|Contextualising Teaching and Learning in Rural Primary Schools: Using Agricultural Experience - Volume 1 - Education Research Paper No. 20 (DFID, 1997, 64 p.)|
1. The purpose of this research was to examine the role of agricultural experience as a vehicle which can support the development of learners in rural primary schools whose needs are extremely diverse, and whose life experience has been enriched by agricultural practice. This involved a review of literature which sought to investigate a "new role" for agriculture as a key element of primary schooling. In particular it examined from a conceptual point of view, and through the use of case studies from the literature, the capacity of agriculture to act as a familiar vehicle for the development of young rural learners' basic skills of literacy, numeracy, and other life skills which are perceived as necessary for a fruitful and productive life. The intention was not to explore issues relating to teaching agriculture as a distinct subject area in the curriculum.
In addition, case studies were carried out in four countries, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, India and Ethiopia. These countries were selected because of evidence that government policy was supportive of the concept of contextualisation, even though this might not be stated explicitly. Also, in each country, a co-researcher was identified who had published work, or had some expertise, relating to the basic ideas underlying the concepts of contextualised teaching and learning, and their contributions became a key element in this research project.
2. Primary school education in developing countries is considered of great importance because of its wide range of benefits. These include the shaping and strengthening of the child as an individual in relation to his or her fellow people, to nature, and to the world as an environment. Primary schooling is thought also to build a capacity for life-long learning in individuals, and to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes which will contribute to the general development of the community in which individuals live by meeting manpower needs and improving community life.
3. Although most countries in the world have set themselves the goal of achieving universal primary education, and despite high investment, studies reveal low participation, high drop-out rates and under-education of pupils in many cases. This is due to constraints which include inadequate necessary inputs, a lack of facilitating conditions and an absence of the will to act.
4. Rural primary schools face particular disadvantages, some of which stem from national educational programmes which are geared more closely to an urban context. High drop-out rates are common; these are due to pupil-related, school-related, constructed or macro-system factors. Although some generalisations can be made, research shows that the constraints depend on the specific environment in which a school is located. Efforts have been made to address these problems by reviewing teacher training programmes, introducing curriculum reform and developing new approaches to school organisation, but these changes tend to be piecemeal.
5. Curriculum reform has been attempted as a means of dealing with the problems faced by schools in many rural areas. Different approaches to curriculum development have been tried, including the introduction of academic and community-based models, and curricula which are integrated and topic-based.
6. It is suggested that contextualisation of teaching and learning can strengthen the links between the learning environments of school, home and community. This can be achieved by building on pupils' experience from outside the school and providing additional experience within the school programme. This process is enhanced through the use of metaphors and analogies, which allow children to integrate their own learning experiences. Agriculture may act as a unifying theme in order to achieve this.
7. The curriculum should not be distinctly, rigidly different, or indeed identical, for urban and rural primary schools, but should be flexible, allowing teachers to develop their own material which reflects the local environment, whether urban or rural. This approach emphasises the process of learning, rather than purely its content. Agriculture could provide an avenue through which children can have repeated experiences which help them to master cognitive, physical and social skills. Agriculture could be the basis of integrated projects incorporated in the school curriculum, with academic activities chosen for their locally relevant, experimental attributes. Since every curricular subject is important to the development of children, it should be possible to build upon children's knowledge of agriculture and link this to each part of the curriculum.
8. A flexible method of teaching is an extension to natural teaching which takes place outside the school. It can build on a child's experiences, covering the whole curriculum whilst developing skills in a meaningful context, as opposed to breaking learning down into categories by subject area, which is less natural, more forced, and less interesting or exciting.
9. One impact brought about by this approach is to decrease the size of the teacher's exclusive territory, with a subsequent increase in the amount of input children have into designing their environment. In order to enhance this process, other types of inputs would be of great importance, for example, the preparation of special materials, such as workcards, worksheets, additional pictorial or taped material, guides on the use of audio-visual materials, materials information and reference books which are easy to read in a language of instruction familiar to the children, whilst introducing novel terms in a suitably paced way.
10. A great advantage of this approach to rural primary education is that it allows the curriculum to be made relevant to the experience of the learners, whilst still allowing the possibility for the development of knowledge, attitudes and skills identified on a national basis. This avoids the rural curriculum being perceived as an inferior version of the urban curriculum. A major disadvantage is that its success depends largely on the skill of teachers and the availability of suitable resources. Also, the experience, culture and "knowledge" of people who live in rural areas varies from one locality to the next; equally, within a specific area the knowledge and experience of individuals differs markedly. There is no single knowledge or experience which can be used as the basis for the curriculum. Metaphors and analogies should, if they are to be effective, be derived actively by the child, based on his or her individual experience. This makes it extremely difficult to develop rigid "relevant" primary education programmes on a national scale, and instead suggests that flexibility in terms of local development of curricula will become an important feature. This will need to involve a range of stakeholders, not only school representatives and other government personnel, but also community members, and of course the children themselves as they actively contribute to the learning process.
11. Curriculum planners at national level can deal with the difficulties posed by variations in "local knowledge" by identifying unifying themes which can provide a direct link to the experience of most or all of the learners in a particular area, and can also be readily adapted through participative processes to fit each local situation. Agriculture is one activity with which the majority of children in rural areas of the developing world are familiar, and so it has an important role to play here; it can contribute to teaching and learning of languages, science, mathematics, food, nutrition, health and social studies.
12. Examples of countries where an integrated approach to curriculum development has been carried out, and which in some cases have involved the contextualisation of teaching and learning, are Malaysia, Uganda, Cameroon, Jordan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Brazil, Kenya, India, Colombia, Ethiopia, Zambia and Guatemala.
13. Lessons learned from these examples show that different approaches to integration have been attempted, and that design and implementation of curricula vary considerably. Successful implementation of the curriculum depends on many factors, including those related to teaching practice and support, resources, community-school relations, examination systems, and government policy and support. Curriculum reform is not enough on its own; it must be accompanied by complementary social and economic reforms. The examples reveal that some teachers have attempted to use the environment in teaching-learning situations, thus enabling children to appreciate and understand the world around them. In rural areas, therefore, agriculture could provide a unifying theme, since it is familiar to the lives of most rural children.
14. The case studies carried out for this research study (discussed in detail in Volume II of this report) have revealed that the idea of contextualisation, although a new concept for most people, is a popular one. During the field work there was frequent mention of the need to make the school learning environment of pupils more relevant to their every day learning experiences, both within and outside the school, especially in rural areas. Evidence from the field research reveals that many teachers do attempt to contextualise learning, especially where examples may relate to the home environment, for example agriculture and nutrition.
15. The development of alternative and innovative strategies for teaching and learning increases the demands on teachers. It is important to be aware that many teachers carry a very heavy burden already; not only do they work under difficult conditions, often with large numbers of pupils, but they have to perform many activities relating to the social welfare of children in the school which go far beyond what is often thought to be the normal duties of a teacher. Ways of supporting teachers, both materially and psychologically, will have to be found which enable and encourage them to develop new strategies and approaches without becoming completely demoralised and exhausted in the process.
16. A number of important issues have emerged from the research:
· Contextualisation is not mentioned explicitly in national policy documents, but the underlying concepts appear to be appreciated and approved. In most situations where there is flexibility in the curriculum to make it relevant to the local environment, teachers do no have the support or infrastructure at local level to enable them to put policy into practice;
· Teaching aids and materials, particularly those which relate to the local context, are often in short supply. Small classrooms with large numbers of pupils make practical teaching and evaluation of learning difficult. Physical constraints in the classrooms and an absence of regular professional support lead to low motivation levels amongst teachers and pupils;
· Teachers with little or no knowledge of agriculture, and a lack of land at the school, may be constraining factors to the use of agricultural examples in the teaching of other subject areas. Cultural and societal values may work against contextualisation when asking pupils to talk about their experiences openly;
· In rural schools, agricultural experience and materials from the local environment are utilised by some teachers as a basis for teaching and learning. Farming themes are frequently used as a basis for language teaching, and agricultural topics and examples appear in many school textbooks;
· Donor support, or recognition of a school as a "model" or "pilot" school appears to raise the prestige of the school in the locality. This in turn seems to be a motivating factor for teachers and pupils, and encourages parents and community members to be more supportive of the school in its activities;
· The influence of the headteacher in a school seems central to the development and use of innovative teaching practices. Where a collegial atmosphere is created, and staff of a school feel that they can discuss freely problems and complex situations with each other regardless of position in the school hierarchy, experimentation and innovation has an opportunity to flourish;
· Support from the local education authority is also important. In some cases, schools inspectors discourage teachers from attempting to use alternative methods of teaching and learning for fear that the situation might go out of control. Although national policy statements favour the use of contextualisation in schools, teachers' guides do not seem to reflect this, and so teachers feel wary about moving away from what is laid down on the printed page, even though they may be surrounded by rich and varied resources outside the classroom and school environment. The rigidity of many primary school curricula discourages teachers from moving beyond the boundaries of the subject area, and frequent curriculum changes leave teachers feeling that they have enough to cope with just to cover the subject matter. Large class sizes, shortage of time, and a lack of confidence in dealing with classroom organisation all contribute to teachers feeling that they cannot move easily beyond the use of traditional talk-based teaching;
· Parents in rural communities, where there are low levels of literacy, seem to find it easier to understand what their children are learning when it is based in a context with which the parents themselves are familiar, for example agriculture;
· Contextualised teaching and learning may enable both girls and boys to learn more effectively at school, thus increasing the numbers of girls who leave school with higher levels of achievement and qualifications than at present. In turn this may result in greater numbers of female teachers, and also more women with a more positive perception of schooling, therefore encouraging more girls to attend school;
· Contextualising learning through the use of agriculture may help to break down the barriers between the different learning environments (home, school, community) and thus create a context more conducive to learning. Care must be taken where strong views are held about home and family life as an acceptable topic for discussion in school;
· Contextualisation strategies adopted by schools may be viewed by parents as a means of "watering-down" the national curriculum, thus preventing children from taking and passing examinations arid acquiring a fully-recognised qualification, impeding their chances in gaining employment or progressing to higher levels of the education system. Such a view could lead to parents withholding their children from primary school; hence there is a need to raise awareness that contextualisation can enhance the possibility for children to pursue and attain a wide range of goals in life;
· Regardless of changes in the curriculum which aim to relate learning more closely to the local environment, economic and social constraints in rural areas deter many of the poorest families from sending their children to school. More far-reaching structural changes may also become necessary, such as adapting the school year of rural schools to fit more closely with the agricultural cycle, so that children who are expected to participate in agricultural activities will be able to do so without missing out on schooling.
17. Opportunities exist for further research into:
· The development of educational practices which value and take into account the knowledge, experience and culture of members of schools and the wider community;
· Training and support programmes required for teachers in primary schools and in the local community, to enable them to base strategies for teaching and learning on a process of contextualisation;
· The development of structures and functions in schools and training organisations which complement and support the process of contextualisation, such as alternative timings of the school year to fit in more closely with the needs and requirements of parents and their children;
· The effect of contextualisation strategies on parental opinion of the value of schooling.
This report shows that many teachers, schools and policy makers have demonstrated the willingness and ability to innovate in order to create the most effective learning environment for children in primary schools. Considering the difficulties faced by schools in rural areas of many countries throughout the world, they are to be wholly commended, encouraged and supported in their task.