Photos by Kim Baskin/GBC-Education
A sea of hands shoot up during the first period at a girls’ primary school in Nairobi, Kenya. The school girls are seated in front of a television monitor showing a scene of local forests and rivers. The teacher hits pause on an image of a parched sub-Saharan plain. I watch the video from the back of the classroom, but the schoolchildren are so engrossed in the film, they hardly notice me.
“Describe what you see,” the teacher says. “How does it represent the effects of climate change?”
The answers come easily: Global warming, deforestation, drought, flooding. Kenya is a developing country with 1,000,000 out-of-school children, where classroom resources are limited and the average teacher to student ratio runs as high 57 students per teacher. But new doors to learning are opened when teachers are engaging and interactive, and the curriculum is both grounded in students’ everyday realities while at the same time opening their minds to new opportunities.
Discovery Learning Alliance (DLA), a nonprofit spearheaded by Discovery Communications, a founding member of GBC-Education and partner in the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) Girls’ Education Challenge grant, is working to transform the way these girls learn. Harnessing the power of media through video in the classroom, peer-to-peer teacher training and capacity building, and partnering with companies such as Samsung to equip classrooms with televisions and DVD players, DLA is piping new enthusiasm into the classroom and changing the way students and teachers interact, and ultimately learn. The result is improved teacher effectiveness, student retention, enrollment, attendance, learning, and perhaps most importantly, student motivation.
With DFID and Discovery’s support, DLA has established 1,000 school-based Learning Centers and 642 Girls’ Clubs in just two years. Working in some of the most impoverished and remote areas of Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. The initiative helps girls overcome local barriers to education through a partner-focused model which supports each community in identifying the barriers and developing and implementing action plans to address them. Simultaneously, DLA equips classrooms with TVs, DVDs, and content that brings learning to life. Local teachers are empowered through extensive training to support student-centered learning, developing 21st century skills, gender responsive pedagogy, parent engagement and program sustainability. Schools and communities are fortified as they work together to address local barriers to learning.
Just weeks before International Women’s Day, my visit to the all-girls school could not have been better timed: With 63 million out-of-school girls around the world, these children tend to be doubly marginalized, for discrimination towards girls starts young and shapes their futures forever. Investing in their education provides huge returns: For every $1 invested in preschool, a girl’s future wages may be $17 higher; allowing her to access just one more year of secondary education than her average peers may raise her future income by up to 25 percent. Better yet, teaching a young girl to value her education and fall in love with learning is an investment that cannot be matched by any monetary return.
After first period at the school, I followed a group of older girls, 13- and 14-year-old members of the Girls’ Club out on to the football pitch behind the main building. Faith, the 13-year-old group leader explained that they chose the name Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from ashes and “never gives up!”
The girls identified access to sanitary pads as a barrier to education in their own lives. While they were fortunate enough to find a local partner willing to donate sanitary towels, the girls quickly realized the school lacked a proper disposal system, and having them safely removed by an outside vendor could run up a bill of nearly $700 a month. Their fix, though, was brilliant: The girls farmed their own herbs to make soap which they then sold within their community and raised the money to build and maintain an incinerator on the primary school grounds. Their solution was so effective that even the neighboring secondary school and local health center uses it, making it a hub of the local community and a testament to the power and ingenuity of girls. The money saved through the student run and led project now funds a scholarship program that aims to help one underfunded girl each year complete her education.
DLA’s inclusive, partnership-focused approach to solving region-specific challenges to learning is helping girls around the world and across Africa. To take this work a step further, and into an even more difficult situation, Discovery Communications and DLA are teaming up with sQuid, a digital transaction and learning solutions company, aiming to deliver a learning platform for Syrian refugee children which will include real-time attendance monitoring. sQuid, is already well established in Kenya through its iMlango program in partnership with Avanti Communications, Whizz Education, and Camara Education. iMlango provides online learning resources, and electronic attendance monitoring through an easy-to-use smartcard system to 15,000 students across 200 rural schools.
I experienced the iMlango program in Kajiado County and saw firsthand how students enjoyed having ownership over their own smartcards to log into computers or to check-in to class. Outside the classroom, teachers and administrators get this information in real-time and have an ongoing sense of where and when children are struggling or excelling so those students who need it most can have extra support. Time will tell whether all of these innovative solutions and partnerships catch on. One thing is certain though: learning has never looked or felt this exciting.