Midwiving the Afrikan rebirth. . .
Views of Afrika and the world, on the path to the renaissance, from a social justice and an Afrikan epistemological perspective--uMunthu. Includes specific commentary on Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Monday, May 09, 2011
Harvesting What We Plant: Primary School Teachers & the Future of Malawi
This article appeared in the March-April, 2011 issue of The Lamp Magazine: Christians, Politics & Culture.
Officials in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) have recently been touting the belief that the quality of a country’s educational system cannot be greater than the quality of its teachers. In Malawi, the default teacher education model has been two years of teacher preparation; one year of residential training in a teachers’ training college, followed by a second year of practicals in a primary school. The quality of our educational system is reflected in this model, which has existed for as long as we have been an independent country, notwithstanding slight variations over the decades. How relevant is this model, five decades later?
The unfolding discussion will explore this issue in view of what is obtaining in teacher education within the sub-region and elsewhere in the world. We will also take a closer look at the current strategy for teacher education and development, and how it has responded to a paradigm shift that has changed the concept of education for teachers. Our main interest will be how Malawi can put into action the brilliant plans expressed in the national strategy for teacher education and development.
The Malawian model for training primary school teachers is slightly different from our neighbours in the Southern African region. In some Southern Africa countries teachers are trained for three years, after which they receive a college diploma. But elsewhere in the world, the minimum qualification for a primary school teacher is a bachelors’ degree with another year of teacher certification. Teachers are then given a time period within which they are required to upgrade to a masters’ degree. Teachers who fail to attain a post-graduate qualification within the given period lose their teaching certification. In Finland, considered to have one of the best education systems in the world, the minimum qualification for a primary school teacher is a masters’ degree.[i]
Many teachers in Malawi, and even in the United States, choose teaching because they have been unable to enter other professions considered better paying and more prestigious, such as medicine, law and business. In countries such as Finland and Japan people choose to go into other professions because they have failed to secure a place in a teachers’ college. The academic requirements to become a primary school teacher in these countries are very rigorous, and the programmes are very selective. Such is the prestige of the teaching profession in Finland that only one out of ten applicants to teacher education programmes is accepted.
Here at home the NSTED[ii] has laid out a plan for how the teaching profession, as outlined in the National Education Sector Plan (NESP), should look like between 2008 and 2017. Quite a few of the NSTED’s recommendations are bold and forward-looking. Recognition of how narrow the path to promotion for primary school teachers is has led to recommendations for change. The NSTED recommends a “permanent core programme of accredited (award-bearing) professional development programmes which move from pre-service training through to training for different posts of responsibility in the education service”. For these changes to be effected across the system, the NSTED needs to outline how these opportunities can be afforded not only to teachers but to primary education advisers and teacher educators as well. We can make some bold, long-term plans on what gradual steps to take in order to move towards these goals. New models of open and distance education, combined with access to the Internet, make these goals much more feasible than before.
Malawi has moved with the times in providing structures that would enable advanced professional development for teachers. Teacher Development Centres (TDCs), introduced in the late 1990s have provided structures through which Malawian teachers may acquire ongoing professional development. Many TDCs have been embraced by school communities that have resourced them with electricity, or 12-volt batteries in areas where there is no electricity. Some TDCs have TVs, DVD players, and even computers, in a few of them. The NSTED makes a bold recommendation for all TDCs to be not only electrified, but to be equipped with computers and high speed Internet connections to facilitate continuous development for teachers’ own academic and professional growth.
Aware of many teachers who have sought advanced academic qualifications using their own initiatives, the NSTED recognizes that failure to award promotions to such teachers is often demoralising. The document recommends that teacher training colleges be linked with higher education institutions to enable teachers pursue continuous professional development leading to diplomas and degrees. MoEST has already embarked on a continuous professional development programme for all primary school teachers, but it yet to be seen how the programme will link Malawian universities and teacher training colleges to realise the NSTED recommendation.
On paper, the NSTED’s recommendations have the potential to transform the face of the teaching profession in Malawi. Followed to the letter, Malawian teachers, Primary Education Advisers (PEAs) and teacher educators would possess higher academic qualifications than is the case today. They would have opportunities for further advancement within the primary school system and teacher education programmes. All TDCs would have electricity and high speed Internet. Teachers would find it easy to open email accounts and access the Internet.
Conversations amongst Malawian educationists about the weaknesses of the educational system point to capacity issues in the mother ministry. Letters to newspaper editors and media reports catalogue on a daily basis the ministry’s failure to pay teachers on time, to pay leave grants, and to recognise hard-earned higher qualifications. Questions about the root causes of the seeming dysfunction do not yield easy answers. Acknowledgement is made of the size of the ministry, which some educationists suggest ought to be broken into two or three as is the case in other countries. Given the size of the primary school system, some have suggested that it be made a ministry on its own. Higher education has its own complications that also required the attention of a full minister and a full principal secretary, goes the suggestion.
The quality of education at the primary level affects the quality of secondary school education, which in turn affects quality at the university level, and in the management ecosystem. Teacher education has not been spared either. A 2003 study of primary teacher education in Malawi, by Demis Kunje et al, concluded that teachers’ colleges were “in an advanced state of deterioration” (p. xiv)[iii]. Kunje and company wrote that “ a combination of policy neglect, lack of maintenance, erratic and minimal funding, unstable staffing, and indifferent leadership appear to have resulted in impoverished institutionss with low morale and poor quality learning environment.” If the intervening nine years have seen a reverse of the situation, the current state of teaching and learning in Malawian schools does not reflect significant transformation. A significant problem in this regard is the large numbers of pupils in classrooms, averaging more than 150 learners per teacher in the lower classes.
No solutions can change Malawi’s classrooms overnight, but there are indications that things on the teacher education and developent front might be about to begin taking a turn. At the global level, there has been a paradigm shift from the idea of teacher training to that of teacher education, and some of MoEST’s responses reflect that shift. The old paradigm of teacher training emphasised short training programmes to impart skills, according to teacher education researcher Eleonora Villegas-Reimers.[iv] The new paradigm of teacher education embraces professional development that builds communities of practice with teachers as part of the knowledge making process. Here at home, teachers’ colleges are still being called “teacher training colleges” (TTCs).
Teacher education scholars point out that most teachers teach the way they were taught, and that changing this is a remarkable challenge. In the African context, the problem is made more acute by the dearth of research in teacher education, according to Ghanaian teacher education researcher Kwame Akyeampong[v]. This is no less true in Malawi, where the average educationist, including teachers, teacher educators and even curriculum specialists, do not have easy access to resources to enable them keep up with current research and literature, let alone contributing new knowledge through writing and publishing.
Akyeampong’s observation beckons a need for the kind of paradigm shift described by Eleonora Villegas-Reimers. The establishment of a programme for continuing professional development for teachers in Malawi will need to espouse the new paradigm in its fundamental aspects, adapting it to the needs of Malawi. We will need to start building a culture of research in teacher education, and to create professional communities of learners amongst teachers, teacher educators, primary education advisers and other educationists. Professional associations are a known way of building communities of inquiry in which practitioners group themselves according to subject matter content, share research practices, and participate in knowledge production. Professional associations would also help build a culture of collegial respect amongst educators. There are teacher educators, curriculum specialists, educational managers and supervisors who hold classroom teachers in contempt, who see teachers as beneath them. The paradigm shift we mentioned earlier ought to offer a different model of professional relations amongst colleagues.
None of this happens automatically without teachers taking the initiative and demonstrating leadership. But teachers need to be supported in their efforts to empower themselves, and take ownership of their own professional development. Malawian schools and TDCs need to have copies of relevant policy documents, so teachers and headteachers, supervisors and education managers can read them and know these policies. Schools also need to be supported with structures that should enable them take control of continuous professional development.
Visionary schools should be assisted to find ways and means of establishing libraries, book clubs, study circles, and other professional groupings. Teachers’ colleges need to participate in discussions of big ideas, through speaker and lecture series, conferences, book talks and other forums that enrich the intellect. Stakeholders such as communities, organizations and the private sector can support educational institutions in this endeavour. A programme to create national teaching awards would go a long way towards motivating teachers and other educationists to strive for excellence.
For the Malawian context, our history and our future aspirations compel us to ask ourselves some difficult questions that should be guiding teacher education and curriculum reform. What kinds of Malawians would we like to see our children growing up to become? What have been some of our greatest achievements? What have our greatest weaknesses been? What contributions would we like our country to make to global society? How would we like to handle issues of diversity (social, ethnic, cultural, racial, religious, sexuality, etc) amongst ourselves, and in our interactions on the global stage? What kind of leadership and middle management would we like to cultivate? How can we educate teachers capable of propelling this vision?
These types of questions have a place in our quest to rethink the teaching profession and how we can reshape it to guide a future Malawi. In coming up with responses, we must put the education and professional development of teachers in the forefront, knowing that the quality of our teachers is what determines the quality of our education system in Malawi.
[i] Samuel E. Abrams (2011) ‘The Children Must Play: What the United States could learn from Finland about education reform’ The New Republic January 28, 2011 Retrieved February 1, 2011
[ii]Malawi MoEST (2008). National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development
(NSTED). Lilongwe: Ministry of Education, Science and Technology
[iii] Kunje D. with Lewin K. M. & Stuart J. S. (2002) ‘Primary Teacher Education in Malawi:
Insights into Practice and Policy’ MUSTER Research Report No 3, Centre for
I write about Pan Africanism, uMunthu-peace & social justice educ. I trained at Lilongwe Teachers College & taught in Ntcheu. I authored a children's book, _Fleeing the War_, which won the 1995 British Council Write a Story competition. I was a 1997 honorary fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa (USA), and 1998 writer-in-residence at the U of Iowa. I was President of Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) 1996-1998, and founding Treasurer, 1994-1996. I have an MA in English Education (U of Iowa, 2000) & a PhD in Curriculum, Teaching & Educational Policy, Michigan State Univ, 2007 (dissertation research on peace education & uMunthu epistemology). Former visiting assistant prof of Peace and Justice Studies, Dept. of Philosophy, MSU. I'm fellow of the Programme for African Leadership, London School of Economics (2012) & speaker at TEDxLilongwe, May 2013. Former visiting scholar, University of Botswana; Senior Lecturer, Catholic University of Malawi.