Directors Anne and Simon Carette traveled to Togo in March, 2018 to review the fifteen SET schools. On this visit, one of many, they observed a disquieting event.
“At the end of the school year at public gatherings throughout Togo, the name of each student who has passed the primary school exams is read aloud. Many children are waiting with their parents and the sudden emotion of hearing their name (you pass!), or having their name skipped over (you fail!) is visual and palpable for pupils and parents.”
“In every family, everywhere, parents want their children to succeed,” Simon continues. “Imagine the disappointment, the loss of hope and dignity that the Togolese feel in the world marketplace knowing how poorly their children rate in global education. World Bank assessment tests show only 36 per cent of primary Togolese students attain minimum standards.”
“Something does not add up when the Togolese government prioritizes the economy and democratic governance,” Anne adds. “Unless children can learn to read, write, and reason effectively, this small country, which is one of the poorest in the world, cannot advance.”
Travelling with the Carettes on this trip, two Togolese-born Canadians, Serge Novignon Akpagnonite and Angèle Dadagan Aklah, agree wholeheartedly. Serge and Angèle work within the Ontario francophone education system; Serge as a high-school vice principal and Angèle as a literacy coach. The two have joined with SET as volunteers to evaluate the literacy levels of the primary pupils and the teaching of those who work in SET schools. In conjunction with SET they give their time and expertise to help change results from a You fail! to a You pass!
Serge and Angèle recognize the key to helping teachers teach better must be done collaboratively. Only the SET school personnel within the SET school communities can make necessary changes. Wanting to work within the purview of the Togolese Department of Education, Serge and Angèle return to their homeland in order to suggest and support change within the SET schools.
Their suggestions come from the solid research methodology they undertake on this trip to Togo. They use a Canadian screening tool, interviews and observation to determine the literacy levels of ten pupils from each SET school CP1 (grade one) class. The children’s awareness of phonetics, recognition of words, and understanding of written language are measured.
When the results are collected, they are dismal. Ninety per cent of the students did not know the letters of the alphabet or their sounds. Almost 100 per cent failed to read a text or show any knowledge of its contents. All schools fell extremely short of the most minimum competency scores on the screening tool.
In another part of the evaluation the volunteers observe teachers’ methods. With teachers Serge and Angèle discuss ideas about the availability of educational materials and new teaching approaches.
The dearth of materials becomes obvious. One Kindergarten teacher from SET’s Anfoin school buys her own from her trifling salary. Not all SET teachers can do the same, but like her, they all have ideas on how more and better educational materials can improve their pupils’ learning.
Not only is there a scarcity of materials but what do exist, pupils are not permitted to use. Why? Simply because teachers fear no more will be forthcoming from the government. They must preserve what little they have for subsequent cohorts of students. This near non-existence of books within communities has existed for decades. The lack means even educated people have little experience with using books, enjoying them, and most importantly, recognizing the impact that educational materials have on learning to read.
As to teaching approaches most teachers scrupulously follow their government-issued manuals, almost never departing to project-based learning. Rote memorization as opposed to project-based learning is driven not only by the manuals, but by limited training. Then there is class size. CP1 classes range between 30 and 96 students. In SET schools the average class size hovers around 50. Granted, intern teachers work to mitigate the numbers but these teachers have no more training than the equivalent of grade 12.
As Serge says,” We know that rural poverty has so many challenges: illiteracy among parents, under investment by the government in teacher training and learning materials, enormous class sizes, but we can’t change anything overnight.”
“What we can and will do with SET’s support involves sharing the most effective teaching methods with SET school teachers in a collaborative manner,” Angèle explains.
“For example, because we live in Canada we have experience helping immigrant children learn a new language. Here in Togo, where children arrive on the first day of school not knowing a word of French, yet are expected to learn all the basic skills in Togo’s official language, we can assist with proven methods of second-language training.”
During the teachers’ meeting and workshop at the end of the visit, teachers express hopes for their students. In their own mission statement they write of their goal “to help their pupils flourish.” To begin they create ten specific learning objectives to take home to their SET CP1 classes.
When the teachers are invited to speak of their professional needs their first request is for feedback from an observer trained in pedagogy. Next they identify the need for more teaching resources and materials. On a systemic level they ask SET for help in “detecting and correcting the loopholes in our education system.”
Bringing the teachers together emphasizes the importance of networking. This SET workshop is a new experience for these 37 participants. It is the kind of mutual support that all believe will make a significant difference in their attempts at new, more effective teaching.
Teaching the Teachers. A change in direction for SET. For the good of the children, for the good of families, for the good of the country. Small as this effort may be, it will help Togo to “pass”, in both senses of the word, into the future with more strength and assurance.