Two sides to education in Liberia

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

– Shakespeare, Hamlet

The Necker cube is an optical illusion first published as a rhomboid in 1832 by Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker.

Stare at the red dot and unless you are obstinately single minded your perspective will change. Stare long enough and you will be able to move between perspectives – you will be able to hold two views of how to see the cube and consciously switch between them. The yellow face is on the top of the cube. The yellow face is on the back of the cube. After deliberating I hope you have the faculties to see that both these statements are true.

I have recently been reading many opinions on the recent education reforms that are taking place in Liberia. This year, the government has started a project that aims to improve the failing education system with the introduction of a pilot scheme under which private companies and NGOs will take over the day-to-day running of 120 primary schools (3% of the total).  Similar to any scheme which mixes the private with the public, controversy has loomed large.

I was reminded of the Necker cube while reading two opinion pieces on the project. The first by Ben Phillips at ActionAid, describes a visit to one of the schools that is now run by one of the private companies taking part in the project.


Bridge International Academies (BIA) has quickly become a darling of the Right and a Lucifer of the Left. Phillips goes on to describe a visit to the school and describes that class sizes have been kept smaller than they were before; that teachers are unprepared for lessons;  and that materials that have been promised have not been delivered to the school. All compelling evidence that private contractors in education cannot be trusted. All evidence that the yellow face is on the back of the cube.

If you contrast Phillips’ account with this article by Kevin Starr, the director of the Mulago foundation who has provided venture capital to BIA, you start to see another face to the cube.


Starr sees evidence of cheap schools, with strict management, closely guided lessons, improved use of technology, and 8 hour teaching days. All evidence that the yellow face is at the top of the cube.

Empirically you can say the cube is across from you, just as you can empirically say it is below you. There is evidence for both views. Neither is wrong. But it is false to state it is only below you or only across from you. This stops being empiricism and becomes dogmatism. Similarly it is dogmatic to see private schools as either an innocent panacea or a malevolent virus for education systems.

Not enough people in this debate are striving to maintain the ability to see that attempts at privatization can be both good and bad simultaneously just as the necker cube is both across from you and below you. Not enough people are trying to weigh the costs and benefits of the approach simultaneously. It’s like both sides are loading their dice and imploring to you to play with their dice as they have weighted it the “right” way.

The poor quality of education in both the public and private sectors in Liberia is the real challenge, not the false dichotomy between the two.



[sen-si-tuh-zey-shuh n]


  1. The state or process of being sensitized.
  2. The process of becoming susceptible to a given stimulus that previously had no effect or significance.

At least two times per school term the teachers from the elementary school I worked at in The Gambia would rally themselves for a “sensitization scheme”. A “sensitization scheme” consisted of the teachers walking from compound to compound in the neighboring villages and greeting parents accompanied by some vague enquiries about whether the children of the compound were going to school. I remember asking one of the teachers the purpose of the sensitization scheme and his tautological reply was that it was to sensitize the community. He also pointed out the added bonus that they might get a parent to donate a chicken for the teachers’ lunch bowl, but he couldn’t, nor could I, give a clear definition of the meaning of sensitize.

By using the word sensitization it privileged the word over the action. I am not questioning the use of complexity in language, but I often feel that buzzwords, such as sensitization, whilst having the intention to capture the complexity of how to bring about change, often distract from the purpose of action. I am doubtful that the buzzword of sensitization provided a boost and sustained the conviction of the teachers in their action that a “talk to the community” or “educate parents” scheme would not have been able to provide.

Cornwall and Brock (2005) have written on this topic in their paper What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy? A critical look at “Poverty Reduction”, “Participation” and “Empowerment” and reading it made me consider whether I have the faculties to critically analyze the topic of buzzwords as I live a life so couched in buzzwords that I may not be the able to see the wood for the trees. Every time someone asks what I am studying at Berkeley I have to give some explanation of development, which makes me consider whether development is itself a buzzword. Is the word development a method of exclusion or is this explanatory process a way of making development more inclusive? Does development have to become part of the common lexicon before it can be inclusive? Will we look back at the word ‘development’ in fifty years time and consider it bizarre that we had to explain its meaning to so many, or will we look back at it, as we look back at “civilizing” or “third world”, as a paternalistic relic of the past? We may have the chains of equivalence of development practice hanging around our necks but we must make sure we are not learning the new and old vocabularies of the model of development just to “reinforce status and widen the gap between expert and novice” and be wary that our use of buzzwords is not merely technocratic but transformative.

The Pitfalls of Evaluating Teachers

“Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself”

– John Dewey

Banerjee et al (2008) in their paper “Pitfalls of Participatory Programs: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Education in India” admit that the most expensive and important resource in a school is the teaching staff. But I find their contention that lack of teacher effort is the main problem afflicting schools in Uttar Pradesh disparaging and lacking empathy to the constraints faced by teachers.

The premise that teacher absence is based on a lack of incentives and motivation often slips into painting teachers as lazy individuals that are dragging education systems down. I also remember this caricature of the teacher constantly asleep at their desk only to wake up to beat their students with a ruler from “Poor Economics” by Duflo and Banerjee. I can only talk from my experience in a potentially very different context, and although I have come across high classroom absence rates amongst the teachers I worked with, those absences were rarely caused by laziness. Teacher absences in the school I worked at in The Gambia were for myriad reasons: unreliable travel infrastructure, inefficient government bureaucracy, commitments to attend birth, marriage and death ceremonies, Malaria, only being able to buy shoes from a weekly market, and runaway goats. Yes, lazy and unmotivated teachers exist, but absence from the classroom in many contexts is rarely a symptom of an unwillingness to teach.

One proposal has been to only hire teachers from the local community to teach in local schools but while this may combat some issues of motivation, monitoring and travel constraints, the unintended consequences of a system that prohibits the freedom of movement of a professional teacher would far outweigh the benefits.

Their contention that teaching is not an innately difficult task is predicated on the successful teaching of one skill by a trained volunteer over a short period of time. Proving that one small, albeit crucial, element of the job of a teacher can be done by a volunteer with minimal training does not prove that the job of a teacher is easy. Teaching in a low income country in the global south is not easy – large class size, a disparate spectrum of abilities and knowledge, inadequate infrastructure, inconsistent societal norms on corporal punishment, a wide ranging curriculum, and heat all contribute to the difficulty – and this difficulty is not adequately rewarded.

Should we argue for a systemic reform of what can be expected of teachers in rural schools? Ken Robinson has argued for a paradigm shift in “Western” education systems that were built on an industrial model and many education models in LIMIC’s are modeled on this same industrial paradigm of education. Teachers, as well as students, are victims of this paradigm. Shifting the paradigm is necessary, particularly in rural schools, as the constraints and needs are so different but it won’t be easy and it must be embraced at both the government and community level.


This article reaffirms my belief that the best thing I ever did for the school in Ker Sait Maram was repaint and level their blackboards. Genius technology!

The blackboard-centered classroom offers more than pedagogical efficiency; it also offers an effective set of teaching possibilities. In such a classroom students are focused on the teacher (on a good day), but most importantly, they are focused. The teacher is not the focus of the class but rather a lens through which the lesson is created and clarified. The teacher draws the class toward her, but she projects the lessons onto the blackboard behind her, a blank surface upon which smaller ideas may be gathered into larger ones. The blackboard is the surface of thought.

A girl on a bicycle

A girl rides a bicycle before the rainy season begins. She is thirteen, almost fourteen –  not yet a woman – and wears her new uniform with pride. She is cycling along an embankment on the outskirt of a small town. The sun is halfways towards noon, the wind tousling her half plaited hair, the dust pinching her eyes; her pinkish lips are mouthing a popular song beneath her burnished brow. She is going to see a not too distant relative.

She has no idea she will not go to school in a week. Now she marvels at the warmth of her muscles as the chain drives the wheels around. Now the taste of mango is still on her tongue.

Welcome to The Gambia newbies

Congratulations and welcome to The Gambia Peace Corps family. I am guessing you have already googled The Gambia and found out it is not Zambia and that it is the smallest country on continental Africa. So what else can I tell you about this distant slither of land and the life you are about to be submerged in?

I can tell you that the next two years of your life will be full of juxtapositions and contradictions. Your service will simultaneously be the most interesting and the most boring experience of your life. On one given day you can be struck by the beauty and intricacies of this fascinating land and culture, and feel swamped by the amount of stuff you need to get done; on the same day you will find yourself kicking your heels trying to think of something, anything, to do to stave off boredom.

You will feel isolated from your friends and family back home, yet you will have never felt so connected to people – whether it be the host family you live with, the teachers and students you work with, or your fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Your work will be some of the most fulfilling you have ever done, yet also some of the most frustrating. You will be working in schools severely lacking in material resources, but with ample amounts of the most precious commodity a school can hold – children with an insatiable desire to learn.

The Gambia will feel both like a vast uncrossable expanse of land and a claustrophobic dot on a map. Thankfully The Gambia’s size means you will know everyone in the Peace Corps community – all the amazingly supportive and knowledgeable staff, and all the varied and exceptional volunteers from all the sectors working in The Gambia. The variety of cultures and landscapes captured in this little finger of a nation will also be more than enough to keep you captivated fro two years.

On a final note – Africa is hot! That may seem a blindingly obvious statement to make, but prepare yourself; heat without AC, cold drinks, running water and electricity will redefine your conception of what it means to be hot. Oh and take those socks out of your suitcase, you won’t need them.

Smart or dumb board?


In a small school in the central river region of The Gambia, forty children sit in a humid classroom, squeezed together like ill fitting Lego bricks on rickety benches. Their teacher stands at the front of the class beside a pot marked black board. He is intricately illustrating the water cycle on the board using three different colors of chalk. Three different colors of chalk is the pinnacle of technology’s use in the classroom that I have witnessed since arriving here over a year ago. But a project I have recently got involved with has the aim of fast-forwarding light-years technology’s role in schools in The Gambia.

The Progressive Math and Science Initiative (PMI/PSI) is aiming to completely revamp how Math and Science are taught across The Gambia. One of the key components of this proposed revolution is the introduction of electronic white boards in various classrooms across the country. A SMART board is an expensive piece of kit (if you wanted to privately purchase the set up the schools here are receiving you would have to spend more than five thousand dollars) and the project has been well supported by The World Bank and has recently received further funding from The Islamic Bank.

It is easy to see why this project has garnered so much support and funding. The idea that technology can revolutionize education and fix an education system’s failings is not new. In the twentieth century almost every new invention was supposed to have big implication for schools and herald a new dawn of teaching practice. Companies promoting typewriters, film projectors, VCR’s, computers and CD ROM’s have all promised to improve student performance. These big claims have resulted, on the most part, in little difference in achievement or typical practice in the classroom. My only memory of the use of technology from my own school days is repeated viewings of the film Gattaca in Biology class, which didn’t quite transform me into the next Watson or Crick.

Are SMARTboards different? Are they more than an educational gimmick? The people who pull the strings in the education ministry here seem to think so. They advocate that SMARTboards improve efficiency in classrooms and keep children engaged. They claim that it makes it easier for teachers to plan their lessons and monitor the progress of their students. These claims are very convincing and not entirely false, hence the huge grants that have been secured form outside sources.

However the most pressing question that should be asked should not be whether SMARTboards are an effective educational technology, but whether they are the right educational technology for The Gambia at this moment in time. Saying that The Gambia is not ready for this technology is contentious. Introduction of technology should not follow a prescribed incremental pattern (see much of Africa’s bypassing of copper landlines by the quick adoption of mobile technology), and by claiming The Gambia is ‘not ready’ for a technology there is a danger that you constantly place the country at a technological disadvantage, playing an impossible game of catch up with countries that are deemed ‘ready’. Yet I believe there are three factors that make it clear that SMARTboards are not the right technology to introduce here at this moment in time –

  1. Electricity – SMARTboards need power. Most of the schools that will be receiving the boards have mains power, but it is intermittent and unreliable (during the hot season even more so, especially in the heat of the day when school is in session). Some schools have solar power, where again reliability is an issue. A cloudy day results in an inability to use the SMARTboard. If use of the SMARTboard is unreliable you end up squandering its benefits. Rather than making lessons easier to plan, it is harder as teachers have to have a non electricity reliant back up ready, whilst using it for assessment and data collection becomes much less useful if you are not guaranteed to be able to use it every lesson.
  2. Teachers – For children to learn more through the use of SMARTboards there is a huge reliance on teachers, because even the best technologies will get nowhere without their support. The evidence on the efficacy of educational technology largely comes from America and most of it suggests that when teachers have been properly trained, it works. Teachers here are largely computer illiterate, having little to no access to computers. The teachers involved in PMI/PSI are expected to begin using the SMARTboards after two weeks of training and when you couple the teachers lack of confidence in using the technology with the unreliability of being able to switch it on, it is clear that teacher’s motivation to use this technology will be severely diminished.
  3. Internet – Or rather the lack of Internet. The Internet is the SMARTboard’s life source. One of the SMARTboard’s huge selling points is that it provides a portal to the web for a whole class. If you can download lessons, activities, videos, and access interesting and relevant websites with your class, SMARTboards are an invaluable and engaging piece of technology. When I have used SMARTboards in the US and UK I would have quickly run out of things to use the SMARTboard for if I had no access to the internet. Without the Internet the SMARTboard descends into gimmickry, becoming barely more useful to a teacher and engaging for a student than a good textbook and a chalkboard.

Even as I acknowledge these criticisms I am still convinced th PMI/PSI and the introduction of SMARTboards will definitely improve The Gambia’s education system. For many students it will give them a beneficial experience of using computers, many for the first time, and it certainly engages students bored of rote learning and chalkboards (although how quickly excitement over the new classroom toy diminishes is yet to be seen). Even with my pessimistic nature, I am excited to be involved in my nearby secondary schools implementation of PMI/PSI and am feeling that I finally have some skills that are relevant to a project here. One forgets how computer literate one is having grown up around computers and possessing one for most of ones life. The skills this brings are greatly appreciated by the teachers I have worked with who have a strong desire to improve their own IT skills. So whilst I have mainly been dismissive of the project I am optimistic that with hard work and dedication we can improve student’s educational experiences with it.