Tag Archives: Malawi

Praxis Malawi: It Takes a Global Village to Build a School

Praxis Malawi
Praxis Malawi

As schools across the province are in the midst of end of year festivities and rituals from graduation and exams to field trips and track meets, half way across the world in Malawi, Africa a school instead of preparing to close up for a couple of months has just laid down the footings of its first classroom.  The construction of a grade one class, accompanied by housing for the teacher and family along with the creation of the primary curriculum has been a work in progress for the past five years.  As I write this post, countless hours of discussion, deliberation, and deep thinking are transforming from the theoretical into reality.

As I have written about previously, my husband, Dr. Christopher Stonebanks, has traveled each spring to Malawi, Africa to live in the village of Makupo.  It is indeed one of the poorest places on earth, with no running water or electricity but home to a wonderful people who indeed do deserve the title of “The Warm Heart of Africa” by which Malawi is appropriately known.

This is the fifth year that Christopher has taken students for five weeks in order to engage in research.  To read about how this project came to be, I invite you to read this post.  It is a journey of unexpected twists and turns and has been an authentic example of lifelong learning.  There have been celebrations and tears along the way.  And as in any exemplary classroom, whether it lives inside a building or out over the garden wall, collaboration, commitment and lasting collegiality have been developed, fostered and maintained.

Praxis Malawi 2013
Praxis Malawi 2013

This year’s group of eleven students include a wonderful combination from Bishop’s University, two groups of  students from McGill University   as well as students from Champlain College.   Take a minute to introduce yourself to this amazing team of young academics and future teachers.  Read a bit about who they are, where they come from and what their aspirations are for their time in this tiny village in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am always so impressed by the quality and diversity of students that are attracted to this type of experiential learning.  It is an endeavour that takes them away from the comforts and security of home and thrusts them headfirst into the unsettling environment of the unknown and culture shock.

For the first time, each of the Praxis Malawi team members has been chronicling their personal and professional journeys by means of a blog  – this one.  Narratives of learning the local language, cooking with the ladies, brushing teeth under a starry sky and fighting off large and hungry insects are interspersed with reflections on interviews with Malawian teachers and residents, challenges of creating a curriculum that will support the needs and wishes of the community as well as navigating through the stages of culture shock that each one experiences in their own way can be found here.

I urge you to visit the blog and discover more about this wonderful project and all the incredible adventures the students have been up to.  If you have time to leave a comment or two, I am sure it will do wonders to encourage them along their journey.  There is nothing more reassuring to one who is “out in the field” than to receive a note from home reinforcing the notion that all their struggles and efforts as well as their successes have been recognized by a peer, a mentor or simply an advocate.

I as well, have an invitation to offer those of you who might be moved into wanting to participate in this type of humanitarian association. As this will be a project that will continue over many years, we are looking for support by means of a Professional Learning Community.  I have set one up through LEARN and what I am hoping for is to have people from all corners of the education community here assist in the building of this new school.  Through this PLC, you will be linked to the online community and free to offer support by means of links to resources, suggestions, direction or inspiration.  This is so crucial when building curriculum.

In the fall, we will be hosting a LEARN web event that will highlight ways that schools can connect with and learn about another school half way around the world.  Rich curricular ideas and activities to build global citizenship and social awareness as well as develop reciprocal and sustainable learning will be featured.  If you think you and you class might be interested joining and supporting Praxis Malawi send me an email at mstonebanks@learnquebec.ca and we can discuss the multiple possibilities for involvement.  Please pass along the link to the blog and the invitation to the PLC to anyone who you think might be interested.

The old adage “It Takes a Village” really does ring true here.  And the beautiful thing is that with the voice and direction coming from the village of Makupo, Malawi we are simply joining in on the conversation.

Naomi blog 2 - My new family
At the top of Mount Kasungu

School Life in Malawi: Mitigating the Challenges

End of the school day

In their last blog post, Sophie and Mr. Lemani wrote about the challenges faced by primary school teachers in Malawi. To follow up, they felt that they should discuss various ways of mitigating some of these challenges. What follows are some ideas forwarded by Mr. Lemani.  Some of them might sound familiar, either having been promoted in teacher training classrooms in our universities or in professional development sessions offered by our school boards.  Others, though, demonstrate the divide that does exist between our two communities.  Maybe after reading about some of the possibilities that could bring about a better school life for the teachers and students in Malawi, we can discover ways that we and our classrooms might be able to offer some assistance to lessen the challenges being faced and in doing so connect our communities together.

Mr. Lemani’s suggestions

1. In order to minimize the problem of space in schools and erect additional classrooms, one solution could be to mobilize communities to mold bricks and lobby for assistance from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) and other well wishers.

2. The Malawi government is putting an effort in training primary teachers through the Initial Primary Teacher Education program (IPTE) and Open Distance Learning to reduce pupil-teacher ratios. In addition, the government is supplying textbooks for both teachers and students. These are examples of solutions that the government has undertaken. Other things that the government could do to solve some issues include the following:

  • Improve the accommodations for rural teachers and install solar electricity to attract teachers to teach in rural schools.
  • Review the working conditions for teachers and increase rural teaching allowance to motivate rural teachers.

3. The use of TALULAR is required for a teacher to teach effectively. TALULAR is an acronym for Teaching And Learning Using Locally Available Resources. It is an intervention which is an eye opener for teachers to make use of locally available resources within their immediate environment. Its goal is to help teachers become more creative, intuitive and resourceful. If teachers made use of this intervention, teaching would become increasingly student-centered.

4. To teach effectively and systematically, a teacher needs to plan and prepare for the lessons. The following should be considered when preparing lessons:

  • The teacher needs to know the characteristics of the learners such as their age, physical characteristics, entry behaviour, ability, and size of class.
  • The teacher needs to know the topic from the schemes of work (work plan for the term). The content to be covered should be worked out by reading through reference materials and textbooks prescribed for the subject.
  • The teacher needs to decide what pedagogy to employ.
  • The teacher needs to locate and make use of appropriate teaching and learning materials.

5. Older teachers need to stay current with changes that are made in the curriculum. Therefore, teachers should be oriented on the changes of issues included in the curriculum. This can be achieved through school based seminars where teachers can share their experiences.

6. To encourage children to go to school and to support their morale and material needs, there needs to be a liason between the school and parents or guardians through the Parents Teacher Association (PTA) and School Management Committee (SMC).

7. Girls who get pregnant at an early age should be encouraged to go back to school. A re-admission for these students is required so that they can continue their education.

8. Locals could help by raising funds to help alleviate some immediate needs (for example, purchasing balls, pens, pencils, etc. with the funds raised).

These are the solutions that I would suggest.

Thank you,

Henry Lemani

Sophie Responds

Since Mr. Lemani focused on things that citizens from Malawi can do to mitigate some of the challenges that teachers face, I decided to focus my attention on things that people like you and I, who live in Quebec, can do to help. However, before I go on to write about the solutions that I believe would be viable for teachers in Malawi, I would like to say that this blog is a very challenging one to write because I am not from Malawi. Therefore, I do not have a solid understanding of the solutions that would be plausible in this context. Too often, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and well-intentioned people from wealthier countries go into “third-world countries” with preconceived notions on how they can be of help. They go into these countries with big plans that are not necessarily tailored to the context and culture in which they find themselves. Nonetheless, they are determined to achieve what they set out to do and, in the process, they neglect to hear out the very people that they set out to help. As a result, even if they have accomplished what they wanted to do and feel good about the work that they have done, they do not end up doing any good because their solutions were not suitable for the context in which they found themselves. Of course, I am not saying that all NGOs and well-intentioned people are guilty of this. However, these colonial patterns of behaviour have occurred time and time again throughout our history and are still occurring to this day. One of the great things about the Malawi Project is that it is built on collaboration and reciprocity. The participants of the Malawi Project realize that they are not experts. They recognize the importance of working with the people of Malawi in order to find viable solutions. Imposing one’s own set of beliefs on others does nothing but harm. We have seen this happen too often.

Thus, what can I say? Well, step one is to listen to the people that you are trying to help. We have done that. Mr. Lemani and I discussed the challenges that teachers face together and we reported them to you. Mr. Lemani has offered his opinions on how these challenges can be mitigated. Now, the question is: How can we help him, as human beings responding to the plights of another? After all, part of being human is helping another in times of need, is it not?

One of the concerns we often have as participants of the Malawi Project is the harms that come from creating a culture of dependency. This thought is always at the back of our minds. Nonetheless, it is important not to undermine the power that comes from simply being human, having compassion, and truly caring about others. In my first blog post, I wrote about world structures such as globalization and free trade that benefit wealthier countries at the expense of poorer ones. In order to lift the poorer countries out of poverty forever, these systemic and structural problems must be addressed.  While it may not be in my power to tackle the thorny issues of the colonial heritage of modern globalism, there may be concrete ways in which I can help.  Why should we turn our backs on people and do nothing after hearing about and seeing the conditions in which they live just because no big change in our world will occur from this (i.e. entire countries will still remain in poverty while others become richer and more powerful)? What about the small changes? Are they not important too? What about helping another human being out of compassion and love and bringing about change in that person’s life? Is that not something too? Why not strive for the bigger changes yet not forget about the smaller ones? Are they not both important? Are they not both part of being human? Why not collaborate, listen to individuals and take action accordingly?

After long reflection, I am ready to focus my attention on what we can do as human beings to help Mr. Lemani and the other teachers that face, on a daily basis, the many challenges discussed in the last blog. I apologize for getting sidetracked, but I felt I needed to reflect a bit before I delved into the topic up for discussion this week. What I will suggest will probably fall into the category of “band-aid solutions” rather than the category of “real solutions” because they probably would not bring about big changes in the world. Nevertheless, I believe that these “band-aid solutions” would at least bring about small changes that would benefit the lives of a number of teachers and students, which is also important and valuable.

First off, Mr. Lemani discussed how mobilizing communities to mould bricks would be one solution to helping build additional classrooms in schools that do not have enough space. In order to do this, money might be needed. Therefore, how can we, in Quebec, help with this? Fundraising and then sending the money over would, in my opinion, be the way to go. However, sending the money over by mail would be risky and it is, of course, essential to consider who you are sending the money to. The best thing to do would be to fundraise the money and then give the money to the director of the Malawi Project, Dr. Christopher Stonebanks christopher.stonebanks@ubishops.ca, to ensure that the money gets to Malawi and to the appropriate individuals. The schools that the Malawi Project has been in contact with are the following: Chilanga Sighted Primary School, Chilanga School of the Blind, Chilanga Community  Day Secondary School, and, most recently thanks to Mr. Lemani, Mponda Primary School. Thus, the money would go to the headmaster (principal) of one or all the schools (depending on how much money is raised).

In terms of the living conditions of Malawian teachers, I would offer a similar solution. In fact, participants of the Malawi Project have been fundraising money to improve the accommodations for teachers at Chilanga Sighted Primary School for two years now and improvements to the houses are evident. More renovations are nonetheless required, but with the large sum of money that the school has received this year, hopefully only minor changes to the houses will be needed in future years. Moreover, I think that fundraising could also help solve issues such as the lack of desks, seats, portable boards, student uniforms, and washrooms for the schools mentioned above.

Other than fundraising, sending materials such as exercise books, story books, maps, atlases, soccer balls, soccer pumps, and extra needles for the pumps could also be helpful, as many schools are in need of such materials. However, it is important to send materials of quality as opposed to materials that you would not consider using yourself. Too often when people send materials to “third-world countries”, these materials are, to put it bluntly, junk. When donating materials, one should always ask oneself: “Would I want this?” or “Would I want my child to have this?” If the answer is no, please do not donate it! One person’s garbage is not always treasure for another.

To conclude, I realize that the aforementioned solutions do not offer any long-term changes. They are, as already stated, “band-aid solutions” that only offer immediate changes – changes that probably will not last a lifetime. As such, the same issues might arise again and might have to be dealt with again. However, I would like to believe that these solutions could at least help a number of teachers and students living in a certain time and place. Perhaps future generations will not benefit from these changes, but at least, people living in the present could benefit. Is that not something too?

Until next time, I wish you all the best.

Sophie Bass

School Life in Malawi: The Challenges Faced by Malawian Teachers

Broken school furniture in Malawi

As Sophie’s time in Malawi continued, she was fortunate to be invited not only to observe classrooms in action but to speak also with the Malawian teachers about the daily struggles that they face both in and out of the classroom. Through discussions and comparisons, we learn what is universal about the challenges faced by schools and what is unique to Malawi and to our own milieu.  As we here in Quebec begin to start thinking about heading “back to school”, it might help us to look at our own challenges with different eyes when we read and consider what school life in Malawi encompasses.

As Seen Through Sophie’s Eyes

All over the world, teachers face numerous challenges. In Canada, one of the biggest challenges that teachers face is meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Canadian students today come from a wide range of backgrounds. The Canadian population is racially, religiously, linguistically, and ethnically diverse. Moreover, students who enter our classrooms come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds as well, meaning that not all children come from happy, safe, and supportive homes. Inclusion has also become popular in many Canadian provinces, most notably Quebec. Therefore, teachers must also help those with learning disabilities and behavioural problems reach their full potential. Needless to say, Canadian teachers have their hands full and these challenges are made even more difficult when we consider the predominantly white, female, and middle class population of teachers that are in charge of educating our youth. The Canadian student body is extremely diverse, yet the overall population of our teachers is not. But these challenges are for a future discussion, as I wish to turn my attention to some of the challenges that Malawian teachers face.

Although some of the challenges that Malawian teachers face are similar to those faced by their Canadian counterparts, the main problem in Malawi is a serious lack of funds. Poverty in Canada is common, but not nearly as common as it is in Malawi. Malawi is amongst one of the ten poorest countries in the world. Consequently, the Malawian government has substantially less money to put aside for education than the Canadian government has.

During my visit at Mponda Primary School, I had the opportunity to talk with the headmaster (principal) of the school about the difficulties of teaching in Malawi. He told me that the challenges that Malawian teachers face fall into two categories: academic challenges and physical challenges. Under the category ‘academic challenges’ falls a lack of materials such as textbooks, exercise books, story books, maps, atlases, student uniforms (Malawian students are required to wear uniforms at school to help prevent bullying), balls for sports such as soccer and netball (netball is similar to basketball), and portable boards (portable boards are very useful because many of the classrooms are outdoors as there is not enough space indoors). Another ‘academic challenge’ is a shortage of teachers. Student-teacher ratios are very high because there are not enough teachers despite the fact that the Malawian government has been trying to train more teachers. At Mponda Primary School, for instance, there is only one teacher per standard (grade) and each standard is averaged at 40 students. Chilanga Sighted Primary School faces the same problem, but to a greater extent because the student body is larger, with an average of 80 students per teacher. Imagine having 40 to 80 primary-aged students in your classroom!

In terms of physical challenges, I have been told that many Malawian schools lack physical space. At Mponda Primary School, there are only four indoor classrooms, yet, there are eight standards in elementary school. So four out of eight classrooms are outside, which is very unpleasant and inconvenient when the rainy season arrives. At Chilanga Sighted Primary School, there is one indoor classroom per standard, but these classrooms are crowded because there are approximately 1 000 students in the school. In order for students to be seated comfortably at Chilanga Primary, there should probably be between 2 and 4 classrooms per standard, as opposed to only one.

Other physical challenges include a lack of seats and desks. Many students have no choice but to sit on the hard cement floors or wet grass. Additionally, there is a lack of washrooms. Many schools have no toilets and some schools only have one or two. According to Mr. Lemani and the headmaster of Mponda Primary School, there should be at least 1 toilet per 25 boys and 1 toilet per 10 girls. This is a far stretch for most schools. Access to transportation is another issue that Malawian schools face. In Canada, we have buses that transport students to and from the school. In Malawi, many students are forced to walk many kilometers in order to get to school and then to go back home. Finally, most teachers must live on the compound of the school. The houses that these teachers live in are in very bad condition and need serious repairs. How many of these challenges do Canadian schools, teachers, and students face?

The challenges that I listed above have come up in conversation time and time again with every teacher that I have encountered so far in Malawi. I hope that it is fair of me to generalize that these are issues that teachers all over Malawi are facing. However, Mr. Lemani will be reading over my blog very shortly and will hopefully offer his insights below like last time.  Until next time, I wish you all the best.

Sophie Bass

Mr. Lemani Responds

Although Sophie has explained the situation quite well, there are additional challenges that teachers face that should not be forgotten. One problem is the lack of incentives for teachers such as poor and/or lack of accommodation, no electricity, low salaries, lack of promotions, and lack of orientation. Also, most teachers prefer working in urban areas as opposed to rural ones because there are no social facilities in rural areas (hospitals, for example). One of the initiatives that the government undertook to attract teachers to rural areas was to give them a rural allowance of 5 000 kwachas (approximately 19 Canadian dollars), but due to the devaluation of the kwacha, this money is too little to attract teachers. Yet another challenge that many teachers face is that they start to resort to drill and practice methods of teaching because of two reasons: (1) they have a big workload and (2) the syllabus is exam-oriented.

As for students, one problem is that some rural schools do not have a feeding program. Another problem for many students is that many of them cannot attend school because they do not have enough money to buy school uniforms. Also, some students have to walk long distances to get to school and a lot of parents do not encourage their children to go to school because they do not see the importance of education. On an encouraging note, child labor is becoming minimal due to civic education and awareness. More parents are encouraging their children to go to school.

Henry Lemani


For some background about Malawi, see the Wikipedia entry – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malawi

Other posts in this series:

School Life in Malawi Part I: An Introduction to the Warm Heart of Africa

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

School Life in Malawi: A Reflection on Malawian Teaching Methods


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.



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


School Life in Malawi Part I: An Introduction to the Warm Heart of Africa

By Melanie Stonebanks and Sophie Bass

For four years now, my husband, Dr. Christopher Stonebanks, has been traveling in the late springtime to Malawi, fondly referred to as “The Warm Heart of Africa”.  For five weeks out of the year he lives and learns in a small rural village that has no electricity or running water.  During his time away from home he has laid out what we hope will be the foundation of a community that stretches across continents with a focus of collaboration and exchanges of knowledge.  As a professor at Bishop’s University, he has created an opportunity for the students here to share in an exceptionally unique and life altering experience.  As defined by the University’s Crossing Borders Research Cluster (http://www.borders.ubishops.ca/home.html),

The Malawi Project invites Bishop’s University students to participate in a research based experiential learning, independent study or internship program in the Kasungu region of Malawi, Africa. While living in the rural village of Makupo, students from multidisciplinary backgrounds engage in creating and exploring their own research interests in conjunction with professors, peers and members of the Makupo community. The result of the five week experience is meant to encourage students to creatively expand their own borders of learning through a spirit of reciprocal participation and dialogue.”

Recently, I spoke to a student who was returning for a second time to Malawi and was delighted to discover that she was interested in blogging for the weeks she was going to be away.  I was immediately intrigued by the focus of her upcoming research as she was going to be investigating, journaling and blogging about the life of a teacher in a Malawi classroom.  Throughout the next few weeks, the LEARN blog will be posting her thoughts, conversations, reflections and perceptions along with some photographs depicting what life is like living and teaching in this particular context.  (We are also eager to get some writing from the teacher himself!)

I hope you will find the postings informative, enriching and educational! What follows is Sophie’s first blog post.  Enjoy!


My name is Sophie Bass. I am 21 years old and after four wonderful, life-changing years at Bishop’s University, I have received my Bachelor of Arts degree. Since Bishop’s University has become a second home to me, I have decided to return to Bishop’s next year to obtain my Bachelor of Education degree. As a small town girl (yes, like in the song Don’t Stop Believing by Journey) from Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Bishop’s proved to be an especially conducive environment for me. In fact, it is there that I had the privilege to meet a bunch of incredibly dynamic, caring, and socially active professors who challenged me to see the world through various lenses and to question the ways in which our world is structured. It is there that I was introduced to the Malawi Project…(pause for suspense).

The Malawi Project is an initiative started by Dr. Christopher Stonebanks, a respected professor at Bishop’s University. It is an interdisciplinary project functioning through the Crossing Borders Research Cluster. The project commenced in the summer of 2010, when the first group of Bishop’s students arrived in Malawi. While in Malawi, students perform research, broadening their knowledge and expertise in their own field of study while also immersing themselves in the Malawian culture and learning about the daily lives of the people. Since Malawi is amongst the top ten poorest countries of the world, students also learn a great deal about the dynamics of the world and the structures (such as globalization and free trade amongst others) that serve to benefit certain countries at the expense of others.

In addition to providing opportunities for students to perform field research and immerse themselves in a new culture, the Malawi Project is also committed to working collaboratively with villages in the Kasungu region of Malawi to help improve the quality of life of the people. The elders of these villages discuss and determine what it is that they need and then report to Dr. Stonebanks so that the participants of the Malawi Project can fundraise and seek donations in Canada to send to Malawi. The goal of the Malawi Project is not to impose its own set of values and beliefs; rather, the objective is to converse with the elders of the villages and contribute accordingly. To truly be of help, the Malawi Project realizes that the villages must make the decisions, for they know best what they need.

During the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Malawi Project and go to Malawi for five weeks. Being an education student, I was interested in investigating the education system in Malawi. More specifically, since it is not uncommon for Malawian teachers to have from 50 to over 100 students in their classrooms, I decided to focus on how teachers coped with such large class sizes. In the spirit of reciprocity, I, as well as the other students, was paired with a member of the community. My “co-learner” was an incredibly brilliant and kind standard 8 (grade 8) teacher, Mr. Saka (this is a pseudonym – I shall not use his real name until I receive his consent). After many interesting conversations with Mr. Saka about the needs of the school and education in general, a new project was born and extended into the one that I shall undertake this summer.

In essence, my project this summer will involve chronicling my experience working and discussing with Mr. Saka via the LEARN blog. As a pre-service teacher, reflective practice is constantly emphasized and with good reason, for it contributes a great deal to our professional development. Therefore, the blog that I am commencing as of now will serve as a location to share my reflections. Moreover, I am hoping that this blog will open the public’s eyes to the situation in Malawi, specifically as it relates to the education system and the lives of the teachers. I am also hoping that this blog will start conversations amongst educators and will bridge the gap between teachers in Malawi and teachers in Canada. I wish that this blog could help create partnerships, a sense of community, and a sense of solidarity between schools. I truly believe that it is the commitment to helping both our local and global community that will change the world. Finally, by reflecting, via this blog, on the experiences of the teachers in the Kasungu region of Malawi, I am seeking to give voice to these teachers so that their stories can be heard. Mr. Saka will be reading over each blog before it is posted to ensure that all the information is accurate and to give his input. I am hoping that he will write a few blogs too so that you, the readers, can receive an insider’s report on the education system in Malawi.

Alas, my first blog is concluded!  I will be in Malawi on June 1st, 2012. Thus, you can expect to hear (or shall I say read) from me again real soon! Until then, I wish you all the best.


Sophie Bass


Another blog about a teacher’s experience in Malawi – http://postcardswithoutpostage.wordpress.com/malawi/