23 March 2019

Uganda: Schools Adopt Play-Based Teaching to Improve Learning Among Children

At the start of this year, Ms Sajitha Bashir, the World Bank education practice manager for Eastern Africa, presented a report entitled Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa to the First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports, Ms Janet Museveni.

The report highlights four areas to better align their systems to improve learning, some of which included the scrapping of the national Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE). Similarly, Ms Generose Muhaya, the proprietor of Happy Hearts International School, cites poor teaching methodologies as one of the major problems facing Uganda's education sector.

Ms Muhaya, who has been in the education sector for 20 years, encourages schools to use practical methods to consolidate abstract concepts and avoid rot learning.

At her school, Ms Muhaya and the team employ play-based and inquiry-based approaches to introduce, enhance and extend learning and they attest to how this strong foundation yields to later success. This success proves that it is possible to change Uganda's educational narrative by a few steps and being intentional.

Comparisons

Ms Nancy Mosey, the executive director of Denison Child Care Services-Canada and a lecturer at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Canada (both institutions are partners to Happy Hearts), relates this to her own journey and the journey of education in Canada.

"Exactly 11 years ago, I was asked to teach teachers about learning through play. Many teachers thought it would be chaotic and a waste of their resources and indeed, some dropped off. While Happy Hearts still struggles with the same resistance to play based approaches, all the partners are confident that through consistency and making the learning visible the pedagogy shall gradually be embraced across the Nation," Ms Josephine Muhaya, the co-director at Happy Hearts and lecturer at Seneca College, says.

Happy Hearts parents are informed through diaries, workshops and meetings how play relates to children's learning and the "academic" concepts.

Trying out

"In Lira, we witnessed how children waited to play with toys as though awaiting a prompter from an adult because they kept looking back and forth, at us and the toys. Having told the teachers not to say a word to them but simply watch, after three minutes, the children started to ease into the toys. It was amazing how they played, negotiated, shared and had fun without fighting. UN mandates that we let the children play, let us do just that," Mr James Bulenzibuto, the officer-in-charge of international relations at Kyambogo University, says.

He adds: "We give the Primary Seven pupils a lot to learn when all they have is two terms to internalise the data but have no structures to build on. It is without a doubt that they cannot reproduce what they learned or rather crammed."

Mr Bulenzibuto also believes that children have lots of potential most of which is being compromised by the current teaching methods.

"We have all we need to teach our children the basic skills within our environment. With these, teaching can be done at home or in the community with some training," he says.

Parents who attended the workshop attested to the high levels of success in soft skills that are clearly desirable later in life but are not prioritised in the delivery of most teaching methods.

Dr Godfrey Ejuu, the head of Department of Early Childhood Education at Kyambogo University, emphasises the need to allow children to play so that their finger muscles and bones develop.

"Many parents and teachers desire that children start writing from the get go but their fingers are still soft and with time, the pencils most of which are small, hurt them, causing them to detest learning as they consider it labourious. It is also detrimental for this child to be forced to write yet their mind is not developed enough," he says.

He also points out that parents do not give the teachers a chance to do what they were trained to do, which is giving poor results.

Change in curriculum

"We are revising the curriculum and very soon, teachers are going out of the classroom. You heard that PLE is being scrapped and that is not because Kampala schools failed. This has been a work-in-progress for several years. Many students have not learned how to comprehend what they are learning but they read to pass examinations. Tests are meant to develop memory and cramming, while manners or character are not catered for. We are looking at raising a whole child by the time they graduate," he says.

Ms Muhaya also shares how well written and well rounded the Uganda Early Learning Framework is and requests parents and school directors to support teachers in delivering it.

Ms Mosey says Uganda's curriculum was written before Ontario's, but the difference was in the roll out. She says Uganda can get there if all stakeholders work together to ensure its success.

She adds that Ontario's Apprenticeship Programme relies heavily on community partners to feed the training system with needs in the field and that the beauty of this kind of partnership is that the trainers (post-secondary) can implement, evaluate and adjust their curriculum on a needs to basis based on real experiences.

Reducing the cost

With studying practicalised, Mr Bulenzibuto knows for a fact that costs for early childhood education will be reduced as educators will not say they do not have the resources to teach.

He points out that they have a collaboration with the Norwegian government where student teachers from Norway come to Uganda to do their teaching practice.

"While our own do not go over there owing to inadequate resources, they get a chance to learn from their counterparts through seminars. During these, many share about new things that we have otherwise taken for granted or never noticed. These exchange students also work in schools with whom we have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) such as Happy Hearts International. They also engage with several contact persons during a send-off seminar before they return home," he says.

Tangible experiments

In a recent workshop, parents experienced and witnessed how abstract ideas and knowledge is better enhanced through concrete and tangible experiments.

Ms Muhaya further explains how parental engagement and involvement is vital to the educational reform proposed by various sectors.

"Parents are crucial to the change as they are the clientele and hence can effect change. It is not enough to focus on research and document writing, practical steps must be put in place and these small steps at grassroot levels must be supported," she says.

"When some parents read that a child enjoyed playing in water, they wonder if they should pay handsomely for their children to play. However, this is not just play because as they do so, they learn to share, take turns, negotiate, enhance motor skills, listen to others, problem solve and develop their imagination," Ms Muhaya says.

She adds: "Last month, in collaboration with our partners, we travelled to Kole and Lira districts to share ideas on how strong foundations lead to real tangible and holistic success in later life. We were overjoyed when more than 42 teachers turned up for the workshops where ideas and materials that can be used to enhance learning were shared."

She says there is need to start in the early years, offering various opportunities of stimulation so that the brain of the child is developed. During an icebreaker game earlier that day, Ms Mosey demonstrated and explained how the brain is developed through repetition by strengthening synapses.

"In Lira, we witnessed that children are competent and can learn without adults apart from supervising them," she narrates.

Ms Mosey believes that by eight, with the brain and synopsis growing, children who have been exposed to such curricula can thrive better because with experience and choice learning, they learn through emotions devoid of fear to be themselves.

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