Formula for success: enhancing education through community initiative

Skills: Writing

Written for the UAlberta Department of Secondary Education
June 4, 2015

Any great achievement, whether personal or within a community, starts at the roots. That’s the attitude that Secondary Education graduate Athanas Ngalawa takes in his own work, having spent years working in rural schools in Tanzania. Now that he’s received his PhD at this week’s Spring Convocation ceremonies, he wants to share his knowledge with a new generation of learners and teach them how to seize their own opportunities.

Ngalawa has been a teacher for most of his life, working at all levels of education in various settings. When he came to the University of Alberta for his doctoral research, he says he did so because the opportunity presented itself, and he seized it. Over the course of his field research, he’s preached that same spirit of initiative to the students and citizens with whom he’s worked.

During his doctorate, Ngalawa became involved in an international, multi-institution project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In partnership with Secondary’s Florence Glanfield and Elaine Simmt, Ngalawa worked directly in rural schools throughout Tanzania, collaborating with students, teachers, and community members to research how universities can work with schools to improve education, specifically in mathematics. Through his research, he found that different schools exhibited a wide range of academic performance, and sought to identify the patterns that created the most successful schools.

His findings revealed a common trait: schools that produced students with the highest academic achievement were those that relied heavily on community collaboration. Where community members formed a cooperative bond with teachers to improve not only the schools, but the community at large, success stories followed.

“There is a kind of reciprocity. The committee members are doing something good for the teachers. They constructed the teachers’ houses, where the teachers could live — and continue to live — free of charge,” Ngalawa explains. Villages would also offer support to those teachers who cultivated their own crops or generated sources of extra income. In return, this incentivized teachers to become active, contributing members of the community, better engaging with their students and improving performance.

Teachers who were willing to offer additional instruction beyond the minimum requirements mandated by the curriculum produced high-achieving students as well. Some teachers even offered classes on weekends, offering students the opportunity to refine their studies and learn as much as possible. Parents who recognized the value of this would, in return, allow their children to attend these classes in lieu of staying home and doing work in the house and fields, which is a common expectation in many rural areas of developing countries. Performance rates also rose in villages where parents could fill needs that could not be immediately answered by the government, like offering food and stationery to schools.

But success was just as dependent on the students themselves. Ngawala explains that teachers would engage students in multiple smaller groups, dividing them up on the basis of their performance in tests. The highest-achieving students would be appointed group leaders, which Ngalawa says became a motivational factor by encouraging healthy competition between peers.

“The teachers, they can be committed to teach, but if the students are not willing, it becomes very difficult.”

The takeaway from these findings all pointed to a common thread: when individuals are willing to take initiative and proactively seek solutions to issues, success would follow. The research completed by Ngawala and his colleagues illustrates the effectiveness of these attitudes firsthand, something which he hopes to help implement in communities on a much broader scale.

“In poor countries, including my country, in most cases, committee members don’t have a feeling that they have a significant role to play in their own development. They think that somebody from somewhere — from the local government, or the central government, or from Europe — will come and bring them development. That village which I started in was not like that. They were able to learn what are the challenges, what are the problems, and they can set their own strategies and implement,” he says.

Ngawala speaks with pride and with gratitude when he says how privileged he feels to have received his PhD from the University of Alberta. Now that he’s completed his doctoral program, Ngawala says that he plans to return to his roots in classroom environments. He does not discount the possibility of taking part in future project-based research, but he says that it would likely be in service of putting that knowledge into practice in his classrooms.

“I am a teacher. When I completed my study, I went back to university classrooms to continue to teach. And I think I will continue teaching.”