When Europeans settled in the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) in the late 1500s, they trained locals to be teachers for religious purposes. These educators were strategically conditioned to be obedient to their colonial masters. Similarly, in the classroom, teachers simulated the role of their colonizers and expected unquestioned obedience from their students. Today, this phenomenon is still present in Ghana’s public education system: children are to be seen but not heard and are not encouraged to challenge what they are being taught.
This type of teaching may have been effective in the 1500s, but it falls short for an independent middle-income nation in the 21st century. With the advancement of technology, the proliferation of new ideas, and the spread of globalization, students need to be active and critical participants in and outside of the classroom. To encourage this, we need to enforce the ban of corporal punishment, re-define classroom structures, change pedagogical methods and re-imagine the role of a teacher.
Enforcing the ban of corporal punishment
Although corporal punishment has recently been abolished in Ghanaian schools, a recent study revealed that 80% of students are still being caned. However, some students are not being punished for bad behavior but rather, for not being able to answer questions “correctly.” While recently observing a classroom in the Eastern region of Ghana, I asked students if any of them were caned in the past week. Surprisingly, an overwhelming number of them raised their hands. In fact, one student expressed, “Madam, we were beaten just this morning for not remembering what our teacher never taught us!”
Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Characters, argues, “that in order for children to succeed, they first need to learn how to fail.” How will students be successful in an environment driven by fear and in one that does not support speaking up, making and learning from mistakes? It is imperative that proper mechanisms are put in place to prevent teachers and school leaders from caning. Instead, positive forms of discipline should be developed as corporal punishment is not only instilling terror in the classroom, but it is discouraging students from being critical learners.
Redefining classroom structures
The structure of the classrooms in Ghana must also be revisited. In a study conducted to measure the effects of classroom seating arrangements, results revealed that students who sat in semi-circles asked more questions than those that sat in a row- column format.
Not surprisingly, in Ghana, students sit in rows, which as mentioned is less conducive to communication and collaboration as it places less emphasis on the child and more emphasis on the teacher. Since President Mahama has pledged to build 200 secondary schools over the next few years, he should use this opportunity to change the way we position our desks so as to create an environment that fosters brainstorming and active class participation.
Changing pedagogical methods
In addition, effective pedagogy must be implemented. The consistent use of rote learning, also known as “chew and pour” must end. Instead, more progressive teaching methods must be implemented such as ‘project- based learning’. Project- based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges, simultaneously developing cross-curriculum skills while working in small collaborative groups. A study revealed that project based learning in primary schools expanded students’ knowledge and created a culture of collaboration and exchange of ideas. Hence, training and support in implementing such teaching methods is needed in order to improve the quality of instruction in Ghana’s public schools.
Re-imagining the role of a teacher
Finally, the role of the teacher must be redefined. It must go beyond the classroom walls as students face multi-faceted challenges that often require the involvement of the community at large, and a community that includes their teachers. Therefore, teachers must be trained to be leaders in order to identify problems that prevent children from learning, and find innovative ways to address these challenges. This can be achieved by making teachers reflect critically on the impact of their work. A study conducted in South Africa to educate novice teachers about their valuable change agency role in the schooling context suggests that critical reflection and self-reflection fosters leadership skills within novice teachers. The findings revealed to what extent reflective journals played a role in enhancing leadership abilities for these soon to be educators. These methods can be adopted in Ghana’s teacher training colleges to ensure that teachers are equipped to lead in and outside of classroom.
The colonial era may be over, but we are still teaching students to be subservient citizens and not independent thinkers. As we approach our 60th independence, we must re-think and re-design our vision for quality education by focusing on student centered learning and professional development for teachers that fosters leadership and self-reflection. Finally, in order for these changes to be sustained we must create robust accountability mechanisms.
By Esther Okudzeto Ohrt
Harvard Graduate School of Education