Saturday, 1 August 2015

School in a Box

Last night I learned about a company providing “Academies in a box”: an American corporation running a for-profit schooling system across the continent of Africa, known as Bridge International Academies.

The premise? Using a McDonald's style franchise, this company is a for-profit educational model that is rolling out schools across Kenya, Uganda and beyond. They hire unqualified teachers (basically anyone who is capable of reading and writing) to "teach" by reading out a pre-prepared script from a tablet. The day's lessons are sent to their phone every morning and the “teacher” simply reads and writes verbatim everything that is sent, following every word in order to create their lesson.

The aim? To allow access to a “quality education” for those around the world who would not normally be able to access a good education, through a small charge of just $5 per child per month. 

The "beauty" of these schools (in their eyes) is that every child or class in every Bridge school across the world is having the exact same lesson at the exact same time (a thought that terrifies me to my very soul!) How is this achieved? By every "teacher" in every single one of these schools simply reading the same prescribed lesson from their tablet at the same time, writing the same prescribed text onto the board at the same time and asking the same prescribed questions to the children at the same time. There is no deviation from the script (there is only one script per lesson/year group/company), there is no deviation from the time. 
The name of the game is Process.  

One of the merits of this approach is advocated (with glee) on their website:

“Our scripted curriculum includes step-by-step instructions explaining what teachers should do and say during any given moment of a class.”

A short podcast about the Bridge.

Here comes the debate I have a lot (in my head and in discussions): 

To what extent is any sort of formal schooling (no matter who gives it, no matter what it consists of, no matter how it is delivered) better than none? 

This is a crucial question to ask when assessing the educational models of the world and one that I question a lot due to the nature of the work I am currently doing. Sadly, seeing and exploring many of the formal educational models which exist across the world, I frequently come back to the latter (i.e. none) being better than any. I know many who would disagree with me, and I enjoy the discussions that ensue. After all, really, what right do I have to criticise any educational models, having had the privilege of an education myself?

Well, I am an opinionated soul for a start, and so I invariably do! Here are some of my criticisms…

To begin with, what exactly is education? What does it mean? In my opinion, the word “Education” means learning for life; learning to live within the world around you, a world that is constantly changing and a world that requires unique skills, creativity and independent thinking. Education does not just happen inside a classroom; it happens all day, every day. From the moment a child is born, that child is being educated as they are constantly surrounded by teachers. Parents, siblings, grandparents, neighbours or friends: the wealth of educators in any one life is vast. And yet, so frequently, these educators are somehow seen as invisible in the global definition of Education (with children being advocated as totally lacking in education unless they attend a formal school).

So what are schools actually for? What are schools like the Bridge Academy actually teaching their children that is so much better than what they could gain from all of their other teachers? In a nutshell - Information. The world is moving beyond education through wisdom, or knowledge even, as so much of curriculum substance in our modern schools promotes the acquisition of information. Facts and figures about  how stuff works – that is what school gives us.

One of my greatest concerns about the educational models rolling out across the world is that an education in Information is so often void of the need for critical thinking. If the purpose of Education in its global definition is simply to fill a child’s head with information, the relevance of a child’s questions, creativity, independence and innovation are utterly irrelevant to the practice, and a robotic nature of absorption is all that matters.

Factory systems of Education exist all across the world, not just in the margins of the “developing” world. Schools across the “west” are continually processing children within these same margins: in one end with empty heads, out the other with a golden ticket giving entrance to the next stage.

The notion that the factory-style teaching of these Bridge Academies is a positive-teaching method alarms me greatly. This system of education (scripted, robotic, prescriptive and dictatorial) would be laughed out of the classroom in schools across the world were it to be suggested, and yet somehow this is seen as a positive model to use on "poor Africans", children who are assumed to be happy with anything rather than nothing.

Children (wherever they come from) do not learn effectively by being taught in this way, being taught by a robot to think like a robot. This fact has been proven time and time again by academics, teachers and kids even, right across the world. We know this, we understand this and, in many places, educational reform is trying to address this very process that exists in so many schools. However, the Academies–in-a-Box hold no room for individuality of learning (there is no time after all). Thus, the children across all of their schools are supposed to simply "get it" at the exact same time.  

As stated in their aim, “The 1st, 100th and 1000th pupils receive the same education as the 100,000th and the 1000000th”. But how are they all supposed to think in the same way, at the same rate, at the same time? Humans don’t work like that, especially not children. What if their questions outrun the class time? What if they simply don't understand what the “teacher” is reading? Most crucially, what room is there for any human behaviour within this model?

Technology is the given answer to the school’s structural system. They boast of how technology develops all of the applications used to complete their research, navigates land buying, teaches, tracks and assesses pupils, communicates with parents and manages and evaluates each academy. The schools are literally being run by robots; facilitated by robots and are producing robots.

What of the "teachers" themselves within these models? What sort of worth do they feel about themselves, working as some sort of "facilitator" and simply reading a script that an unknown hand has written; working as someone who is not qualified or perhaps even able to understand or explain what it is that they are teaching, and whose every move during the day is rather frighteningly controlled by a machine...what impact is this model having upon the teachers?

Focusing particularly on the maxim "Fighting poverty through education" (the catchphrase of so many educational models across the world) the models at work in so many of our formal school systems all require movement into paid employment, as the global systems of education that we are using at present promote fiscal reward as the solution and the result of formal schooling. In other words, you need to go to school so that you can get a good education and get a good job. “Good”, for the most part, means “well paid" and thus migration to cities (where all of these “good jobs” lurk) is such a definite conclusion for so many of the products (aka kids) of educational models across the world.

Beyond the search for jobs, there are other reasons that kids are encouraged, through school, to leave home. An education that is teaching children about a world outside of their own context does not allow for the building of knowledge connections and deep understanding of the world in which they live; it simply sets them up for a world outside of their own. It is the inherent extraction from context that concerns me within our homogenous modern schooling systems. If an education is setting up children to exist in a world beyond their own, what is that education doing, other than teaching children that there is no value in their own lives, and they must leave home to find better ones? 

Bridge Academies has a curriculum that is scripted in-house (aka in America) by “world leading educational experts”. This is great. But how much do they know about the needs of each community within the areas they are writing this curriculum for? And even if they did know, this knowing is irrelevant if there is the same curriculum for every child in every village or town across every country housing these schools.  Aside from the notion of teaching children in an alien language (the model in "developing countries" across the world, about which I will write another time), how can this company think that a "one-size-fits-all" approach to education across an entire continent is going to ever work to do anything other than alienate a child from their community, their culture and their self worth?

Bridge Academies may well have the intention of “fighting poverty through education” but they are also working to make money (they are, after all, a for-profit company). They state that one of the reasons for not hiring qualified teachers is a cost-cutting mechanism (unqualified folk are a darn sight cheaper) and they encourage large class sizes (more $5 monthly payments rolling in). They also advocate the benefits of just one “computer” planning all the lessons as fruitful in its cost-cutting capabilities, allowing them to train teachers faster and not waste their time on lesson planning.

Another question I continually ponder is this: 

How much does a need to "fight poverty through education" erode the importance of promoting self-worth, advocating quality and equality and serving justice? 

Why, for example, is something many countries would deem as a farcical way to educate children (seen in this Academy-in-a-Box method) seen and sold as a great system to use for those who are classified as "poor"? Why should half the world be served an Education that is deemed not good enough for the other half?

I had an interesting discussion with my teacher, Gamba, about this just this afternoon (he being a very interesting man to discuss ideas with). He asked me the question: Which is Equality and Which is Justice? and then drew me this picture:

Looking at the left, we have a model of equality – all three people given the same. And this is what so many factions of educational aid are serving to do: roll out the same chance to children across the world to have an education. This is wonderful, I will never deny that and (as I said earlier) I obviously have no argument against people getting an education. But look at the picture to the right, and the story changes slightly. In these global models to promote a sense of equality, Justice is rarely served.  We are all equal, but we are not the same. This simple fact is so frequently forgotten in our move towards Globalisation. Yes, Education should be available for us all; to promote equality, but it should not all be the same. A homogenised Education is not tailoring to a person’s needs; it is simply one version of the meaning of success rolled out across the world, a version that automatically cuts off half of those involved (Gamba drew the "invisible line" to highlight the point!)

I think about these questions a lot. I believe in the value of Education (in its myriad of forms) but I lament the way we are often presenting it to our children.  I write about these ideas a great deal but rarely do I find answers, simply more and more questions. However, when it comes to models such as Bridge Academy’s “School in a Box” working to “fight poverty through Education” I find very definite answers (loud and negative in this case). In my opinion, their boxes do not (and never will) hold any answers to guide us towards a brave new world. They simply highlight the need to find another way to fight.


  1. Excellent, thought-provoking article, Rachel - when's your book on all this stuff coming out...?! x

    1. Thanks Becky :)
      The book...well, as soon as some kind soul decides it's worth publishing, then it's out! I'm currently playing the waiting game (with fingers firmly crossed!) I'll keep you posted.