I have been teaching biology in a secondary school in rural Tanzania for the past two years. Today, I took a break from teaching one of my freshman classes about first aid to review the alphabet (using first aid vocabulary). This is not the first time I have done something like this with this class; I have stopped planned lessons to practice sounding out words, go over question words, and point out silent letters.
Like all students who attend public schools in Tanzania, my students were taught in Swahili (with the English Language as a subject) all through primary school. When they started secondary school where English is the language of instruction, many of my students were unprepared for the transition. Despite this, English is the official language of instruction and all textbooks and standardized tests (except the Swahili Language) are in English. While the language barrier is exacerbated because I am an American who has limited Swahili skills, my fellow Tanzanian teachers also express frustration at the students’ lack of English skills and resulting in poor classroom performance.
Despite the acknowledgment that English language skills are a barrier to learning, the importance placed on completing the government-mandated syllabus and preparing students for the standardized tests derived from it do not leave a lot of room to review foundational English skills. Instead, there is pressure to continue with the syllabus and to use the tests to form lessons, despite many of the students’ poor understanding and performance.
While this does not seem to be most beneficial to the majority of students, it makes sense when the colonial legacy of Tanzanian schools are considered. Colonial schools were started in order to create an elite indigenous class who would be distanced from their cultural roots and had interests that were aligned with the colonists. This typically included the use of a colonial language, an emphasis on knowledge imported by colonists, and a disregard of indigenous knowledge. Colonial schools were never intended to be accessible to all– instead, they were meant to distance the best-performing students from the rest of their communities.
Colonial schools’ legacy is the use of syllabi and standardized tests that almost necessitate teaching only for the best students in the class, and labeling other students as “slow,” “lazy,” “bad learners,” or just plain “stupid.”
While this is clearly a problem for students, it also leads to burning out in teachers and may contribute to negative views about students, harsh punishment, and high teacher absentee rates, all of which are issues within the Tanzanian school system.
In order to make Tanzanian schools more beneficial for the majority of students and decrease teacher burnout, there needs to be space for reviewing English Language skills, incorporating topics from primary school as needed, and increased use of Swahili in both oral and written materials. This may require a more flexible syllabus but it definitely require a new definition of success.
The role of schools needs to be redefined to address the needs of the majority of students. Both teachers and students need to see success as something that can be separated from standardized test performance. This will give schools the flexibility to best serve the wide variety of students who attend.
Written by: Kathleen Smith