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NGO-Run Schools: Three Ways to Increase Value

July 18, 2014

Headshot_bourassa_wastyIt's no secret that international development work has more than its share of challenges, especially when it involves a project that espouses a long-term goal such as improving access to or the quality of education. While some schools run by nongovernmental organizations fare better than others, most experience varied levels of success, depending on a range of factors. While many of these factors lie beyond the control of NGOs, others can be addressed at the local level. Based on our observations in the field, the following tactics have proved to be effective in boosting the success of NGO-run schools:

Create a Stimulating Environment

The squalid conditions in most refugee camps, communities of displaced people, and urban slums not only have negative physical effects on children but also psychological ones. Accordingly, a fresh school setting can be a refuge for children in otherwise less-than-desirable situations. Displaying bright, colorful drawings, paintings, and other artwork by students on classroom walls is one way to create a healthy, positive environment — an environment that sends a positive message, supports brain stimulation and learning, and helps combat absenteeism.

Libraries that offer not only textbooks but also picture books, short story collections, and graphic novels also have great appeal for students of all ages and can be an excellent way to get kids hooked on reading. And kids who are hooked on reading often will become ambassadors of education in their local communities, eagerly sharing their love of learning with their parents, siblings, and neighbors. Making the community more aware of the importance of literacy and education and getting buy-in through such methods can yield significant long-term benefits.

Active Learning and Group Work

We've noticed in our travels that when English-speaking visitors interact with students at NGO schools where English is taught as a second language, teachers are often quick to intervene and mediate without allowing time for either students or the visitors to negotiate a channel of communication. Having teachers constantly translate for students in such situations isn't helpful, however, as it denies kids the opportunity to work out what a visitor is trying to communicate or to make themselves understood on their own.

According to the late American psychiatrist William Glasser, we "learn" 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we see and hear, 70 percent of what we say, and 90 percent of what we say and do. Thus, a better strategy would be to employ active learning methods — for example, letting foreign visitors in a classroom setting interact with students in English only. When students are encouraged to communicate through a combination of hand gestures and pictures or words on a blackboard in addition to the few English words or phrases they may possess, they almost always will learn more than if they simply relied on a teacher to translate for them.

Similarly, having students work in groups can be a great way to boost the socializing elements of classroom instruction and build students' confidence. A student who has a fear of speaking in front of others might be encouraged to focus on a different aspect of the team assignment, for instance, while another member of the group is assigned the task of speaking on behalf of the team. Knowing that their contribution was a valuable part of the group effort can be a powerful motivator for students who in more individualized settings might be too shy to assert themselves. It's also a good way for teachers to identify the weaknesses of individual students without highlighting those weaknesses to the rest of the class, and to pair "slow" and "fast" learners, thereby ensuring that no student is "left behind" while helping to cultivate empathy in stronger students.

Sociocultural sensitivities notwithstanding, pairing boys with girls also can encourage better learning. Boys and girls think differently and analyze problems differently. Asking boys and girls to work together as part of a team encourages them to see each other as equals, to learn and appreciate some of the differences in the way they approach problems, and to learn from those differences.

Link Schooling to Employability

The conceptual link between schooling and employment often is not fully developed in NGO-run schools, while the idea of market saturation is almost totally absent. At schools in Bangladesh, for instance, we regularly come across students whose stated ambition is limited to the field of business administration, teaching, or engineering. While these professions may have been in demand a few years ago and continue to have "cachet" in Bangladeshi society, they are oversubscribed and perhaps not the best option for a young Bangladeshi starting out today.

One way to address this issue is to encourage NGOs to work more closely with individuals who can provide information about local workforce needs. In addition to benefiting students, this kind of information would help NGOs better focus their efforts and resources on teaching marketable skills that directly address the needs of the broader society. In the case of Bangladesh, for example, the country could benefit from a more diversified engineering workforce that has been trained locally.

In terms of the long-term outlook, working to address market needs would go a long way toward mitigating the unwanted effects of ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination in a country like Bangladesh by creating more interactions between different segments of society through the basic laws of supply and demand.

While we are certainly aware that not all NGO-run schools have the appropriate resources to address all the issues mentioned above, we firmly believe that given the pressure most NGOs are under to "do more with less," even partially implementing some of our recommendations would increase the value proposition of these schools and position the NGOs running them as more desirable partners for any future efforts in the educational arena. Changes may not always seem significant or be easy to implement, yet their effects can be long-lasting, even generational.

Shujaat Wasty, a practitioner in the international affairs and development field, is a member of the Leadership Council at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University in Montreal. Maude Bourassa has a master's degree from the Université Laval in international relations, is a research fellow at the RS Foundation, and currently works at the Polytechnique Montréal.

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