Solver Practical Education Network (PEN), an organization that provides tools for West African STEM teachers to provide hands-on learning experiences, recently helped redesign Ghana’s national curriculum—a huge endeavor that has the potential to impact millions of students across the country.
In this Q&A, we connect with Heather Beem, PEN’s CEO and Founder, to learn more about the project.
How is education evolving in Ghana?
Notably for us at PEN, the Ministry of Education is revising the national curriculum. In Ghana, as in many parts of the world, the entire country follows a single national curriculum. Every five or six years, the Ministry revises the curriculum.
The new primary school curriculum is updated and will be rolled out across Ghana’s 14,000+ primary schools in September. The Ministry will revise and roll out the junior and senior high school curricula next year. Through these revisions, we hope to see a big shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning—meaning students will begin to play a more active role in their own education.
What’s the significance of this shift?
Today—especially when studying science—Ghanaian students describe school as boring and hard. In Ghana, most teachers rely on rote memorization as their primary technique. That’s how they were trained, and teachers often feel that they don’t have the right materials to make learning more experiential. So, they end up standing in front of the class repeating material and writing out details on the board. Students just sit and absorb whatever they can.
A shift to student-centered learning will change this. Rather than memorizing facts, students will learn through hands-on, experiential activities. They’ll ask questions, work in teams, and learn how to solve problems in real time. And because this hands-on style teaches students critical thinking and problem-solving skills, when they see challenges in their community in the future, they’ll be better equipped to address them.
What role does PEN play in all this?
To make these activities possible, teachers need resources that are contextualized and feasible to procure. And much like how students need hands-on activities to learn, teachers must have the opportunity to practice leading these lessons. It’s not enough to just read through a textbook or website.
That’s where PEN comes in. We design activities with resources that are locally available—think balloons, water bottles, or flowers—things that any teacher in any corner of the country could find. We also provide training to teach teachers how to lead these activities.
The Ministry of Education recognized the value of our methodology and asked us to help them revise the curriculum. The national curriculum contains a chart with topics, units, and objectives. We carefully mapped hands-on activities to each objective and provided a few options so teachers can select the right ones for their class. And now, we’re working with the National Trainers to share this methodology with Ghana’s 150,000+ primary school teachers.
Can you give us an example of an activity?
One of my favorites is a respiratory system activity for primary school students. Rather than watching their teacher draw a diagram on the board, students create their own respiratory system and watch it breathe.
First, you take a water bottle and cut off the bottom. Cover the bottom with a plastic bag and snap a rubber band around it to fasten the bag to the bottle. Then, stretch a balloon around the bottle’s mouth. When you pull the plastic bag in and out of the bottle, the balloon inflates and deflates. Through this activity, students see how the diaphragm (the plastic bag) enables air to enter and exit the lung (the balloon).
How do students respond?
Students love these activities, and the difference is like night and day. They’re engaged; they talk and interact with each other. Learning is so much easier when you’re enjoying it.
We recently measured this engagement and found an increase in students’ attitude and exam scores as a result of our hands-on activities. Students became more interested in engaging in science outside the classroom, while their counterparts at the “business-as-usual” schools became less interested over the course of the year. Furthermore, their exam scores increased 97 percent more than their counterparts in one academic year.
How do teachers feel?
Most teachers and administrators support a shift to active learning, but it’s hard to know how to make it a reality. Especially with science and math, it can feel hard to make your class engaging if you don’t have the right materials.
By suggesting simple, accessible materials and providing step-by-step instructions, PEN makes this possible. Many teachers say the training is “eye-opening.” They come in thinking it’s impossible to lead activities in their class without formal materials, but when they leave, they have a completely new mindset.
Andrews Agbenyenu, a PEN teacher trainer, holds a periscope made from local materials. Image: Practical Education Network