Beautiful Botswana is a landlocked country in the centre of southern Africa. This is where my husband and I spent four months, from August to November 2011. While he worked at a local public children’s hospital and in an HIV clinic, I volunteered with a non-governmental organization named Stepping Stones International (SSI). This NGO offers a comprehensive after-school program to vulnerable and orphaned youth ages 12 to 18+.
Before arriving in Botswana, I didn’t now what my exact role at SSI would be. I am thankful to the staff, volunteers, tutors and youth for welcoming me with open arms. With a background in education and experience teaching adolescents, I was able to further develop SSI’s education program during my short stay. However, having trained and taught only in Canada, my teaching perspectives are heavily influenced by the value North America places on constructivism. This learning theory, developed by theorists such as Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, is based on the belief that individuals create their own meaning from life experiences – that they are active participants in the process of constructing knowledge. This is not to say that this learning theory is better than others – it is simply what I was able to offer. I am very fortunate to have worked with people who were open to exploring new ways of learning.
I spent the first two weeks familiarizing myself with the various program components, interacting with the youth, participating in activities, and getting to know fellow staff members and volunteers. The youth generally arrived at the centre mid-afternoon. They studied for an hour and a half, participated in energizers, attended a life skills session, enjoyed a nutritious meal, helped clean the centre and then headed home safely in SSI vehicles early in the evening. During study time, I would circulate among the students, offering assistance with homework.
I quickly discovered that their homework frequently involved copying assigned sections of a textbook (as a result, they all had beautiful penmanship). When students asked for help with a particular mathematics, social studies or agriculture question, they would show me the question expecting that I would tell them the answer. Instead, I showed them how to use the table of contents or index to look up the section of the textbook in which they could find the answer themselves. Others would be looking at picture books and I would ask if I could read with them. Some were reluctant and some were happy to receive the attention. While most students could read with reasonably good English pronunciation, they often did not demonstrate an understanding of the content they were reading. After reading with a handful of students, I realized that they were not used to thinking about what they were reading. Essentially, the students worked hard to memorize information on a particular topic and to read with few decoding errors, but they were not applying critical thinking skills.
My goal became to enhance the SSI education program so as to help the youth discover different ways of learning, and learn how to think about what they were learning. I decided to focus my programming efforts in the area of reading comprehension strategies, multiple intelligences, and thinking skills. I wanted learning activities to be varied and engaging, catering to the diversity of learners, and for the youth to develop skills to better understand what they were learning.
In order to develop a sustainable education program, I needed to train the tutors at SSI in different learning and teaching strategies. These older students from secondary school and university would be working directly with the youth on a long-term basis. A few of them were able to attend weekly tutor training sessions. I designed these sessions as hands-on workshops. I wanted the tutors to learn about various educational concepts by participating in different learning activities themselves. Thus, I was simultaneously modeling a variety of teaching techniques. The tutors, having gone through the same education system as the students, were not familiar with class discussions, group brainstorming or partner work, for instance.
My first goal was to help the tutors become “reading coaches” with the students, rather than simply listening and correcting pronunciation errors. This way the youth, and the tutors themselves, would learn how to understand and think about what they were reading. In one training session, the tutors were introduced to several “before-reading strategies.” They also learned how to help students choose a book at an appropriate reading level using “the five-finger rule.” This is where students turn to any page within a book, and while reading the page, count the number of unknown words with their fingers. A book with two to three unknown words is at an appropriate reading level. We talked about making connections and making predictions. Tutors worked in partners to practice these coaching strategies through role-play. One of the more introverted tutors took great pride in becoming a reading coach. He diligently kept a log of which students he read with and the books they read together.
I then introduced the tutors to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. I wanted them to understand that everyone learns best in their own unique way, and that one teaching approach will not meet the needs of all students. As one teacher explained to me, educators in Botswana struggle to offer varied and engaging lessons, as class sizes are 50+ and they are constantly under pressure to follow the syllabus in order to prepare the students for national and school exams. It was therefore essential that SSI offer a variety of learning activities in order to better meet the needs of its participants. After completing a multiple intelligence inventory to discover their own learning profile, the tutors used several resources in combination with their own ideas to create a list of learning activities for each of the eight intelligences.
Finally, I wanted the tutors to realize that there was more to education than memorization – and even understanding for that matter. Now that they knew about multiple intelligences, they were ready to learn that there were different ways of thinking as well. I introduced them to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the various thinking skills involved in learning. Students in Botswana are encouraged to memorize information, but they are not often given the chance to fully understand and apply their knowledge. As a group, the tutors progressed through a series of stations that followed the hierarchy of thinking skills. Gradually, the questions became more open-ended, encouraging greater thinking, and the tutors’ answers became more varied. We discussed how the taxonomy promotes creative and critical thinking skills and how learning activities need to encourage students to think in a variety of ways.
It was now time for the tutors to apply what they had learned during the tutor training sessions. They were already actively helping the youth with their homework and some were beginning to read more with the students. In the last few training sessions, tutors planned their own learning activities to implement with a small group of students during study time. They were asked to identify their target student group, the topic, the activity, necessary materials, and the sequence of steps they would follow to lead the activity. One tutor chose to have Form 4 students (at the senior secondary level) complete a science experiment about osmosis. Another tutor prepared a spelling game for Standard 7 students (approximately Grade 6 level) to play. Students were not always able to participate in these activities – sometimes they had too much homework to complete – but my hope was that these more engaging and varied learning activities would allow the students to learn more effectively and to gradually develop a greater love for learning, increased confidence towards learning and greater academic progress. I was therefore pleased to learn that, over a year later, the tutor training sessions were ongoing.
As teachers, it’s important to consider the cultural background of our students, especially those new to Canada, and to realize that they may be unused to some common educational practices in Canada. Creating an inclusive and individualized learning environment for all students is essential, so that everyone can grow and learn to their fullest potential.
Globally, literacy skills continue to be an important focus. Perhaps educational training programs around the world should also focus their attention towards fostering creative and critical thinking skills within learners.
First published in Education Canada, June 2013
Stepping Stones International in Botswana needs funds to assist with tutor recruitment, training and purchasing educational materials. For information or to donate, please visit www.steppingstonesintl.org or contact the author directly at email@example.com.
EN BREF – Pendant quatre mois, l’auteure a fait du bénévolat à Stepping Stones International, une ONG à but non lucratif située au Botswana qui offre un programme complet à des adolescents vulnérables et orphelins de 12 à 18 ans (ou plus), après l’école. Ici, les élèves peuvent se concentrer sur leurs études et obtenir l’aide des tuteurs pour faire leurs devoirs. Afin de continuer le développement de son programme éducationnel d’une manière significative et durable, son rôle principal était de former les tuteurs à l’utilisation d’une variété de stratégies d’enseignement et d’apprentissage. À partir d’une série de sessions de formation sur les stratégies de lecture, les intelligences multiples et les habiletés de pensée, les tuteurs ont appris comment encourager les adolescents à devenir des apprenants plus créatifs, critiques et autonomes.
 H. Gardner, Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
 Benjamin S. Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The classification of educational goals (Harlow, Essex, England: Longman Group, 1956).