Rows of 4 children sit shoulder-to-shoulder at desks measuring less than 2 meters across. The children in the back row sit with their backs snugly against the wall. This classroom, located in a primary school affiliated with a teacher training institute in Gazipur, is always packed full of kids. Even so, the school is lucky, as there are only 40 to 45 children in a single classroom. In other schools, rooms are crammed with as many as 70 kids.
Bangladesh signed the "Education for All" declaration in 1990 and began working to improve its primary education thereafter. Its net enrollment rate in primary education reached 93.9% in 2009, which, on the surface, suggested that steady improvements were being made. However, the reality was that Bangladesh's completion rate was only 54% (2009). In other words, roughly half of the country's children are leaving school before completing their primary education.
This is not entirely the result of poverty. It is reported that many children either do not develop interest in their classes or feel that the lessons are not useful in their lives. A 2001 national assessment revealed that the percentages of children (fifth graders) who do not understand basic subject matter were 66% for Bengali, 73% for mathematics, and 79% for science. The comprehension rate was particularly low for maths and science. It can be assumed that because children are listening to lessons that they do not understand in a packed classroom, their scholastic ability fails to improve and their school becomes a boring place to be.
Ms. Hasina Afrin, an instructor at the Primary Teachers Training Institute (PTI) in Gazipur, says, "The challenge is not simply to raise the enrollment rate but also to improve lesson quality. All schools are grappling with shortages of teachers and teaching materials. But even so, we are working to improve our lesson content so that children will take an interest in their studies."
"4 people can get on a boat. So how many people can get onto 3 boats? I want you to think of a way of teaching children to solve this problem by using these straws." The scene is at mathematics lesson at PTI. Ms. Afrin handed out bundles of colorful straws to her students. These students will become teachers someday, and before long they will be in charge of actual lessons for children.
The objective here was to show a path towards thinking about a problem, rather than simply extracting an answer. Divided into groups of 5 or 6, the students began discussing easily understandable ways of solving the problem using prepared papers and straws.
This represents a shift towards lessons for "thinking," rather than lessons for "memorizing" answers. For its part, JICA, together with other donors, has participated in a project called "Strengthening the Capacity of Teacher Training in Primary Teacher Training Institutes (PTIs) to Improve Classroom Teaching" since 2004 to support improved primary education in Bangladesh. In particular, during Phase 2 of the project (2010 to 2016), JICA is focusing primarily on raising lesson quality by presenting "OMOROI" school plan. Through this plan, it is providing broad-ranging cooperation that extends from the classroom to policy in order to encourage improvements in terms of teachers, teaching materials, and school management. The plan takes four forms: technical cooperation project, JICA Volunteers scheme, grant aid cooperation, and dispatch of Primary Education Advisers.
*Omoroi means ‘interesting’ and ‘fun’ in Japanese.
One of the volunteers who was dispatched to the PTI in Gazipur was Ms. Masako Sato from Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. She was serving there for a two-year period that began in 2013. She teached mathematics and participated in lessons while assisting Ms. Afrin.
So, what is a class that requires "thinking"? Ms. Sato showed us a brand new mathematics textbook that was made with cooperation from JICA. She opened a page that teaches comparisons, such as large and small, long and short, and many and few. "The old textbook presents words like ‘large' and ‘small' right away," she says. "Because of this, children simply learn the words and that's it. But this new textbook is set up to make children think about which is bigger, without giving them the answer."
However, just making the textbook newer will not change the lessons themselves. Giving classes that do not provide children with answers puts teachers' abilities to the test.
Ms. Sato proposed conducting a "lesson study" in which other teachers and students watch a class at the PTI primary school and discuss what they see. While this approach is common in Japan, in Bangladesh, students and teachers typically do not watch each other's classes. Consequently, Ms. Sato says it was difficult to get them to agree to her proposal; however, she eventually made it happen.
She says, "I came here as a volunteer, so I didn't have to worry about stepping on anyone's toes in the organization. I was free to speak directly to a variety of people, from the principal to the students. I hoped that the presence of a volunteer could serve as a buffer that leads to a brand new type of framework. My success here was partly thanks to other volunteers before me who used similar ideas."
In addition to initiatives like Ms. Sato's that were undertaken by individuals at the school level, Phase 2 of the project featured a unique approach that had effects throughout the country.
In 2012, Bangladesh's Directorate of Primary Education produced a 45-minute television drama with support from a JICA expert. This drama, which presents teaching methods for mathematics and sciences, is titled "Rupantar Kotha," meaning "Story of Change" in Bengali. It includes practical scenes that cover methods for conducting experiment-based science lessons and ways of handling differences in children's academic abilities. It also shows the inner struggles that teachers can experience when dealing with children.
It is reported that there are some 60,000 primary schools in Bangladesh. Multifaceted support to them with an eye to enhancing primary education, an enterprise responsible for developing coming generations continues.
A classroom in the primary school affiliated with the Gazipur PTI
Ms. Hasina Afrin, instructor at the PTI
Ms. Masako Sato instructing students in a PTI lesson (center, wearing light blue)
The new mathematics textbook is on the left, the old one is on the right.