“In these exceptional times, business as usual is no longer an option. If we are to transform the future, if we are to change course, we must rethink education. This means forging a new social contract for education, as called for by the UNESCO report on the Futures of Education, released last November. We need to repair past injustices and orient the digital transformation around inclusion and equity. And we need education to fully contribute to sustainable development – for instance, by integrating environmental education in all curricula and by training teachers in this field.”
Geneva Global has pursued this vision with vigor and rigor day in and day out for over a decade through the implementation of the accelerated education Speed School model in Ethiopia and Uganda. Working in full collaboration with the respective ministries of education and a dynamic group of civil society organizations, we have been able to address the Director General’s key points (in italics, above) in strategic and impactful ways. The results have stimulated both government officials and their national and international partners to re-think how to design and deliver education. The accelerated model has especially provoked reflection as the two systems continue to replot the return to school under lingering COVID-19 conditions.
“… forging a new social contract for education …”
The Speed School program revises the social contract for education in two ways, one of which relates to access and the other to quality. Looking at access, out-of-school children between the ages of 9 and 14 commonly fall into an education desert. They are too old to start formal education, too young for adult education, and too young or ineligible for formal vocational training. Speed School offers these children an opportunity to pursue formal learning with dignity and a chance to join their age peers the next year in conventional classes.
The new contract addresses quality by matching instructional content and methods to students’ interests and needs as they relate both to their local context and circumstances and their ambitions. Lessons take into account the many assets that learners bring in terms of individual and collective experience, knowledge, and skills. Using a condensed curriculum to cover fully the core learning objectives for Grades 1 to 3, Speed School uses activity-based learning methods to link lessons directly and practically to the students’ current and future lives. Working in small groups, students cultivate the many personal competencies they will require to advance and thrive in their formal education and training and their future lives and livelihoods.
“… repair past injustices …”
Speed School’s alternative, accelerated approach helps education systems and countries “repair” a variety of past injustices. The model offers families mired in extreme poverty a chance to educate their children formally in two ways. One, it offers overaged children a “second chance” to learn in a classroom, giving them access and quality. Two, it includes a Self-Help Group component that organizes the children’s mothers (or guardians) around income-generating activities and group savings to be able to cover the direct and opportunity costs of schooling moving forward. It also mobilizes them around other activities, both school- and community-based to promote their children’s success at school.
Speed School works with current and returned internally displaced person (IDP) populations in Ethiopia, allowing thousands of children whose schooling had been abruptly interrupted to get back on track. The condensed curriculum encourages them by letting them recover lost learning years at an accelerated (3X) pace. The activity-based learning methods permit (and expect) teachers to weave into their lessons themes, content, and concrete strategies that engage students in promoting their mental health and psychosocial well-being, social cohesion and resilience, and overall safety.
Whether with IDP or other communities, Speed School deliberately creates a classroom atmosphere that promotes full gender equity and inclusion for children with disabilities and with other disadvantages. These are themes that appear in lessons, but they are also explicit objectives and strategies that the program trains, supports, and expects teachers to incorporate into their classroom management. The overall aim is to create a collective commitment by teachers and students alike to solidarity and mutual uplift by valuing the assets and respecting the needs of all classmates.
“… digital transformation …”
The classrooms where Speed School operates sit at the farthest extremes of the “last” digital mile. Despite massive global advocacy, Internet access will likely remain absent for many years to come. Geneva Global has, however, been able to capitalize on mobile phone connectivity to bring timely support to teachers, education agents, and parents alike in strengthening students’ learning. Using a dedicated SMS platform, Geneva Global and local education partners connect with teachers and agents to advance their professional development, deliver content, provide learning tasks, and give guidance on a variety of general topics, such as COVID-19 classroom protocols. The platform also permits the collection of data and qualitative information along with direct communication with teachers. The same platform allows Speed School managers and government partners to communicate with parents, informing them of ways to support their children’s learning, alerting them about school-related matters, conducting surveys, and inviting other feedback. Using SMS, both the frequency and quality of communication have improved.
“… inclusion and equity …”
Speed School in Ethiopia and Uganda sets full gender parity as a goal, getting close in what tend to be highly conservative communities in both countries. We have also made a concerted effort in recent years to bring greater numbers of children with disabilities to the classroom. Enrolling students for inclusion and equity is just the start. The major effort is to give all children an equal chance to participate, learn, and thrive in the classroom. We do this by training, supporting, and monitoring teachers in pedagogic methods and classroom management strategies that promote equity and give all students the skills and responsibility to contribute to its attainment. Beyond calling on all students in class, teachers connect learning equally to the lives of girls, boys, children with disabilities, different ethnic groups, and more. Students learn in groups of six that are mixed in terms of gender, age, ability, and other characteristics. And all students have classroom jobs of various levels of responsibility and requiring different types of skill, personality, and confidence that they exchange regularly, giving all chances to lead and follow and to grow.
“… fully contribute to sustainable development …”
The activity-based learning strategy, a central pillar of Speed School, engages teachers in the design and delivery of lessons that link the core learning competencies from the curriculum to the social, economic, cultural, and environmental context in which their students live. Students explore nature not just to build vocabulary and accumulate information but also to identify associated challenges such as deforestation, pollution, erosion, and drought and to consider what roles they can play as environmental stewards. They interact directly with economic actors from all fields to start thinking about how they can eventually care for their families and be productive gears in the machinery of local development. They study issues related to conflict, insecurity, equity, and violence of all natures, gender-based and other, to become agents of positive change. Speed School aims to create the productive, engaged, fulfilled citizens of tomorrow whether they remain in their local communities or pursue their lives elsewhere, anywhere in the country or the World.
As we celebrate the International Day of Education and look towards the goal of “changing course [and] transforming education,” it is important to remember that not all schools are starting from the same place. Indeed, most are starting well behind in terms of resources, access, and capacity, something the global COVID-19 pandemic has shown with stark clarity. This does not mean we cannot maintain equal goals for all students. We can and, indeed, we must. But the route to these goals and how they manifest when a student ultimately achieves them will differ. Speed School shows how, by educating children with content and in ways that are adapted to their needs, interests, and settings, they can excel. That is something to celebrate.