When you think of preschool, what comes to mind? My youngest just “graduated” from it (use of cheeky quotes intentional because, um, he’s five) so it’s pretty fresh in my mind. I think about him playing with blocks, running amok on the playground, writing his letters and his name, and learning the seasons, days of the week, and months of the year. I don’t think he sat for more than 10 minutes at a time (and if he did, what the hell is that teacher’s secret?!) and I know he had fun while learning.
However, that’s not what preschool looks like in other corners of the world. For many three and four-year-olds, preschool takes place in a cement room with bare walls. They are taught to memorize. And if they misbehave, they may feel the sting of corporal punishment. And while some maintain their beliefs that this method works—kids need to learn respect and must be disciplined at all costs—the country of Ghana is changing its tune.
Like the U.S., Ghana definitely recognizes the value and importance of what preschool offers. As stated in an NPR piece entitled “What We Can Learn from Ghana’s Obsession with Preschool”, Ghana is an up and coming nation that reportedly had one of the world’s fastest growing economies in 2017. The piece focuses on one dad named Agbavor, who is pushing his 5-year-old son Herbert hard, knowing the opportunities that await him if he’s educated.
“Agbavor is convinced that all sorts of jobs could be opening up for people who know things — skills like speaking English and working with computers,” NPR reports. “And so there’s a trend here. Parents — even those with very low incomes — are putting their children in private schools at younger and younger ages.”
In fact, the NPR piece states that in Ghana’s capital city Accra, “by the time children reach age 3, 80 percent of them are in preschool,” which is far higher than even the numbers in the U.S.
However, parents like Agbavor are having to face a dim reality. As it turns out, the old-school style of forcing 3- and 4-year olds to memorize information and physically punishing them if they misbehave is not working. Second-graders (who are years beyond preschool) often cannot read and have poor math skills. With this method, kids in Ghana “are not actually getting anything from [preschool],” says Sharon Wolf, a professor of early childhood development at the University of Pennsylvania. “They are not actually learning.”
So, the government of Ghana turned to Professor Wolf as well as some other experts, including an international research group called Innovations for Poverty Action, for help. And together they came up with an experiment—what if the preschool teachers adopted an entirely new way of teaching?
Of the 444 teachers selected for training in this new concept of educating kids, one is little Herbert’s teacher Godaiva Gbetodeme. Gbetodeme shares that she had already done her own research in her quest to better her teaching. She had heard suggestions like “give more homework” and “you need more supplies and bright things on the walls.” The problem with these ideas, however, is that Gbetodeme’s school didn’t have the money for “more” anything.
And that’s when the experiment was introduced and the training began that would transform the type of teacher she was. New concepts like letting the kids speak and respond to open-ended questions, as well as the idea that she should sit on the floor with them, interact, and play, rather than stand above them authoritatively, were concepts Gbetodeme admittedly had never thought of before. And she was skeptical.
These newfangled ideas “might work in the United States, but this is Ghana,” she initially thought. “We are supposed to handle kids our own way.” In the article, Gbetodeme goes on to share that in Ghanian culture, “A child shouldn’t be the one to initiate a conversation with an adult. Kids shouldn’t look adults in the eye, even. You were supposed to be afraid of teachers.”
So how on earth were these teachers going to implement these new techniques? And what would parents like Herbert’s dad Agbavor say?
Thankfully Gbetodeme overcame her skepticism and tried it out. Remembering the shame and pain of being hit by a teacher in her youth, she now knows that such discipline did nothing to make her learn better, but instead, just made her hate the teacher. Maybe this new system would, in the end, be better for her students after all.
Gbetodeme’s classroom today looks nothing like it did before. It’s full of energy and bright colors. She learned to recycle household items and implement them into her curriculum. She cheerfully addresses her kids, smiles at them, and disciplines them by talking about kindness, apologizing, and how we should treat one another.
So what were the results? Well, after a few years, it turns out kids who come from classroom like Gbetodeme’s—where they engage in open-ended questioning, pretend play, and model kindness—end up performing better on assessments, specifically in “pre-literacy, pre-numeracy and social emotional skills,” the article reports.
Yet, even with these results, not everyone in Ghana is buying it. Herbert’s father, Agbavor, still favors the more traditional method and even requested his son be “lashed” for being naughty and not focusing on school work. And even though other parents may disagree and say that hitting a child is never okay, the truth is, he’s a lot like you and me. He is a father who wants the best for his son and doesn’t want to regret making the wrong choices for him.
Hopefully parents like Agbavor will realize that letting their children learn in a classroom where they can speak their minds, where they feel comfort over fear, and where they learn through play, is actually the less risky choice. That Gbetodeme’s classroom is not a place to stunt Herbert’s growth and education, but that, instead, it’s a place for him to thrive.