If you were to pay a visit to Fithi1 Junior School on a Saturday or Sunday, you could be mistaken for presuming it was a regular day’s schooling. Children are in classes, some working silently, others engaged in discussion activities, and someone is stood at the board, guiding the learning… It’s only when you peek your head around the door that you suddenly notice something unusual about the teachers – they’re all students. Indeed, among the several hundred children attending on a typical weekend, it may take you some time to find the only ‘teacher’ usually present. He’ll probably be at the back of one of the classes, marking some work, repairing resources or observing the proceedings, just in case the ‘students’ need him: Welcome to the science club of Matiewas Ghebrechristos, a notable example of learner-centred education in very challenging circumstances.
Matiewas works as a teacher in a government secondary school in a suburb of Asmara (the capital city of Eritrea). In addition to teaching his normal hours from Monday to Friday, Matiewas spends one, or both days of the weekend at the school, where he runs a ‘science club’ for the learners – although the label does not do justice to the diversity of activities taking place. At times, it’s also an English club, a maths club, a history and geography club, a ‘green’ club, or an art and drama club. And then there are the debating activities, the choir, the school improvement work and much more besides. The following short video provides a brief glimpse of the science club in action, based on recordings I made during a visit in 2009. Before you watch it, you might want to first read the brief background and discussion below.
How does the science club work?
While I was only able to visit Matiewas’s science club on a few occasions, on one of these, I spent the best part of a day there shortly before the end-of-year exams, and can describe what I witnessed in reasonable detail:
As part of their exam revision procedure, specific learners (‘tutors’ in Matiewas’s terminology) were teaching their classmates. Each ‘session’ started with the tutor writing several exam-type review questions (e.g. multiple choice items) on the board for class members to copy and answer individually. This was followed by a groupwork activity in which a group leader encouraged the members to share and justify their chosen answers in order to come to group agreement, often leading to a ‘hot discussion’, as Matiewas put it. After this, the tutor would get their attention and elicit the answers, one from each group, for whom the leader was the spokesperson and expected to justify and defend their answer under questioning by the tutor. Other groups were also able to challenge if they thought an error had been made. However, as we watched a nine-year-old girl grilling her classmates, Matiewas stressed that the tutor ‘mustn’t answer’ themselves.
This procedure was common at this time of year. I watched similar sessions as I wandered between classes, given free reign to observe with little concern from the learners, who were used to receiving external visitors – the club had already gained quite a reputation. On one occasion – Matiewas recalled with pride – he had been invited to record a science lesson for the national TV channel. However, instead of him, the science club students had gone to the TV station and recorded the lesson themselves.
Matiewas also described other ‘session’ formats, including having students from older grades tutoring younger ones, and even graduates from the school returning to teach their juniors. He also explained that he did sometimes teach himself, not only on ‘normal’ school days, but also at the start of the science club academic year, when new students often needed help with some of the basics of English, maths or other subjects.
The impact of the science club
When he had initially set up the club, many of the parents in this poor suburb of Asmara were sceptical. According to one source2, the school was the worst performing in the region and most children dropped out before they completed middle school. Their parents considered that the weekend was an important time for their children to contribute to the family income by working on farmland nearby or selling sweets and chewing gum on street corners in the city. However, as they began to notice their children’s enthusiasm for the club, they became more supportive, allowing their offspring to bring materials to help develop resources and water to grow the plants in the green club – this small oasis of green at a time of drought was one of two resources I was introduced to. Another student took me to see the gigantic wooden ‘multi-purpose board’ created by students and parents of the science club. It helped to develop learner literacy in the wide array of scientific symbols and concepts that they had to understand and make use of in their education.
Matiewas also recalled the impact of the science club on students’ exam scores. In the year before he started the club, just after he arrived at the school, it had a final exam pass rate of 22%. By 2008, this had increased to 58%, with most science club students scoring over 70%. Anecdotal evidence of the success of the club also appeared after my video was shared widely on Linked-in (over 6,000 views), particularly among Eritrean communities around the world. Several past members of the club—now pursuing successful careers both in Eritrea and abroad—added comments sharing fond memories of their time in the club and its value to their own education.
A unique approach
Over the decade or so since visiting Matiewas’s science club, my research into different approaches in learner-centred education, both contemporary and historically, has uncovered a number of teaching strategies that have reminded me of the club, although, as far as I can tell, his approach evolved independently of any external influences. Perhaps most obvious among these are the varied innovations of the cooperative learning movement from the 1960s onwards (see a brief overview here), particularly Bob Slavin’s ‘STAD’ method (Student Team Achievement Division) in which, after the introduction of new content, learners work in fixed mixed-ability teams to ensure each team member has understood the content. This is followed by a short quiz or test taken individually at the end of the lesson; learners are aware that their scores are aggregated to create a team total. While team scores are only compared to prior scores for that team (rather than to other teams), the peer-pressure involved encourages effective peer-teaching, honest peer-questioning and a sense of group belonging that has been documented to increase learning when compared to non-cooperative alternatives (see Slavin, 1995).
Another learner-centred activity type that reminded me of Matiewas’s approach is Reciprocal teaching, originally developed by Palinscar and Brown (1984), and noted by Hattie (2009) to have one of the highest effect sizes (d = 0.74) of any approach documented in his review of meta-analyses. Reciprocal teaching also involves peer-instruction, as groups of learners read a text (also usually presenting new content) together; each group member has a specific role, including questioner, clarifier, summariser and predictor, all helping each other to understand the text, section by section (see Anderson, 2019a, p. 65, for an adaptation of this for use in language classrooms).
Interestingly, Matiewas’s approach also resembles another that originated in low-resource contexts, the Monitorial System of early 19th century education in the UK (also called the Bell-Lancaster method). In this system, more able learners in a class were engaged as ‘helpers’ to teach their peers (see this fascinating visual snapshot of the system being demonstrated in Italy in the 1860s). Interestingly, evidence exists that the inspiration for the Bell-Lancaster method was the approach used in the Madras Kingdom of pre-colonial India (its other alternative name is the Madras System). Dharampal (1983), in his book The Beautiful Tree notes a brief reference to it in Alexander Walker’s account of Indian education, c. 1820, in which Walker observed a similar approach in indigenous educational provision in Malabar (west coast of India), suggesting similar methods may have been widespread in pre-colonial India.
Replicating this model: How feasible is it?
Some observers of the club may wonder whether it was only for the more gifted learners in the school. However, this did not seem to be true. According to one of the international VSO teacher educators who had worked with Matiewas extensively3, students are not cherry picked for the science club, and are not only higher achievers – it was open to all who wanted to attend, and numbers had ballooned over the first two years it had been open.
Nonetheless, there are two important provisos to consider when attempting to account for the admirable success of the club. Firstly, even in Matiewas’s own discussion of it, the club constituted a supplement to learners’ Monday-to-Friday schooling, rather than a replacement, offering valuable opportunities for the children to unpack and explore curriculum content together. And secondly, the fact that it was attended only by those who were willing to come at weekends meant that it was non-compulsory (i.e. elective) education. As such, the shared motivation of those who attended made behaviour management easier, principally through peer pressure, but also possibly because certain, less willing (and potentially more disruptive) learners stayed away.
However, this does not necessarily mean that the science club system wouldn’t work as part of a more widely used system, even on school days. One wonders if, for example, one afternoon a week could be devoted to such club activities, following a similar peer-tutoring model (if only there were time in over-loaded curricula around the world). All learners could be given choices of activities and ‘sessions’; this elective element may encourage personal investment to participate and cooperate. Alternatively, extra-curricular clubs are common in schools in many countries. It would be interesting to see if any could achieve (or have achieved) success by following a similar model to Matiewas’s innovative approach. Please share any personal reflections of interest below.
Notes: 1. ፍትሒ in Tigrinya. 2. Donard Britten (2009). 3. Dave Kidd (2009).
Anderson, J. (2019a). Activities for cooperative learning. Delta Publishing. See here.
Anderson, J. (2019b). Cooperative learning: Principles and practices. English Teaching Professional, 121, 4-6. See here.
Dharampal (1983/2000). The beautiful tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century. Biblia Impex/Other India Press. See here.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge. See here.
Palinscar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117–175. See here.
Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice. (2nd ed.). Allyn and Bacon. See here.