Preschools In Ghana's Capital Challenge Call-And-Response System

May 30, 2018
Originally published on May 30, 2018 10:56 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Around the world, people recognize that preschool is important, but what's not as clear is, what makes a good preschool? For example, in Ghana's capital city of Accra, an estimated 80 percent of kids - 80 percent - are enrolled in preschool by age 3. This is what you might hear in one of those schools.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Shoe. All of you say shoe.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Shoe.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Shoe.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Shoe.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Shoe.

INSKEEP: The teacher is holding up flashcards.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Nose.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Nose.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Nose.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Nose.

INSKEEP: Preschools in Accra use a system of call and response. The trouble is that tests suggest the kids aren't actually learning very much. As part of our series How to Raise a Human, NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports from Ghana on an experiment to change that and the unexpected obstacle teachers face.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: Now, Herbert.

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Yes.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Herbert Agbavor has been in preschool since he was 1 year old. He's 5 now. Every night, his father, Herman, goes over his homework.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: Daddy's tired.

AIZENMAN: And sometimes dad's patience wears thin, like when they get to a tracing exercise.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: T-R-A-C-E - what does it mean?

HERBERT AGBAVOR: T-R-A-C...

HERMAN AGBAVOR: You've got to learn how to read. It's very important.

AIZENMAN: Herman is worried about his son. He thinks he's not learning to read at the pace he should. I get a sense of why this matters after the homework is done when I sit down with little Herbert to draw pictures with some colored pencils.

Oh, this is your daddy.

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Yes, I draw him big - smiling.

AIZENMAN: Smiling. Oh, look at all his teeth.

HERBERT AGBAVOR: He's happy.

AIZENMAN: He's happy?

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Yes.

AIZENMAN: Why is he happy?

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Because he paid my school fees for me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, wow.

AIZENMAN: Because he paid your school fees for you?

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Yes.

AIZENMAN: Herman has stretched the family budget to put his son in preschool all these years because Herman himself did not get that chance.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: And I had a lot of problem during my education. I realized my foundation was no good.

AIZENMAN: That's why - right now - he's stuck in a job he doesn't like, working at the airport filling out paperwork when planes come in. He wants Herbert to be able to find his passion.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: What he wants to do...

AIZENMAN: Whatever his talent is...

HERMAN AGBAVOR: ...Fulfill it.

AIZENMAN: So this past fall, he pulled Herbert out of his old preschool and put him into another preschool, just hoping it might be better. What he didn't know is that Herbert's new teacher is part of an experiment to transform Ghana's preschools. Her name is Godiva Gbetodeme (ph). Two years ago, she went through a training program.

GODIVA GBETODEME: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Hi.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

GBETODEME: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Hi.

AIZENMAN: Now, she no longer spends all day drilling the kids military style. She's constantly finding ways to engage them in conversation.

GBETODEME: Herbert.

AIZENMAN: She's brought the kids over to this chart that's got faces on it - some smiling, some frowning. Everyone has to put a sticker under the face that matches how they're feeling. Herbert chooses the smiley face.

GBETODEME: Why are you happy, happy, happy like that?

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Because my mother will buy me toffee.

GBETODEME: Your mommy will buy you toffee?

HERBERT AGBAVOR: Yes.

GBETODEME: Will you be bringing me some of the toffee (laughter)?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.

AIZENMAN: This is actually a teaching technique at the core of the experimental training program. When Ghana saw that its kids were failing, it reached out to Sharon Wolf, a professor at University of Pennsylvania who specializes in training preschool teachers in developing countries. She says the idea is to get the teachers to ask kids open-ended questions.

SHARON WOLF: Really trying to draw out children's ability to think and reason.

AIZENMAN: This is the polar opposite of the common teaching style in Ghana - the rote memorization method - which is so pervasive here, Sharon Wolf says they've got a name for it.

WOLF: They say in Ghana chew and pour. You know, you take it in. You chew it. You pour it out. You forget it.

AIZENMAN: And Godiva the teacher says giving up chew and pour required her to completely re-think her role. Before...

GBETODEME: I thought, I'm a teacher.

AIZENMAN: Like, you need to command respect.

GBETODEME: Yeah. I put you where you belong.

AIZENMAN: If necessary, by getting physical - maybe lash them with a stick or...

GBETODEME: Let me be frank. I knocked students' head.

AIZENMAN: You knocked their head - what? - with your fist? Show me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCK)

AIZENMAN: That's hard.

GBETODEME: Yes.

AIZENMAN: That's hard. That would hurt. But at the training, they talked about young kids' brains. Told her that intimidation - it can make kids shut down. For Godiva, this information was life-changing.

GBETODEME: I realized I was harming the children.

AIZENMAN: Most of the other teachers felt the same way. And when they shifted their focus from intimidating kids into memorizing words and numbers and instead just worked on developing the children's reasoning skills, the kids actually started to pick up more words and numbers. Could this be the fix for Ghana's preschools? Well, earlier this year, Herman - little Herbert's dad - paid Godiva a visit to deliver a message.

GBETODEME: Yes. He told me I should lash his son for him.

AIZENMAN: You should lash his son for him?

GBETODEME: Yes. Godiva, lash him for me. Lash Herbert. He's not learning.

AIZENMAN: Lash him. He's not learning.

And in that moment, faced with this anxious dad, Godiva fell back into her old ways. She says she called out to Herbert.

GBETODEME: Herbert, did you hear what your dad said - what your daddy told me to do to you? He said, yes, I heard it.

AIZENMAN: She says the effect was immediate.

GBETODEME: Then he's like - the moment I said that, then you see that he's kind of timid.

AIZENMAN: For the rest of the day, Herbert sort of shrank into himself. It was just a momentary slip in response to a one-time conversation. But it's telling because of another less hopeful finding from Sharon Wolf's experiment. A second group of teachers got the same training as Godiva, but then the researchers also brought in the parents and encouraged them to get more involved in their kids' education - talk to the teachers more. And here's what Sharon Wolf and her collaborators found. The teachers in that second group who had the parents talking to them more, they stuck to the old way - teacher as authoritarian drill master. And their students...

WOLF: All those gains that we saw for children are erased.

AIZENMAN: Somehow involving the parents made things worse, and this points to the challenge of being a parent in any country. How do you keep your determination to give your child the best possible start from becoming the very thing that gets in the way? It's hard for parents to give up on demanding immediate results from schools, like Herman who is so desperate to give his son a better life.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: Herbert is my first son.

AIZENMAN: You don't have room for error with him.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: Oh, we can't do that. We can't do that.

AIZENMAN: Then he brings up this local expression.

HERMAN AGBAVOR: If you are a one-eyed man, you don't play with sand.

AIZENMAN: If you're a one-eyed man, you don't play with sand because the sand could get in your eye. And you've only got one. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.