Saturday, 5 September 2009

Where are all the new science textbooks?

September 4th

Into work as usual; I’ve barely sat down when Raima calls, asking me to help clarify the situation as regards the Rwandan national curriculum website and lower primary schemes of work. The website is incomplete and out of date, and I have to tell her that for the “General Paper”, in the absence of any detailed official guidance on content, she has to use her own judgement. Neither Claude nor I will criticise her if she’s acting in good faith, provided what she’s teaching is reasonable.

Then I’m straight off to Nyabisindu school. This is my fifth visit to the school and my second in a week. I’m going to look at science lessons following the place’s dismal performance in the District exams.

When I get there Jeanne, the head, isn’t around at all – and yet it was she who asked me to come today. I’m miffed. Florent, the “ajoint” is there, and says she’s gone to a meeting. I explain why I’ve come and ask him if it’s OK by him for me to observe lessons, and he immediately says yes. I knows where the rooms are. We hunt in Jeanne’s office and eventually find the timetable. Armed with this, off I go to inspect Chemistry, the first lesson of the morning.

The lesson starts at 7.30, but by 7.40 pupils are still arriving. I sit at the back and wait for the teacher to arrive. I’m not best pleased with the head being away, the class arriving late and the chemistry teacher not on time either. Then one of the older boys, presumably the “chef de classe”, arrives with a folder of handwritten notes and a bunch of chalks. The teacher, it would appear, is absent. The class will take place, and what they usually do in this situation is spend the lesson copying down notes from the teacher’s lesson planner. Hence the photocopied sheets I’ve been given.

“But”, say a bunch of the kids “you can do the lesson for us”. OK, I’m flattered. It means they’ve accepted me and it’s a vote of confidence. The work is about atomic structure; it’s the same lesson I observed at Cyeza yesterday. Exactly the same lesson!

I decide I can’t do worse than the existing teacher. This is the class that came 40th out of 40 in the District. I decide I’ll do things my way and try to make sure they actually understand things. So I copy some of the notes on the board and we talk about them and try to make sure everyone understands key words – atoms, elements, isotopes. We talk about protons and electrons and neutrons, about deuterium and tritium and about the isotopes of Chlorine, for example. The reaction of the pupils is interesting. One group don’t want to talk at all; they’re so used to just sitting and writing notes that it’s all they want to do, and they feel that explanations are a waste of time. Others want to talk, and we end up with a panel on the blackboard full of the key words. When the whistle blows for the end of the lesson I don’t let them finish until we’ve shut our books and defined each of the words.

So much for observing the Chemistry teacher, then!

Biology is all about molluscs, which is easy for me because it overlaps with the palaeontology I did in geology at university. I find I’m watching the second half of a double lesson. In the first half the teacher has, as usual, filled the board with notes, which the pupils are just finishing putting into their books. She’s drawn a picture of a snail but hasn’t labelled it to show the anatomy as it relates to the definitions she’s used in her written descriptions.

I’m really alarmed at the vocabulary she has used. Remember this is a lesson of yr 1 secondary pupils whose English is flaky on anything except the most basic personal statements. This woman has copied her notes from some reference book, and the kids are writing down things like:
• “a fleshy foot is used in locomotion of the animal”
• “the funnel-like structure contributes to locomotion”
• “their mantle shows the limits of respiratory cavity and secretes the shell”

Even basic words like “shell”, “valve”, “mantle” will be beyond most of them.

At the end of the lesson I ask her if she has defined these words. She says that yes, she has, in the first part of the lesson, but I think she’s lying. On a funnier note, she asks the class what economic uses we have for molluscs. Silence. Nobody can think of anything. She talks about their use in decoration and jewellery. Not much reaction from the kids. She asks if any of the class has lived in Congo. Nobody has, but they ask her why she wants to know. Then she mentions that you can eat snails, and that people do eat them in the Congo. There’s uproar; horror; lips curled in disgust. Somebody says that the Congolese will eat anything, even dogs. I’m sure I’m the only person in the room who has ever eaten snails, but I decide to keep mum. Mind you, in Rwanda people won’t eat mutton because they think it’s only fit for animals or the very poorest to eat, and they won’t drink goats’ milk for the same reason. In Gitarama market sheep sell for less than goats.

On to physics; this rates as one of the worst lessons I’ve ever observed. The teacher has no presence at all. He is so softly spoken he’s almost inaudible where I’m sitting at the back. He has no control; he just says “silence!” in his soft voice every few seconds. The children ignore him and he will not challenge the half dozen or so who are completely disengaged and chattering among themselves the whole lesson (even with a muzungu sitting virtually next to them). The lesson is boring beyond belief; he has been doing pressure and we spend the entire 45 minutes converting from one set of measurements into another. He sets an exercise and the group of disruptive girls alongside me just carry on with their conversations. Then a boy friend at the front of their row passes what he thinks is the answer down on a scrap of paper, and the briefly pause from their conversations copy it into their books. Only about a third of the class are actively engaged in the lesson. The teacher ignores the rest and only reacts with the engaged group, asking them questions, replying to their queries and checking their books. This class wants a bomb behind it, and the teacher wants taking aside.

What beats me is that all schools should have just received new, full colour, illustrated science text books. Yet nowhere this morning in Nyabisindu nor yesterday at Cyeza have I seen them in use. And the teachers have to learn that writing stuff on the board doesn’t mean you’re teaching it. You need to go over and explain key terms and make sure the pupils actually understand what you’re saying.

As I leave the school I’m mobbed by the maternelle children, who decide that the big muzungu is some sort of friendly giant. As I start walking up the hill to the main road I have about twenty little people hanging on to my arms and wanting to talk to me. I keep telling them to go back, but they can’t understand me in French or English and ignore my gestures. I certainly don’t want them following me up to where the traffic gets busy. Eventually some women coming down the hill see me gesturing to the little ones to go back, and shout at them in Kinyarwanda. I don’t know what they say but it does the trick.

Back at the office I let off steam with Claude. He confirms what I’ve been saying, that although the new science books are in French, we want the schools to get on and use them. I quickly write up my observation notes for him, and he’s thinking about calling in some of these failing teachers and having words with them. I tell him to hold his fire until I’ve been out to Kabgayi, the third of the failing schools I want to visit, but that Soraya and I want to get up to Nyabinoni next week and I’ll leave Kabgayi until the rains come. He’s happy with that.

Back home to the flat for lunch. Delphine comes round to use the computer; she wants to update her CV and write a letter of application for a job with the company which is supporting the Chinese road engineers. It seems a very long shot to me, but I humour her and let her do it. It’s all good practise on the laptop for her.

For the rest of the day I’m writing up blog descriptions of the Rongi trip. It’s only when I try to describe all that we’ve done this week that I fully realise just how intense it’s been. Each day’s blog is an essay taking about an hour to compose. But it’s good stuff because it’s helping me frame in my mind the things I will say in my formal inspection reports. I absolutely have to get all of them done by the end of Sunday or they’ll simply get swamped in next week’s round of school visits.

There’s a power cut just as I’m thinking of eating, so I go off on my own to the “Green Garden” where the lights are still on, and read “The Girl in Blue” by Tracey Chevalier as I chomp away at my goat.

It’s been a great week. Six schools done in a week and all manner of other stuff on the side.

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