Mrs. Ngulube from the rural primary school of Nangoma in Zambia had little teaching preparation before agreeing to be one of the first teachers to participate in a new teacher- training program implemented by ChildFund International.
Like many teachers in her region of Mumbwa, her classes have 70 to 110 students in a single session. Students vie for spots on the floor, often sharing textbooks and pencil stumps.
She has limited hours to teach and until now, has always relied on teacher-centered instruction, meaning that the teacher talks and students listen.
But last year, 12 Zambian teachers from three schools were invited to participate in the Active Learning and Teaching in Schools (ATLAS) program started by ChildFund Zambia in partnership with the International Reading Association (IRA), supported by the Ministry of Education.
The program seeks to improve the quality of education by targeting the quality of teaching and learning through active, participatory instruction.
“Instead of working to build infrastructure, ChildFund is focusing on long-term programming to empower people in countries where we work with the skills they need to improve their quality of life,” says Jessi Hanson-Javier, education associate for ChildFund.
ATLAS empowers educators to rely on student-centered learning activities, rather than teacher-centered. Children are given the space to actively participate – to ask questions, explore, evaluate and debate what they are learning – all in a supportive and friendly environment.
The program is based on the belief that both theory and hands-on participation are more effective than theoretical training alone in supporting change.
“With the help of workshops, teachers have learned new teaching strategies such as group learning,” says Hanson-Javier.
“One group of students works on one subject, another group works on a separate subject, and the teacher makes rounds to each,” she notes. “It’s almost like the old schoolhouse method.”
ATLAS is not only structured to help teachers develop and use essential education materials, but also to help them learn, observe and integrate knowledge. Through practice, teachers develop skills to recognize and diagnose problems, and to consider and apply alternative solutions incorporating continuous supervision, feedback and coaching.
When teachers themselves are purposefully involved in the process of improving teaching and learning conditions, they are generally more motivated and willing to put what they learn into practice.
The ATLAS program has also established teacher-quality circles, a way for educators to work together as a team, to learn from each other and work toward behavioral changes in their schools.
“This program really empowers both the teachers and the students to take control of their education,” says Hanson-Javier. “We hear kids saying how they like to go to school now because their teacher is nice; they feel appreciated and they get to be active.”
In fact, the student population at another school in Zambia, Mukupi Primary, nearly doubled in size after implementing the ATLAS program. Children who had never gone to school, or who had dropped out earlier, began attending or came back.
“Soon after our first workshop, we started implementing the new strategies and training other teachers in these practices,” says Mrs. Ngulube. “In my class I have many at-risk learners. After I implemented the new methods, I was so happy to see them learning better.”
On a given day, you can find Mrs. Ngulube’s students working well together in group activities, giving presentations to the class or playing games.
She walks around monitoring their progress and engaging them in time-on-task learning. She has a sense of control within her classroom for the first time in many years – and the genuine opportunity to make a difference in her student’s education, despite the obstacles that face them all.
Over the next year, ChildFund plans to expand the ATLAS program in other countries where we work, including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.
ATLAS training and teacher-quality circles are key features of ChildFund’s child-friendly school model, CLASSE, a whole-school reform initiative that focuses on building quality content, student health, teaching and learning processes, children’s rights and holistic learning environments.