Monday, May 09, 2011

Involving Universities in Educating Primary School Teachers: The Case of Malawi

This article first appeared in The Nation on Wednesday, October 13, 2010. It also appeared in Pambazuka News, and on the Zeleza Post, with a different title.

With one of the lowest university enrollments in Africa, the debate on who gets access to higher education in Malawi is an incendiary affair. The debate has erupted once again with the announcement of the 2010 intake for the University of Malawi. Largely missing from the debate, however, is any discussion of the role of the university in Malawi’s teacher education system, the foundation for the education apparatus. I wish to argue here that much as we may think of primary school teacher training as outside the Malawian university system, teacher education could potentially offer a way out of the contentious equitable access quagmire. It could also offer another approach toward achieving the ‘technicolour’ dream of the new five universities being planned by the Malawi government, as announced by president Prof. Bingu wa Mutharika in May this year.

5 October is World Teachers’ Day, and its occasion this year provides us an opportunity to discuss issues such as teachers’ welfare, training and professional trajectory. In the following discussion, let us explore the question of the involvement of the Malawian university system in the teaching of primary school teachers. Let us examine some of the consequences that arise out of the absence of Malawian universities in teacher education, and what recommendations a new teacher education and development policy is making to address that problem. We need to put this discussion in both the local and the global context, commenting on the expressed wish by the government of Malawi to construct five new universities, while observing Asian, American and European countries making massive investments into their own higher education systems.

Considering the approaches used by countries whose educational models we follow, it has been somewhat of a curiosity that very few Malawian educators have given thought to linking primary school teacher education to the university system. It is imperative that we think seriously about the role of the university in the training of primary school teachers, argues Bob Moon, professor of education at Britain’s Open University and founding director of the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) programme. Moon points out how African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and South Africa have long involved their universities in the training of primary school teachers.

He says the progression of university involvement in the training of primary school teachers has not been easy. The United States didn’t make the transition from independent teacher training to the university system until the 1930s. The British only started in the 1970s, while France did it in the 1990s, as did South Africa. According to Moon, Sudan is currently upgrading the qualifications of 130,000 primary school teachers in the Sudan Open University system.

In many countries, including Malawi, higher qualifications for primary school teachers always mean a ticket out of the classroom into administrative positions or other better paying careers outside the teaching profession. I heard the most poignant metaphor to illustrate the folly of this in a personal communication with a Malawian educationist who has given a lot of thought to these issues. Lexon Ndalama, executive director of the Association of Christian Educators of Malawi (ACHEM), told me in 2004 how illogical it was to use higher educational qualifications to entice teachers out of the classroom. ‘Imagine you have a nursery,’ began Ndalama. ‘Instead of giving the nursery your best resources to give it the best foundation for future growth, you deprive the nursery and instead devote your best resources to your other gardens.’

This is precisely what has been happening in Malawi, as expertly analysed in the National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development (NSTED) document. Completed in 2008, the NSTED document, Malawi’s most up-to-date recommendation for teacher policy, laments how the best teachers are always taken out of the primary school classroom and sent to secondary schools and other administrative positions. Another way of looking at the problem is to think of who we assign to teach in our primary schools, secondary schools and tertiary institutions. We train our primary school teachers for two years only, and in many cases, we let them enter the classroom as a full time teacher only after a very brief orientation. This is how I trained as a teacher in the 1990s, under the Malawi Special Teacher Education Programme (MASTEP). In contrast, we insist on a rigorous university education for our secondary school and tertiary education teachers, whom we expect to make a good job out of the same pupils taught by teachers with a minimal professional qualification. There are several consequences that arise out of our reluctance to afford the best academic and professional training to primary school teachers. Let us examine just a few.

The absence of the university establishment in teacher education means that none of the most experienced researchers and intellectuals of which Malawi boasts make their expertise available to the training of Malawian teachers. As Paul Tiyambe Zeleza observed in his 1997 book, ‘Manufacturing African Studies and Crises’, there is a gap between what African scholars produce, and what African schools teach. In Malawi, as in many African countries, we have no tradition of sustained research in teacher training, teacher competence or best practices. We do not have much research into what contributes to a teacher’s effectiveness and greatness. Our universities are in turn deprived of experience in a crucial area of the development of the nation.

Another consequence is the dumbing down of a profession that is of primary importance. Teachers make up the largest number of civil servants in any ministry, and with the majority of these being primary school teachers, we have a large section of our professionals who are deprived of the benefits of a higher education. When you consider that teachers are supposed to be professionals in the same tradition as medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, economists, and others, it is surprising that we do not think of primary school teachers as deserving of the best education available. Our problem of difficult access to university education is most illustrated in the figures available: with more than 233,500 students in the Malawian secondary school system, our universities have space for a total of 8,000. Only 2,000 students have been offered places as first year students in the 2010 University of Malawi selection announced last week. And this is itself an improvement from previous figures.

The absence of university involvement in the training of teachers also contributes to the problem of access to university education in Malawi. This problem would take on a different shape if our teacher training colleges were to offer four-year university degrees. Not only would we be graduating 2,500 more degree holders every year, in addition to current numbers, the profession itself would also be transformed. The many gifted and brilliant young men and women who have never thought of a teaching career could be attracted to the profession by the allure of the opportunity to obtain a rare university degree.

One of the crucial issues discussed in the NSTED document is low teacher morale, poor motivation, and the low social status of teachers. The type of training and the kind of qualification which trainig produces are two of the factors contributing to the low morale, motivation and social status of Malawian primary school teachers.

We have a few teachers who are undeterred by these factors. They embrace their profession with zeal and passion, and inspire their pupils, against the odds. But they are very few in number. Researchers who study teachers’ classroom performance point out that teacher perseverance in the face of adversity often translates into inspiration for pupils. A recent article in the American magazine, ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, cited research by a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth, and her colleagues, on teacher perseverance. Duckworth and her colleagues found that teachers who scored high on perseverance and had a passion for long-term goals were 31 per cent more likely ‘to spur academic growth in their students’.

Even more important as a teacher trait was life satisfaction, Duckworth and her team found. Defined as being content and satisfied with their lives, teachers who scored high on this trait had a 43 per cent success rate in the classroom than peers who reported low life satisfaction. It is confirming to see research results producing these conclusions, but these are matters of intuition to anybody who has been inside a classroom. It is not surprising that the perception of dwindling standards of education in Malawi and elsewhere (including the United States) is accompanied by rising anger and frustration among teachers.

The NSTED document is a bold attempt by the Malawi Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to address these particular problems. The teacher policy recommendations articulated in the document suggest a career path for teachers to receive rewards and promotions through a structure that offers continuous professional development tied to academic credit offered through collaboration between teachers’ colleges and our universities. The document is careful to recommend rewards for higher qualifications inside the education system, just falling short of calling for a university degree for every primary school teacher as a long-term strategy. Such a suggestion never fails to elicit questions about whether the Malawi government’s budget capacity can successfully absorb thousands of primary school teachers with university degrees.

Another unwarranted fear warns about the problems that could potentially be caused by too many university graduates. These are legitimate debates, but they do not warrant enough reason to delay much-needed reform in the teacher education system. The emphasis needs to be on highly qualified teachers, and strengthening our universities to be able to offer that kind of teacher education. In a press release to commemorate World Teachers Day this week, the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) makes mention of the need to provide teachers with ‘adequate in-service trainings for all teachers so that teachers keep updated on emerging issues.’ The press release calls for opportunities for teachers to upgrade their academic qualifications by taking advantage of the proliferation of accredited universities in Malawi. TUM’s vision for teachers is right on the mark. The Malawi Mininstry of Education, Science and Technology is in fact already rolling out a national teacher professional development programme which will address the issues TUM outlines.

Many countries are already moving to construct as many universities as they can. These countries are convinced that in the 21st century, universities are key in producing the kinds of knowledge needed to transform economies and enhance livelihoods. In an article published in the May/June issue of the American journal, ‘Foreign Affairs’, Richard Levin, president of Yale University, describes efforts in this direction by focusing on the growth of Asia’s universities. Two years ago the Indian government announced a plan to construct a world-class university in each of its 30 states, later amended to 14 universities in states that don’t already have a comprehensive university. China, South Korea, Singapore are all pursuing similar goals, guided by the understanding that ‘greater access to higher education would be a prerequisite to sustained economic growth.’

The Malawi Government’s plans to build five new universities in the next ten years would seem to follow a similar conviction. As Levin argues, ‘In today’s knowledge economy … it is not subject-specific knowledge but the ability to assimilate new information and solve problems that is the most important characteristic of a well-educated person.’ It would be folly to wait until a learner was at the university before teaching these characteristics. In order to inculcate these abilities from a young age, Malawi needs to train primary school teachers to the highest quality feasible. In an unpublished essay, Master Kalulu, a seasoned and distinguished Malawian teacher educator, says teachers now operate in ‘situations that are global and dynamic in nature.’ He calls for a teacher education that enables teachers to ‘perceive education as a process of freeing curiosity, permitting individuals to go charging off in new directions dictated by their interest and unleashing enquiry.’

As we debate how to increase equitable access to higher education for all Malawians, let us also consider the foundational players in the educational system, primary school teachers and the institutions that train them. We should also think of ways to strengthen indigenous knowledge systems whose resilience has come under threat from research approaches that do not understand the role that local knowledge systems play.

Levin writes in the conclusion of his article, ‘Increasing the quality of education around the world translates into better-informed and more productive citizens everywhere.’ We can do no better than start with the teachers whom we entrust with the task of educating our little ones, our future leaders.


Unknown said...

Male primary teachers are desperately needed in primary schools. The job however, can be perceived as one not suitable for men. This perception is outdated and inaccurate and puts a lot of potentially great Male Primary Teachers off from joining the profession.

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