“Good job you!” shouts Pauline Bika, as a group of schoolchildren completes the hokey-cokey. “Good job me!” choruses her class. Bika runs a small government primary school in Edo state, in southern Nigeria. It is reached by a mud track that starts not far outside Benin city, the state capital. Her school has 140 pupils, but only three teachers.
For all that it lacks, Ms Bika’s school has one advantage. At the start of last year, the Edo state education ministry gave all her teachers a small (digital) tablet with a black-and-white touch screen. Every two weeks, they use it to download detailed scripts that guide every lesson they deliver. These scripts tell the teachers what to say, what to write on the blackboard, and even when to walk around the classroom. Ms Bika says this new way of working is saving teachers time that they used to spend scribbling their own lesson plans — and her pupils are reading better, too.
The reforms in Edo began in 2018. Godwin Obaseki, the State governor, says poor schools are one reason youngsters leave the state for greener pastures (some fall victim to people-traffickers promising better lives in Europe). Since then, the government has provided tablets and training to over 15,000 teachers. They in turn have given the new lessons to more than 300,000 children, most of them in primary school. On any given day, pupils throughout the state receive identical lessons, as dictated by the tablet.
The training and technology are provided by NewGlobe, an education company founded in 2007 by three Americans. NewGlobe developed its approach while running a chain of low-cost private schools, mostly in Kenya, under the brand Bridge International Academies. A study by academics including Michael Kremer, a development economist at the University of Chicago, found that, over two years, children who attended NewGlobe’s primary schools made gains equivalent to almost a whole year of extra schooling, compared with their peers in other schools.
Though Edo was the first state in Nigeria to strike a deal with the firm, NewGlobe’s pedagogy has since also been applied in Lagos, the country’s biggest city. The firm is starting work in Manipur, a state in north-eastern India, and in Rwanda. Around a million children are now studying in classrooms that use NewGlobe’s model — far more than its private schools have ever been able to reach.
Although it seems able to find plenty of clients, the company provokes ferocious arguments among educators. Its private schools have long faced energetic opposition from trade unions and some international NGOs, many of whom hate the idea of profit-seeking companies playing any role in education.
Dennis Sinyolo of Education International, a global group of teachers’ unions, says scripted lessons “undermine teaching” and encourage “rote learning and exam drilling”. He says good lesson plans are written to match local contexts, and the needs of individual students. The freedom to change tack mid-lesson is invaluable if a lesson plan is not working. “There’s no one-size-fits-all in teaching,” he says.
Back in Edo, Governor Obaseki’s transformation still has plenty to prove. An analysis published in 2019 by the state government and NewGlobe claims that during the first year of the reforms, children learned as much in a single term as they were previously learning in one year. But the project has yet to undergo a rigorous independent evaluation.
Whether strict scripting is necessary remains a topic of debate. (The World Bank panel, for instance, argued that word-for-word scripts are less effective than simpler guides.) In 2018, RTI, an American non-profit group, analysed 19 school-reform efforts it had been involved in across 13 countries, including Ethiopia and Uganda. It concluded that programmes with slightly less prescriptive guides — a page of notes per day, say, rather than a full-on script — produced better results.
Yet Edo’s approach appears to have persuaded most local teachers of its worth. Obaseki says school staff had long felt ignored and unappreciated; he says that providing more training and equipment has brought fresh motivation. He insists that support for the project among unions was crucial to his re-election, in 2020. It has, he says, been “one of my best investments”.
(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education and The Economist)