By Moses Ngware, Head of Education Research Program, APHRC
Did you know that teacher Potpal is back to teaching?! Just to remind you who he is, teacher Potpal is a very popular teacher among pupils and parents. He is teaching in a primary school and is in charge of primary 8 math. He provides free remedial lessons in math over weekends conditional to parents sending him ‘transport’ through Mpesa, and once in a while, especially at end month, he sends text messages to parents to update them on students’ progress in math.
Teacher Potpal had gone back to college to upgrade his primary school teaching certificate that was awarded to him in the 1980s, to a degree in primary school education. Well, do not ask me if I know the difference. Reliable sources argue that with a degree, teacher Potpal will be more effective than he used to be. In fact, when he came back to teach in his old school, though quietly and no pop and dance, he was allocated to teach primary 7 math. One parent was overheard saying, “Finally, the education authorities have heard our prayers! Our children will now be taught math by a graduate, Potpal. Let us get ready for A’s at end of primary 8 national examinations.”
At the insistence of parents and the school headmistress (HM), it was decided that teacher Potpal would transit to primary 8 as the math teacher with the same students he taught in primary 7. In teacher Potpal’s primary school, performance in math’s internal and external assessments had been dismal. The return of a beloved teacher, now with a degree, was expected to turn things round.
As teacher Potpal transited to primary 8 with his students, parental and HM expectations of good performance hit an all-time high. Teacher Potpal’s remedial classes increased, students were increasingly assigned more math tasks and exercises from their old textbooks, they complained in equal measures that the subject was becoming harder, and the school community saw Potpal as the ‘solution’ to the perennial poor performance. To ensure that his goal was on track, teacher Potpal regularly assessed his learners using tests he developed himself – mainly picking items from various math textbooks. He also bought from the streets or borrowed revision papers from colleagues in neighboring schools.
While all this was happening, the dates for the external assessment done at the end of primary 8, and used to screen who will go to a good secondary school, was fast approaching. Pressure was mounting on teacher Potpal to provide the school community with an educated prediction of how many grade As in math the school will get come the D-day. Predicting this is an easy thing to do, but making an educated prediction meant that teacher Potpal needed to be near the actual number–after all he had a degree! From what he had observed in the internal tests, making an educated prediction meant hurting his hard earned reputation.
For the first time since ‘the teacher’ came back to his old school, he realized he had a big problem on his hands – unfortunately too late. Students were not progressing well in math, despite his reputation. In fact, there was no observable difference in the scores of teacher Potpal’s students and those of other students taught by his colleagues. The D-day came, and when the HM looked at the spreadsheet, she exclaimed, “Oh no! Not again.” There was one student with grade A, another with grade B, and a handful of grade Cs. The majority of Potpal’s students scored grades Ds and Es in math, contrary to expectation. Teacher Potpal owed the school community a good explanation. But he didn’t have one, and as a good Christian, he did not want to blame it on witchcraft or worse still, the devil.
So what may have gone wrong? Let me take you for a walk inside teacher Potpal’s math classroom.
Teacher Potpal was a very active teacher in class, and with a degree, ‘he knew it all’. This was the problem number 1:rather than allow students time to ‘inquire’ and “discover,’ he told them.
Problem number 2:since his training emphasized the need to actively and constructively involve students, he asked them lots of questions that required a yes/no or simple response. This denied his students an opportunity to engage in deep learning.
Problem number 3:finishing the school syllabus/curriculum is a cardinal rule in almost all schools, so Potpal ensured this happened, but at the expense of conceptualization. No wonder his students complained about the subject ‘becoming harder.’
Problem number 4: On many occasions, he went to class with books to mark ‘while the students do an exercise.’ This not only reduced the active teaching time during the math lessons but also denied the slower learners an opportunity to benefit from individualized support from Potpal.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he did not assess or did not know how to diagnose his students’ math competency levels using those internal tests that he administered – this would have informed him what a student knew and what s/he did not know. This has nothing to do with ranking students or the traditional student mean scores.
But teacher Potpal cannot be blamed for these shortcomings. One need to understand how he was trained and to some extent what his trainers knew. Watch this space to read how and who trained teacher Potpal – tracing the roots!