New Internationalist

Ideal & Reality

Issue 315

new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999

IDEAL & reality
‘A flame lighting up ignorance’ to some. But Bangladesh’s programme to revolutionize primary
schools is not exactly popular with teachers, as Sameera Huque discovers.

Photo by SAMEERA HUQUE The sunny room, the smiling teacher, and the bright faces of over 60 children squashed into orderly rows of benches. The walls have been painted with colourful pictures of flowers and alphabets, but some of the small faces still hold a pinched look – from no breakfast that morning. The teacher, standing in front of the expectant faces, displays and explains, questions, sings and recites; the children follow, mostly as though programmed to do so. Their hands go up, memorized answers are still warbled out, and there’s the end of another class.

This is an ‘IDEAL’ class – the Intensive District Approach to Education for All programme, a Government initiative in partnership with UNICEF, which is seeking to revolutionize primary education in Bangladesh and make sure 95 per cent of children are enrolled by 2001.

At the heart of IDEAL is the Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning method, based on the work of progressive educationalist Howard Gardner. Breaking away from the traditional reliance of Bangladeshi primary schools on rote learning, the new method aims to engage different parts of a child’s brain, so that a musically inclined child should learn more from songs and a visually orientated child more from pictures.

Most teachers have not responded eagerly to IDEAL and its attending reams of paperwork. They were given training in interactive teaching, including dancing and puppetry, to make learning an enjoyable experience for children. But they insist that though the ideas are good, this programme at its core is indifferent to the main problems facing primary education, which is chronically underfunded. Shyamolia School in Mymensingh, for example, has the average infrastructure of schools in rural districts: three rooms, in which 370 students are taught by two teachers and the principal, Kamaluddin Helal. ‘There are so many students in each class that by the time I’ve called the roll and said hello, it’s time to leave and go to the next class!’ Mr Helal exclaimed. ‘What time do I have left to teach in?’

Rehana Mazumdar teaches at the Jigatola School in Dhaka, one of the five ‘pilot’ schools where IDEAL was launched in 1996. This is one of the top eight government primary schools in the country, yet there are no colourful classroom walls here – but class sections are smaller and students more confident and active. Mrs Mazumdar finds that the IDEAL methods have decreased her workload through group learning, and that the children are eager to participate. ‘But I have 43 students enrolled into my class. It would be much more difficult with a larger group,’ she says, ‘and teaching primary is very tough. Parents only have one or two kids to worry about while a teacher often has nearly a hundred at hand. Under these circumstances a child will never get the proper attention.’

But Professor Alauddin Ahmed, IDEAL’s Project Director takes a very different view. ‘They have never worked in their lives, and now faced with something new, they must oppose it,’ he says vehemently of all primary teachers. ‘The younger ones are more eager, but the older teachers are hopeless.’ He is convinced that ‘teachers could do it in the time that they have, no matter how large the class’.

As this suggests, there is a bitter lack of understanding between the project designers and the teachers to which the Government seems completely indifferent. Jigatola’s principal, Jasimuddin Ahmed, believes that lack of infrastructure and ever-increasing workloads have bottlenecked primary schools to the point of exhaustion and that a major shake-up at the top is required. ‘All the decision-makers sitting in Dhaka are of college background. What do college professors know about teaching primary?’ he asks indignantly. ‘Under the current system, primary teachers must take part in everything from polio vaccination to voter-list duty – is that the way to increase quality of education?’

Another sore point at the grassroots is that from 1999, all vacations are being decided centrally. ‘Look at the sense in this – after the children have roasted sitting in class during the hot months, the vacations come in the monsoon when they should be studying!’ exclaims Mr Helal. The change has infuriated schools around the country, but IDEAL’s Professor Alauddin claims that one set vacation ‘helps us organize projects more efficiently, so that we never find schools closed on our visits’.

If funds can be arranged, IDEAL will be extended till 2004. Both UNICEF and the Government insist that it is still too early to judge the project. But this ‘new-lit flame to emancipate this nation suffering long from the darkness of ignorance’ (a quote from UNICEF’s promotional video for IDEAL) has its toughest critics in the ranks of the ‘flame-bearers’. Backed by the requisite resources and introduced with respect, initiatives like this might well be ‘ideal’. As it is, it looks like another long shot in the dark.

Sameera Huque is a photojournalist with Drik Picture Library in Dhaka.

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