August 8, 2012
Rwanda, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa sandwiched between Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is renowned for its physical beauty. But in 1994, Rwanda witnessed one of the ugliest episodes in modern African history: a genocide in which more than 800,000 men, women, and children were killed.
Eighteen years later, the country has reinvented itself, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame is putting a heavy emphasis on improving education. To support that initiative, EDC staff are working with local teachers and officials to develop a new set of educational standards and materials. Math expert Paul Goldenberg shares some of his experiences visiting Rwandan classrooms.
Q: What were some of your impressions of learning in Rwanda?
Goldenberg: For all that was different, I was also struck by how much children in Rwanda are not different from children here. I visited a first-grade classroom in a rural school—57 kids, one teacher, no electricity, and nearly no materials, but the class was fantastic. In that class, at least within the content I was able to observe, the first graders were as good as students you would find in the best first-grade classes here in the United States.
Q: What did you learn from your school visits?
Goldenberg: It is characteristic of little kids that if things are going well enough, they’ll actually learn more than you explicitly teach. So I pushed to see how far these little kids could go beyond their curriculum. And yes, in the first grade, they were doing all the surprising things first graders do; after that, the picture was less bright.
I think it’s the rigidity of instruction. For example, I worked with one student who had graduated at the top of his class in computer science. He was interested in going to college in the U.S., so I gave him some typical SAT problems to see how he would fare. He found them all very hard. But when we worked on them together, I saw that he actually had all the knowledge needed to do them—he had just never encountered problems like these before. The information in the problem was several steps away from the question he was asked. And he didn’t know how to invent a mental map for himself.
Q: What is it like to try and take your ideas about mathematics teaching and apply them to such a different context?
Goldenberg: If I’d been called in to consult on how to build bridges, I would just say, “Here’s how you do it—we have to know a little bit about your geology and the ground that’s underneath, but basically, bridges are bridges.” Physics works the same everywhere.
That is not true of education. Imposing “our way”—or any system—on top of what a country already has won’t serve anyone well. Educators, curriculum developers, and ministry officials need to use the best of what’s known, and then invent their own way to make it work for Rwanda. It must be a partnership.
Q: Why can’t you take what works in the United States and use it in Rwanda?
Goldenberg: The contexts are so different. For example, students in the United States will say, “I was six, now I’m six and a half.” And you can play simple games with them where they are doing some basic addition and subtraction by halves even though they have never formally been introduced to fractions. Second graders, anywhere in the United States can play those games.
I tried it in a fourth-grade class in Rwanda, and it fell flat. And the reason it didn’t work is that the idea of being five and a half or nine and a half isn’t familiar there. Nobody is nine and a half in Rwanda; you are nine until the calendar year changes, and then you are ten. The age model is the wrong one to use. It’s not transferrable.
Q: Do you think reforming the way math is taught in Rwanda is achievable?
Goldenberg: Yes. It amounts to an overhaul of Rwanda’s mathematics education program, but there is strong government support and a lot of wonderful, really brilliant teachers there. I think it can be done.