Those in the education world are well versed in such terms as “learner-centered instruction”, “centers-based instruction”, and “small group instruction”.
To me, these are all just phrasing to the same end – education that puts the learner at the center, and meets every child where they are.

Often, people ask me whether or not this is possible in Rwanda.  It just isn’t the image your mind creates when thinking of an Africa classroom.  As an organization, Edify is committed to 21st century pedagogy training and to the idea that child centered learning can be a part of the classroom in Rwanda.  But after running several trainings, and visiting many classrooms, I myself began to wonder if it was possible.  The wooden benches really aren’t conducive to small group work.  And how do you create small group learning when the typical Rwandan classroom is set-up for lecture and note-taking?

After launching our pilot of Teachermate in Rwanda, I now realize that it is time to think differently, because these things are happening in Rwanda.  They are happening through the use of technology.  We are piloting Reading Software on iPods called “Teachermate” developed by Innovations for Learning in three classrooms.  These 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classes are split into three groups, which rotate through centers for 20 minutes at a time.  The teacher has one group for small, individualized attention.  One group is practicing their reading skills all by themselves while independently reading, and the third group is on Teachermate.

What I didn’t expect when walking into a school armed with 34 iPods, was how excited the students would be, and how easily students embraced their groups and loved working individually with the teacher.  They were quick to remember whether they were in the yellow, orange, or blue group, and transitioned quickly to this new style.  It came very naturally.  I guess I anticipated that the centers part of our plan would be more work than the Teachermate part, but I was wrong.

Instead, I found the students staring at the iPod like a TV.  They were afraid of touching it, and unsure how to log in or get started.  After many demonstrations, however, they quickly caught on.   I also didn’t anticipate the 1st graders not recognizing their own names.  Pre-school is a luxury that we Westerners often take for granted.  But I quickly realized what a big role pre-school plays in getting you ready for primary school, and how much work these students need to do to “catch up” by 2nd grade when they are lacking a pre-school education.   All the more reason for some individualized attention.

We are two weeks into the pilot, and I am now realizing how important the teacher support is for a program like this.  All too often technology gets “dropped off” at a school and goes unused.  The teachers have been just as curious as the students about this process.  The teachers asked me to create a student named “teacher” so that they too could learn and understand as well.  They have embraced the centers with open arms, and have not hesitated to pick up the devices on their lunch break.  I have caught the teachers singing along to the nursery rhymes, and reading into the iPod themselves.  They don’t seem to mind the elementary graphics at all!

In an environment lacking resources and texts, the students are now armed with a device full or content at their level.  As soon as the classes are ready, they will run the Teachermate centers entirely on their own, as I can monitor progress remotely, adjusting the level of each student or group on the Online Management System.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the excitement the students had after hearing their own voice in the iPod for the first time.  After “echo-reading” a story, their face lit up with the recognition that they were reading, and the iPod was listening.  The children are truly practicing reading and loving it.

Note: Here the report from Open Learning Exchange on their pilot of Teachermate in Rwandan public schools.