Brookings Education Plus Development, 9 June 2022:
For two years, COVID-19 has profoundly altered education at all levels—with extensive school closures, remote instruction, and controversies over public health policies in schools. But innovative responses to the pandemic have also revealed the strength of communities in tackling disrupted learning, and ensuring educational success more broadly. We’ve seen that firsthand in our work in Bangladesh and India throughout the pandemic, and the implications are valuable for the future of education globally.
By “community,” we mean the engagement of parents, caregivers, siblings, extended family members, and neighbors. And central to this is the engagement of women, especially mothers, in ensuring children get to school, and who, throughout the pandemic, played an expanded role in supporting teachers to facilitate children’s learning at home.
For instance, in India young mothers, caregivers, and young people helped strengthen Pratham Education Foundation’s network in more than 10,000 rural and urban communities during the pandemic. Pratham used the smallest sub-unit—mohalla (hamlet)—as the unit for organizing activity.
The role of community is especially vital because of the comfort we see children often feel with people, especially women, from their own neighborhoods. This comfort is particularly important in the current situation, where students could be facing years of disrupted learning that may be hard to understand for an outsider. Community-level learning initiatives tackle these challenges head on.
From mid-2021, mothers’ groups and youth-led children’s groups were started in 40,000 mohallas with support from Pratham to ensure that young children continued to learn and were ready to resume school when they opened.
Each mothers’ group consisted of four to six mothers and was led by a “smart mata”—a mother with a smartphone. The groups met weekly or fortnightly to share their experiences and access “idea cards” sent via WhatsApp containing games, activities, and recipes. The group approach provided crucial support to young mothers and elevated their role in the community. When possible, school readiness melas (fairs) were conducted in open public spaces, with mothers and young children participating and other community members attending.
For children in grades three to six, a youth volunteer (a local high school or college student) brought a small group of eight to 10 children together in a “mini learning camp.” These typically open-air camps, modeled on Pratham’s teaching-at-the-right-level approach, brought people together for one to two hours per day using simple instructional activities and materials made by the children and young people. In August and September of 2021, close to 30,000 camps ran in the 10,000 communities, focusing on basic arithmetic for one month and reading for a second month. Technology helped to strengthen human interaction in these experiences; learning camps were supported remotely via WhatsApp and SMS messages followed up by frequent phone calls and Zoom meetings. Pratham team members also did “zoom par ghoom” (visiting camps via Zoom).
In Bangladesh, community played a similarly crucial role in the evolution of two educational initiatives: Pashe Achhi (Beside You) and phone schools. Both emerged from COVID-19 school closures and engaged a broad community using basic technology. Both had women at the center of the activities.
Pashe Achhi is a remote learning mechanism that provides educational opportunities for children and psychosocial support for caregivers. When BRAC’s preschool Play Labs closed due to COVID-19, local women trained as play leaders began, on their own initiative, using basic mobile phones to maintain regular contact with children and their caregivers—usually mothers. That instinct led to the creation of Pashe Achhi. Experts at the BRAC Institute of Educational Development (BRAC IED) convened psychologists and play-based curriculum developers to create 20-minute tele-conversational scripts, providing both psychosocial support and play-based learning. In total, 1,300 play leaders were trained on effective delivery of the scripts. Those play leaders facilitated weekly 20-minute, one-on-one calls with caregivers and children. Forty thousand calls took place weekly, until the Play Labs began reopening in March.
For children of school-going age, BRAC ran phone schools. The teachers in BRAC’s extensive network of nonformal one-room schools, all of whom are women recruited from their own communities and trained locally, conducted virtual classes twice a week in group calls of three to four children. Those calls reached over 180,000 students in more than 7,000 schools and were supported by small group sessions, home visits, and project-based learning.
With the new school year beginning, BRAC is piloting a new initiative—10-month courses that assess the competency levels of children who are currently out of school, take them through an accelerated learning program, and transition them into a government school. This is supported by two local mechanisms, which both operate at the smallest subunit, or para (village). Firstly, para committees will engage community members to encourage and monitor students’ progress—both in the BRAC schools but particularly after students transition into government schools. Secondly, BRAC teachers will run an additional after-school program two days a week open to all students who are either in or have finished the 10-month program.
Central to all of these initiatives is the power of community.
While it’s not unusual for communities to be engaged in some way in education, typically their involvement has been focused on ensuring schools exist and managing them. Community engagement during the pandemic was much broader, playing a strong role in supporting children to learn. Indeed, recent ASER reports in India during 2020 and 2021 show parents across all education and income categories helped children with learning activities.
Even when schools are open, communities must continue to be actively engaged to drive learning. Schools should welcome community members and see them as the source of innovation, inspiration, and support that they have proven to be. The people closest to challenges are the best positioned to drive solutions, and people in communities know the future of their communities lies in their children. As the world searches for high-tech solutions to improving learning, approaches should start from the basics. It takes a community to educate a child—and that happens best when the community is excited and engaged with learning.
The article was originally published by Brookings on 9 June 2022.
Dr Rukmini Banerji is CEO of Pratham Education Foundation in India and laureate of the 2021 Yidan Prize for Education Development. She is using her prize funds to expand Pratham’s early childhood programs. Asif Saleh is the Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh. BRAC’s Pashe Achhi program is funded by the Yidan Prize—their founder, the late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed received the Yidan Prize for Education Development in 2019.
In partnership with the Yidan Prize and Mastercard Foundation, the Fellowship program promotes research-based teaching and learning practices in STEM education.
PhET Interactive Simulations, a University of Colorado Boulder project, welcomes 35 new Fellows from 27 countries to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in schools and universities across Latin America and Africa.
This year’s cohort includes 16 Fellows in Latin America and 19 in Africa. From high school math teachers to physics professors, the Fellows are teacher leaders who are committed to transforming STEM education in their respective countries. They join 32 inaugural 2022 Fellows.
This program is part of the PhET Global initiative, supported by the Yidan Prize Foundation as part of the prize project activities of 2020 Laureate Professor Carl Wieman.
Education is a fundamental driver of economic growth and social development. The World Economic Forum predicts that inclusive, innovative, and future-proof education can add more than $2.5 trillion in increased productivity to global GDP.
It’s essential that we find innovative ways to engage and educate the next generation in STEM subjects. In classrooms today, we have future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who need to build a deep understanding of the world and develop problem-solving skills to tackle the greatest challenges of our time.
Professor Carl Wieman, founder of PhET Interactive Simulations, and 2020 Yidan Prize for Education Research Laureate, said: “I am delighted to welcome this second cohort of PhET Fellows. The Fellows are an outstanding group of educators who are doing so much to extend the use of PhET simulations to improve science and math education in Africa and Latin America.”
Through the PhET Fellowship, Fellows will promote robust teacher communities and advance students’ access to quality STEM education, reaching at least 1,800 teachers across the two continents. Together, they will accelerate the uptake of research-based math and science teaching and learning approaches through PhET simulations and build a community of local STEM experts.
PhET Interactive Simulations give educators and students free access to a collection of over 160 engaging, game-like simulations to support STEM learning. The simulations are designed to encourage discovery and exploration, making invisible science phenomena visible by using interactive visual models.
The simulations can be run online or offline and have been translated into 114 languages, including relevant local languages.
The PhET Fellowship will nurture each Fellow’s teaching skills and leadership growth for 18 months, as they continue in their full-time roles. The program will take place in two phases. First, Fellows will spend 80+ hours of professional learning building skills and knowledge of PhET resources. Then, they will have 70+ hours of leadership practice to support teachers’ use of PhET simulations across their regions.
Across Latin America and Africa, the PhET Fellowship is building a growing network of STEM ambassadors.
In Uruguay, Álvaro Suárez created a government-approved PhET course for secondary physics teachers. The Ministry of Education and Culture is also collaborating with the PhET Team and recently launched a PhET workshop as part of their professional development program for math and science teachers in the country.
In Colombia, Diego Fernando Rodríguez González and Paola González Valcárcel are working with the Bogotá Secretariat of Education to offer a government-approved PhET workshop, supplementing the government’s efforts to build up a STEM teacher community of practice.
Godfrey Odhiambo, a physics teacher in Kenya, works with hundreds of special education teachers to incorporate PhET simulations into their lessons. Many PhET simulations have inclusive features, such as alternative input and voicing, allowing him to provide support to teachers at schools for the deaf and the visually impaired.
In The Gambia, Muhammed Chuka Joof is advising the Gambian government via the Committee for Education. He is bringing PhET Interactive Simulations into Gambia College, the country’s leading institution for preparing teachers, which will have a ripple effect for STEM teaching and learning in schools across the country.
PhET Ambassador, Zach Mbasu, said: “These proactive educators are using PhET Interactive Simulations and related pedagogies to change math and science instruction in African classrooms. They skillfully select simulations to enrich their own lessons. Additionally, they help other teachers discover and explore new methods that make their lessons more engaging for students to understand STEM concepts.”
PhET Ambassador, Diana López, said: “The main agents of educational change are the teachers. The PhET Fellows have a great commitment to teaching and are motivated by wanting to positively impact not only their students but the entire Latin American region. The PhET Fellowship program is often the push they need to work toward their ideals and become educational leaders. They find an international community with which they quickly connect, as they meet other teachers with the same vision, urgency, and call for action to improve education.”
As they start the program, the 2023 Fellows share some of their ambitions. They want to inspire teacher leaders, share skills, and use digital technology to transform the quality and impact of STEM teaching.
ABOUT PHET INTERACTIVE SIMULATIONS
PhET Interactive Simulations, developed at the University of Colorado Boulder, is a collection of more than 160 free, flexible simulations to help students explore math and science through game-like environments. Since 2002, PhET has developed interactive simulations through research, co-design, and user testing, advancing educational technology design and what is known about how learners make sense of STEM concepts. PhET simulations are a leading STEM resource and have broad adoption by STEM teachers worldwide, with more than 250 million online uses annually.
ABOUT THE MASTERCARD FOUNDATION
The Mastercard Foundation is a Canadian Foundation and one of the world’s largest foundations, with a mission to advance education and financial inclusion. It works with visionary organizations to enable young people in Africa and in Indigenous communities in Canada to access dignified and fulfilling work. The Foundation was established in 2006 through the generosity of Mastercard when it became a public company. The Foundation is an independent organization and separate from the company. Its policies, operations, and programs are determined by the Foundation’s Board of Directors and leadership.
For more information on the Foundation, please visit www.mastercardfdn.org.
ABOUT THE YIDAN PRIZE
The Yidan Prize Foundation is a global philanthropic foundation, with a mission of creating a better world through education. Through its prize and network of innovators, the Yidan Prize Foundation supports ideas and practices in educations—specifically, ones with the power to positively change lives and society. The Yidan Prize is an inclusive education accolade that recognizes individuals or teams who have contributed significantly to the theory and practice of education. It consists of two prizes, working in harmony: the Yidan Prize for Education Research and the Yidan Prize for Education Development. They’re designed for impact: laureates receive a project fund of HK$15 million over three years, helping them scale up their work, as well as a gold medal and a cash prize of HK$15 million (shared equally for teams).
Credit: Photo by Diana Lopez, licensed under CC BY 4.0
“Committed people around the world, especially innovators in Africa and Asia, are finding new ways to help 129 million out-of-school youth stay in education and to prevent 36.5 million displaced children from becoming a ‘lost generation’. They are using new technologies to expand educational options, lower costs, and personalize learning. They are creating engaging new curricula and lessons that build social skills, foster scientific inquiry, and help students apply their learning in the real world.
Overwhelming as the world’s problems may seem, we know that there is a path to resolving them if young people everywhere can develop their skills, talents, and values,” says Dr Christopher Thomas, our Director of Partnerships.
Based on insights from the panel discussion with Amy Klement, Professor Anant Agarwal, Joseph Nsengimana, Kathy Perkins, and Geetha Murali at the ASU+GSV Summit, Christopher talks about the importance of scaling effective solutions in the least-resourced countries of Africa and Asia, the potential of technology to enhance learning outcomes, and the need for collaboration between different stakeholders in the education ecosystem.
In this article for Brookings, Christopher expresses optimism about the future of education and shares examples of innovative education initiatives from edX, Room to Read, and PhET Interactive Simulations.
Read the full article here.
Photo credit: ASU+GSV Summit