainee I had been 50 years earlier, I turned to the textbooks and other materials provided. TTCSZ has a good collection of books about teaching in Africa, and Lyn has worked with previous volunteers to flesh out the Zambian statutory syllabus with detailed schemes of work. Amongst the teaching approaches recommended, I recognised Pie Corbett’s ideas on teaching writing in the primary school, along with material from the UK national literacy strategy on the teaching of early reading through phonics. My work involved not only training teachers on methods of teaching English also on the theory and practice of learning. Here the TTCSZ resources were especially strong, providing clear and interesting ideas and activities to develop trainees’ understanding of the ways in which young people learn.

My daily schedule started at 8:45 in the morning, when we shared breakfast with the trainees. The first session, from 9:30 until 12:00, concerned the teaching of English. After lunch, the second session, from 12:30 until 14:30, focused on learning theory. Then, after a short tea break, I worked with Lyn and other volunteers to instruct the trainers in ICT skills. TTCSZ provided laptops for these sessions: there were no computers in the community schools, and few of the trainees had a laptop at home, although nearly all owned a simple mobile phone. The day finished between 16:30 and 17:00, but the teachers seemed reluctant to leave, and most arrived in the morning well in advance of the scheduled start.

Zambia ICT Students

The first session on the first day started with introductions and and an overview of the two weeks’ training. The teachers learned that they would be assessed at the end of the second week by giving a short lesson to the group on a teaching topic of their choice; they had to complete a detailed plan for this, with rationale for each activity and its sequencing. This initial session lasted for about an hour, and then Lyn introduced me as the volunteer English teacher from the UK.  I read Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ to them and spoke briefly about the unity of English: that speaking, listening, reading and writing were not discrete “skills” but different facets of meaning making.

But it was not my English teaching that got me into the swing of teaching in Zambia and reassured me that I would succeed in what I had undertaken. Early in the first week, while teaching the second daily session, on learning theory, I suddenly felt inspired. I had already noticed the strong oral disposition of the trainees. Some of the initial sessions were taken by local teachers who have completed the TTCSZ training in previous years; the trainees responded to these almost as if they were in church, repeating the tutors’ more portentous statements and participating in enthusiastic performance of sound-letter correspondences, poems and songs. So, when I approached the theory of learning, including its humanistic, behaviourist, constructivist, visual, audio, and kinaesthetic facets (the last three collectively known as V.A.K), it suddenly occurred to me to summarise these in song:

Humanism … (two beats)
Behaviourism … (two beats)
Constructivism … (two beats)
V.A.K! V.A.K! V.A.K !

Very simple, but it provided an aide-memoire to the class, who enjoyed repeating it. I forgot about this ‘song’ in succeeding sessions, but was gratified to find the trainees repeating it as part of a tribute on their last day.

The reason for the teachers’ strong oral disposition became clear to me as the week went on. As I suggested above, it was evident that practices of church attendance influenced their teaching styles. I was aware that some of the trainees were also church ministers; indeed, one drew out in conversation the verbal similarity between “preacher” and ”teacher”. These would have gained an income from the church that would offset the little or no payment they received from their school. I was struck also by the enthusiasm with which the trainees from earlier years (who were working as tutors alongside us) had adopted the UK national literacy strategy recommendations that pupils should use sound and gesture to reinforce their learning of letter-sound correspondences. They would exclaim <a> as in <ant>, running their fingers up and down their arms to simulate a pincer movement of ants; or wave their arm in the shape of an <s>, while making the hissing sound of a snake. But this came from more than a liking of performance. I realised, after speaking to teachers during the first few days, that their schools had few if any books. To motivate and involve the students, sometimes in book-less classes of 50 or more, oral and gestural rituals were invaluable.

Teacher holding books

I slowly came to realise that the teachers’ enthusiasm for the work, and their obvious liking of their visiting tutors from England, derived from our offering them a vision of a world where books and facilities were plentiful and teaching approaches correspondingly sophisticated. Every day, we took into the classroom several large boxes of picture books and other resources; they were delighted to receive sacks of books and learning resources prepared by Education students at Huddersfield. We involved them in group discussion, making presentations and other activities that are, let us hope, still common in English primary schools despite the attempts of government to reintroduce a Victorian regime of drills and skills. One headteacher in particular, who I learned later ran possibly the most deprived school in Lusaka, with neither electricity nor water, was passionately committed to her pupils and hungry to learn progressive ways of working.

Jack with book bag

This realisation, towards the end of my first week, gave me the spur and knowledge I needed to complete my work in a way I knew would be valuable. I would indeed be able to teach English as a unified subject, and encourage the teachers to be proactive in their extraordinary difficult situations. If the schools lacked books, we would make them. The teachers would engage in meaningful writing and produce resources for their pupils and themselves. We would draw on both personal experience and cultural tradition, and the intersections between these. English lessons became occasions when the teachers told each other and then the whole class significant moments from their lives, and then wrote them in whatever narrative or poetic forms they chose. They also used me and each other as their audience for traditional stories that often featured mythological human/animal characters.

young man writing

class focused on writing

By the beginning of the second week, we were nearly ready to make books. At Lyn’s suggestion, we bought several roles of plain anaglypta and cut them to make multiple-paged “big books”. The two and a half hour session when the teachers worked on these had an atmosphere of collaborative concentration that any hard-pressed UK teacher would die for. Because we had spent several hours in preparation before the teachers finally wrote up their stories, many of the books were very well-designed, interweaving text and image appropriately. However, most of the stories were very unlike stories written for children in the west. Poverty, illness and death (sometimes associated with HIV) were not unusual themes; in some stories, but by no means all, God or a sprit was invoked as a support. It was clear that, in Zambia, stories do not necessarily end happily.

Zilole title page

I photocopied every story and hope to publish some of them to raise money for the community schools. The teachers gave me and Lyn a wonderful send-off, with singing, dancing and presents: I have never felt so appreciated as a teacher. They asked us: “When will you come back?” – and I hope to return next year. Given the degree of poverty amongst these schools and these people, it is very encouraging, especially in these times in the west, to see the spirit of hope and productiveness that sustains teachers and pupils in conditions that we would find less than intolerable. But it is also an indictment of the state of the world that these appalling disparities are allowed to continue.

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Doing a Turing test

Turing-HarrisonFord

Recently I initiated an online chat with Apple support because I had a problem with my iPhone. The agent, Jayson, told me to turn the device off and on, but this didn’t fix the issue. Jayson then suggested I have the phone serviced by Apple, and arranged an appointment with the ‘technicians and geniuses’ in a local store. I thanked him and this exchange ensued:

Jayson
You’re most welcome! Thank you for your kindness, understanding & patience. Much appreciated John! Was I able to help you today?

Jayson
By the way ~ May you have a prosperous 2019!

John
Thanks for your help.  Bye now.

Jayson
I really appreciate you John, Don’t forget to eat your breakfast, lunch & dinner okay,? Its been my pleasure assisting you today, again my name is Jayson. Have a great day and take care always~

Jayson
All is well! You deserve the best in life and Cheers for a great 2019!

TuringTestRunning a very elementary Turing test on this dialogue reveals that Jayson is an artificial rather than human intelligence.  He (it) says things that no adult human agent would say in this situation. Yet Jayson’s mistakes are almost human, like those of a toddler learning to use language. He writes his own name phonically rather than conventionally. He can’t deal with my question – beyond the standard remedy of turning the device off and on – and so passes me on to the adult Apple technicians and geniuses. Unlike a traditional machine, he expresses affection and care: he wishes me a prosperous 2019 (in March) and reminds me to eat regularly, as his parents might have told him. No human programmer would make these mistakes; Jayson’s algorithm needs the capacity to adjust its warm, supportive language according to the season and the relationship.

Within a few years, it will become much more difficult to know whether one is ‘chatting’ to a human or machine agent (although we shall probably assume the latter). And this of course raises the question of the nature of knowledge: given appropriate technology, could a machine learn so adequately that the distinction between human learning – a activity of the embodied mind – and machine learning is elided? In Bladerunner 2049, there is no evident difference between the humans and the replicants. In Cultural Literacy (1988), E D Hirsch states that researchers in artificial intelligence have concluded that knowledge is the key component of all cognitive skills: ‘Once the relevant knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows’. Machine learning, according to this view, is not a mere simulacrum of human learning, but its paradigm.

This view clearly has very profound implications for educational policy, and aligns with current influential views on the teaching of language.

To be continued …

A new dynamic in education research

Image

On a Saturday in May 2014, an educational research conference in a York secondary school was attended by well over a hundred people, the great majority of whom were practising teachers.   The conference organisers, researchED and the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), want to use research evidence to improve the quality of teaching and learning. More than twenty-five speakers addressed delegates in a programme that offered a wide choice of topics from ‘the learning brain’ through ‘classrooms as complex systems’ to ‘evidence-based teaching: making the prize a reality’.  All the presentations I attended were engaging and thoughtful, and I thoroughly enjoyed Debra Kidd’s drama-inspired way of demonstrating the complex systemics of the classroom (with respect to the teaching of reading, a particular interest of mine).

The means of communication and debate that united most of the delegates at the conference was neither membership of a professional association such as the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), nor an academic affiliation.   Whether or not they had met before, many of the delegates knew each other virtually through Twitter and shared blogs. Indeed, several used their Twitter hashtag to identify them on their name badge.   Most importantly, they were united by a commitment to learning how to become better teachers through grounded educational research. Prompt questions offered in the programme included: What is the evidence-base behind this speaker’s presentation? Is their point of view contested?   What further research do you need to undertake to ensure you have a balanced picture?

This is a world of virtual connection and debate by enthusiastic practitioners with a shared commitment to the well-being of their students. Existing networks need to consider how they can work with this new dynamic. Recently I have been working with Sarah Wilkin on the English in Education archive. The journal is 50 years old this year, and NATE has commissioned work to make the archive more readily accessible to members and others. Like the delegates at the York conference, the teachers and researchers who have written for English in Education over the last fifty years share a commitment to education as a means of supporting, developing and enhancing the lives of their students. The purpose of the journal is evident from its name: it is about language in education (not only the teaching of English), and many of the papers and debates have enduring relevance to the classroom. We shall shortly publish an account of the first fifty years of the journal and intend to supplement this by a new thematic database. We hope that this work will provide a source of ideas and evidence for teachers whose attachments may be less to traditional research and teacher networks than to the blogosphere.

Time to call Gove to account

I’m writing early in the morning, after an exceptionally disturbing dream.  In my dream, I was driving in bad light through countryside and came to a section of road where I knew I had to stop because ahead was something unknown and indistinct.  The road ahead was exceptionally dark, and, as I edged forward, I found myself approaching a scene of massacre.  Farm animals – horses, sheep and cows, their skins all a dense, shiny black – were lying in tortured positions,  scattered over the road and on the fields on either side.

I’m sure there may be many reasons for my disturbance, but one of them is the BBC news bulletin that I watched shortly before going to bed last night. In a short item, towards the end of the news, the reporter explained to the newscaster (on behalf of the audience) the government proposal to return GCSE examinations to something resembling the O-level of 50 years ago.  Assessment, we were told, would be entirely by end of course examination, and there would be a new grading system.  The current A-E scale will be replaced by a numerical scale, 8-1, where 8 represented the highest achievement.

I have recently published a paper analysing in detail the professional views of the 730 English teachers who responded to an online survey on the government’s current changes to teacher training.   Trying to find a title for the paper, I came up with “Surveying the Wreckage”. These changes to teacher-training, which shift the burden of responsibility from university Departments of Education to the schools, in which trainees will normally be employed as unqualified teachers, are regarded by the vast majority of respondents to the survey as disastrous.  Now we have to contemplate 50 years’ work improving assessments, making them more fit for purpose, making them more sensitive to the range of real life work that pupils will undertake, being similarly wrecked effectively by the fiat of one man, Michael Gove.

The intellectual paucity of these proposals is signified by the absurd belief that changing the assessment system from an alphabetical to a numerical progression will somehow improve matters.  What matters is the kind of work that students are asked to do, and the way it is assessed.  Certainly, moving from an alphabetical system where A (a letter universally recognised as signifying high achievement)  is replaced by the number 8, has less than nothing to recommend it.  One understands that room has been left for the addition of further numbers in the future, to allow for a further refinement of the grading system.  A kind of institutionalised grade inflation, in fact.

David Cameron must call in his Secretary of State for Education and prevent him from single-handedly destroying cultures of teaching and assessment that have been constructed over many years by professionals concerned to improve the education of young people.  Rab Butler tells in his autobiography The Art of the Possible of the day in 1942 when Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War, asked him whether there was anything that could be done to make schoolchildren more patriotic. Butler told him that the curriculum was the responsibility of the schools and that ministers should not interfere.  Churchill rejoined: “Oh, quite.  But can’t we at least tell them that Wolfe won Québec?”

An element of Conservative reticence, building on rather than destroying the best that has been thought and said, would be welcome at present.

Curriculum and assessment

The ongoing debate about student assessment now has an international dimension.  Owing in part to the agenda of the current Secretary of State for Education, comparisons are increasingly made between assessment systems in the UK and other countries.  The US system often gets a bad press in the UK because it is so dependent upon the judgement of the individual teacher.  Having worked in an California high school and as a moderator/examiner in the UK, I think the US system would have much to commend it — if a proper local system of moderation could be developed.  Local assessment, which becomes part of the teaching and learning process, is surely better than the spurious objectivity of a national “external” assessment system which (one hopes) could never be made to work in the US.  I want to quote a paragraph from the NATE  book text message:  the Future of A level English (2005), which emphasises the importance of a community of practice:

So how can curriculum, pedagogy and assessment best be integrated?  How might an effective community of practice be realised?  Clearly, the way forward is to recognise teachers’ expertise and experience in this area, and, by doing so, to acknowledge the usefulness of assessment in promoting teaching and learning as well as in measuring achievement.  Recognition of teachers’ roles in assessment also means giving credibility and status to this activity.  Logistically, if for no other reason, this is the only way forward, as the present system is unsustainable, even if it helps protect the Post Office from bankruptcy.  Validity and reliability could be achieved through the provision of regional networks (perhaps along the lines of the consortium system already run by the AQA) and through the accreditation of appropriate individuals and institutions.