School Life in Malawi: A Reflection on Malawian Teaching Methods

Before delving into this third posting from Malawi, I think it will help the reader get a better sense of what they are reading if they get to know a little bit more about the man who has so kindly invited us all into his teaching community.  What follows is a short autobiography written by Mr. Lemani which will then lead into this week’s look at classroom teaching approaches from both the eyes of Sophie and then Mr. Lemani.  The comparisons between practices here in Quebec and those in Malawi are quite interesting and will leave you with much to think about.  Happy reading!

Introducing Mr. Lemani
by Henry Lemani 

My name is Henry Lemani. I was born on December 28th, 1970. From 1987 to 1991, I did my secondary education at Dowa Secondary School where I obtained my Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) and Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), which is equivalent to Ordinary Level. From 1992 to 1994, I was trained as a primary school teacher at Kasungu Teachers Training College. In 1994, I married Catherine Lodzeni. Our family is blessed with four children. One of my daughters is adopted. Her name is Mphatso (which means gift in English). The other three are biological: a boy by the name of Pemphero and two girls named Florida and Naomi. From 1994 to 2003, I taught in various primary schools. In 2003, I obtained a certificate for secondary school and then from 2004 to 2007, I obtained a diploma in secondary education. From there, I became a secondary school teacher. In 2010, I was admitted into Mzuzu University for a Bachelor of Education Degree, which will be completed in 2013. My hobbies are listening to current affairs and watching soccer. My future aspirations consist of obtaining my Masters degree in either of the following: strategic planning and management, educational leadership, sociology or testing and measurement.

Malawian Teaching Methods
through the eyes of Sophie Bass 

During the summer of 2011, I had the opportunity to visit, observe, and dialogue with teachers from three different schools, all of which are located in a village called Chilanga: Chilanga Sighted Primary School, Chilanga School for the Blind, and Chilanga Community Day Secondary School. This year, Mr. Lemani decided that it would be a good idea for me to visit another primary school located outside of Chilanga, Mponda Primary School. Mr. Lemani felt that I would be better suited to discuss the teaching methods that Malawian teachers use if the sample of teachers that I observed was bigger. I willfully agreed and, on June 6th, we walked to Mponda Primary School where I observed three different teachers teach three different lessons.

The teaching methods that I observed last year and the ones I observed at Mponda Primary School this year are not so different from the ones that teachers use in Quebec. For instance, more often than not, I have witnessed teachers in Malawi make use of real-life examples, concrete objects, and illustrations – particularly when teaching English, Mathematics, and Science – in an attempt to help students make connections between the knowledge they learn in school and the world outside the classroom. For example, at Mponda Primary School, I watched a standard 6 teacher teach a mathematics lesson on volume. He used a box to help students understand the meaning of volume. Moreover, I have witnessed many teachers in Malawi use drill and practice exercises in order to help students master certain concepts. Although we are trying to stray away from such practices in Quebec, many teachers still use these types of exercises in their classrooms. Undoubtedly, it can be argued that drill and practice exercises still have a place in Quebec classrooms and, as such, can serve to benefit the students (but what do I know, I am only a pre-service teacher, not an expert, and this is simply me reflecting on my experiences).

Teachers in Malawi also vary their activities often. According to Mr. Lemani, in standard 1 and 2, each lesson lasts a maximum of 30 minutes. From standards 3 to 8, lessons last approximately 35 minutes each. At Bishop’s University, I have learned how important it is to vary my instruction frequently, particularly with the younger students, because they have relatively short attention spans (which is completely normal since they are children – in fact, many adults have short attention spans too, especially when unengaged!). In addition, I have often witnessed teachers in Malawi begin their lessons with a review of what was previously taught, followed by the use of modelling to teach new concepts (common practices in Quebec also).

Overall, from my perspective, I would have to say that the lessons I observed in Malawi were quite teacher-centered, even though many teachers talk about the importance of teaching in a student-centered way like in Quebec. I feel that there is a discrepancy between what teachers say education should be about and what is actually done in both the Malawi and Quebec classroom. If my understanding of the term ‘teacher-centered’ is accurate, the use of drill and practice exercises, frequent modelling, and lecturing are all teacher-centered approaches. Since the Quebec reform, pre-service teachers are instructed to create classrooms that are constructivist and student-centered in nature. Nonetheless, many teachers in Quebec still make extensive use of behaviourist and teacher-centered techniques. Perhaps this is because these strategies still have a certain place in today’s classroom and because it is difficult, despite all our attempts, to teach in a way that is different from the way we were taught as children. Since the reform in Malawi, pre-service teachers are also told to create classrooms that are student-centered. Nevertheless, many teachers resort to teacher-centered practices because a) they have a very strict and standardized curriculum that they must adhere to, b) perhaps the large classroom sizes, lack of resources, and lack of physical space inhibit teachers from teaching in a student-centered way, and c) they have probably never experienced what it feels like to be in a purely student-centered and constructivist classroom, much like pre-service teachers in Quebec like myself.

Mr. Lemani has written a response to my blog report below because it is essential for you, the readers, to obtain the perspectives of a teacher who actually lives in Malawi, as opposed to only hearing my opinions as an outsider. The way I view the education system in Malawi is different from Mr. Lemani because I do not live there and do not have the cultural frame and knowledge that he has. It would not be fair to the people of Malawi if you only received information through my Canadian eyes. Until next time, I wish you all the best.

 

Henry Lemani Responds
by H.Leman

Despite the lessons that we observed at Mponda Primary School, I still believe that teachers must be as creative as much as possible. That is, teachers must use a variety of teaching methods and also use a variety of teaching and learning materials. In a nutshell, teachers are supposed to be facilitators in teaching and learning processes. Teacher-centered instruction is very much discouraged in Malawi. Students must be more involved. Sophie has only witnessed a small sample of lessons in Malawi. Therefore, although I agree that the lessons observed at Mponda Primary School were teacher-centered and were not very good, I think it is unfair to generalize that all teachers in Malawi teach in teacher-centered ways. I feel that there are some teachers who can teach the way it should be (pupil-centered), despite the limitations that we may face. Also, teachers do not always perform as well when they are being observed teaching lessons. Teachers feel nervous, pressured, and tense when this happens. Yet, they are excellent teachers when they teach in the absence of someone observing the lesson. Therefore, it is possible that these teachers did not teach as well as they usually do when both Sophie and I were present.

henrylemani@yahoo.com

 

School Life in Malawi: A Brief Overview of Their Education System

by Sophie Bass and Melanie Stonebanks

Welcome back to the Warm Heart of Africa!  This second posting in the series was greatly assisted by Mr. Henry Lemani who not only provided the necessary background information on which this posting has been based but also worked alongside Sophie to edit the writing as well.  It is an interesting look into a system that will leave you with much to think about.  As well, it is another step forward on our journey of discovery to understand what school life is like for students and teachers in not only the poorest country in Africa but one of the twenty poorest countries in the world.

Here is Sophie’s post:

I arrived in Malawi on June 1st only to find out that Mr. Saka was not around this summer. I was extremely sad by this news, but luckily, on June 5th, I met Mr. Lemani, a teacher who teaches at a nearby secondary school (Chilanga Community Day Secondary School). After discussing my project with him, he decided that he would like to participate in the blog and assist me along the reflective journey. Together we decided the topics of each blog post, but in fear of spoiling the surprise, I shall only reveal the topic of discussion for this blog: an overview of the education system in Malawi.

First off, I would like to point out that there are many similarities between the Quebec (or more generally the Canadian) education system and the Malawi education system. In Quebec, four year old children are often enrolled in pre-kindergarten classrooms and then move on to kindergarten the following year. Similarly, in Malawi, children aged 3 to 5 often attend nursery schools if they are available in the region. Nursery schools are more common in urban areas as opposed to rural areas.  Nursery school programs mirror the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum in Quebec. At six years old, children in Malawi begin primary school, which extends from standard 1 to standard 8. These standards represent grades 1 to 8 in Canada. Once students reach standard 8, they must write and pass national exams before they can be admitted into secondary school. If they pass, they move on to secondary school, which is made up of 4 forms (or grades as we would say in Canada): form 1 (grade 9), form 2 (grade 10), form 3 (grade 11), and form 4 (which would be grade 12 in most Canadian provinces except Quebec). The secondary school in which students are admitted depends upon their performance on the national exams that they must write at the end of the school year in standard 8.

The subjects taught in elementary schools throughout Malawi also share similarities to those outlined in the Quebec Education Program. Students learn subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, Expressive Arts, and Social and Environmental Sciences, which parallel the majority of the subjects taught in Quebec primary schools. Subjects in Malawian schools that differ from those in Quebec would be Agriculture, Bible Knowledge, Chichewa (the national language of Malawi), and Life Skills. The syllabus for Malawian primary schools is the same throughout the country. The same surely cannot be said about Canada. In addition, from standard 1 to 4, all subjects are taught in Chichewa, whereas from standard 5 to 8 and all throughout secondary school, all subjects except Chichewa are taught in English.

Of interest is also the fact that primary schools in Malawi are free, but students must pay to attend secondary school. The fees that students pay vary according to the quality of the school that they attend. At Chilanga Community Day Secondary School, for instance, students must pay 3000 kwachas per term, which translates into approximately 12 Canadian dollars. This may not seem expensive in Canadian terms, but to parents in Malawi, these fees can be quite costly. Many parents are unable to send their children to secondary school due to the high cost of the fees.

Finally, as mentioned in my previous blog, class sizes in Malawi are generally very large. At Mponda Primary School, for example, located in the Kasungu region of Malawi, there is an average of approximately 40 students per classroom. In another school that I had the opportunity to observe, class sizes averaged 80 students per classroom; a lack of both teachers and space cause student-teacher ratios to soar.

To conclude, I could go on and on about the Malawi education system, but the purpose of this blog was simply to provide you with an overview of how things in Malawi elementary schools function and give you a bit of context before I delve deeper into other topics that relate to and affect the education system in Malawi. Until then, I wish you all the best.

Sophie Bass