By Shaaban Fundi
English language learning in the Tanzanian Education System can be characterized as being “problem-solving” oriented. The type of problem solving that does not include exercises that cultivate higher-order thinking skills.
The main goals are: 1) to obtain enough knowledge of English to reach a minimal level for a specific purpose, such as obtaining a position doing menial work, 2) to help students pass standardized exams. Noticeably absent is the goal of real learning and/or authentic learning.
Fixating on Standardized Testing
When students focus on passing exams, they lose sight of authentic learning. Especially for those that English is their second, third, or fourth language. Most students in Tanzania falls in this group.
Equivalently, when educators fixate on having their students pass exams, they may neglect authentic teaching. Educators should certainly work to comply with the country’s learning standards and prepare students for standardized tests, however, these formalities should be placed in the background and place authentic learning in the foreground. If students are truly learning, they will pass standardize tests ANYWAY.
As educators, one question we need to ask ourselves is this, “Do we want to teach our students to just survive, or to flourish?”
The Cycle of Learning is Important
Along similar lines of reasoning, educators need to grasp the need for cycles of Question-Answer-Question instead of merely Question-Answer. For that matter, educators should not be the only ones asking questions. Instead, students should be afforded the opportunity to ask and answer own questions. If educators are to treat students as “explorers”, rather than “plants” that absorb information, and provide space for their voices, students should be able to pose their own questions and problems and seek solutions themselves with the facilitation of the educator, as needed.
The idea is to break the orthodox of what is called in education as “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in which educators control learning and “deposit” knowledge into students. This is quite rampant in the Tanzanian education system.
Sharing the Expertise Stage
Similarly, educators cannot be the only expert in the classroom. To deny students their own expert knowledge is to dis-empower them. Let the students ask and answer their own questions.
When working with English Language Learners, it is especially important to help build students’ confidence. Adapting these ideas would hopefully create an environment rich in learning. In that students would learn from each other and the teacher and the teacher would learn from the students.
Competing Ideas in Resource Poor Countries
These ideas may be difficult to accept and implement in teacher dominated classrooms. They require educators to relinquish some or most of their powers. Implementing these ideas sometimes leads to classroom management issues in the beginning. Thus, such classrooms and students would need adequate practice in instructional conversation and class discussions. I do realize the fact that most classes in Tanzania are extremely overclouded. This could lead to other issues including how to group students for group activities. Moreover, enrichment activities that feature language learning would likely require increased efforts on the part of the teacher to construct and execute, as compared with implementing lessons grounded in straightforward test preparation and grammar drills.
Yes, fostering real and authentic learning will require a lot of work. However, instructional practices and broad structural changes are necessary. Real change cannot occur until we drastically modify our ideological framework.
Expectations make all the difference. That is, if all that is expected from the educator is that students pass the standardized exams or obtain jobs in the menial labor industry, than learning goals and instructional practices will reflect such aims, and at best, that is merely what students will learn and do.
Should Tanzania change the language of Instruction? In my humble opinion, I believe that there is no need to switch from all English instructional delivery in secondary and tertiary schools as of yet. However, changing the way we teach English to second, third or fourth language learners in Tanzania will take us a long way, modifying our ideological framework will also help, and raising our expectations for what our students can learn and do will increase tremendously higher-order-thinking skills of our students. In my view, at present time, the Swahili only educational delivery model is flawed to say the least.