As part of a close collaboration between the UK and Bangladesh governments, Cambridge Education managed English in Action (EIA), a 10-year (2008 to 2018) education programme that would go on to benefit one sixth of the total population. Ultimately, it has helped to achieve a change in culture, in which individual students are encouraged to learn for themselves in activity-based classes, and where teachers are encouraged to support each other’s development and interact more with students.
Students used to be inactive and stuck to their desks. Now they move about the classroom, playing games with English words. The faces of my little learners are glowing.
In 2017, EIA met its target of reaching
- 30 million people nationwide
- 51,000 teachers and 7 million students
Bangladesh’s language barrier was known to be holding back the poorer societies in the country, which struggled to access the higher-skilled jobs that would improve their standard of living. English was taught in schools, but children learned reading and writing by rote, with a view to passing exams, rather than developing their oral skills so they could speak English at work or in their daily life.
English lessons were taught almost entirely in Bangla. Teachers lacked the confidence, training and materials to generate enthusiasm in the classroom. And once children left school, there were few affordable adult-learning opportunities to improve English-speaking skills.
The scale of the programme added its own challenge. In such a large and varied country as Bangladesh, implementing a coordinated and consistent transformation programme relied heavily on buy-in from all levels – government, local education officials, headteachers and teachers. However, knowledge in the education sector was usually transmitted from the top down, while decision makers did not traditionally value or empower the teaching profession.
In partnership with Open University, we set about designing a programme that would bring the benefits of learning English into the lives of children, young people and adults. Few projects get the luxury of a ten-year timescale, so we deliberately chose to begin with a model that had some time to prove itself, rather than a ready-made solution. As a result, we could ‘sell’ in the concept and grow demand.
Children can now follow audio and listen to it being spoken. This wasn’t possible before. Students and also teachers were scared about talking. You can see the confidence growing.
The new curricula, training and materials helped schools to embed techniques that put children at the heart of the teaching experience. Teachers were motivated to try new classroom practices, using audio-visual (AV) learning materials delivered through a mobile ‘trainer in their hand’. They now work through the activities with their colleagues, sharing successes and problems, with the support of headteachers and government education officers.
Anytime, anywhere learning
During the ten years, technology moved on considerably, and the project anticipated these changes to make the most of new opportunities as they arose. In the early days this meant iPods and large classroom speakers, whereas now teachers receive secure digital memory cards, which fit in their own smart phones, so they can hone their skills ‘anytime, anywhere’. This mobility has made life easier for the women teachers especially – the majority among primary schools – who struggle to juggle their home and professional development commitments.
Opening the window to adult learning
Away from the classroom, adults have benefited from BBC Janala (‘window’ in Bangla): an award-winning, multiplatform service that enables millions of Bangladeshis to learn English affordably through their mobile phones, the web, television programmes, print media and peer-to-peer learning. Working in partnership with BBC Media Action, we helped to develop this mobile phone service, which transforms a simple handset into a low-cost learning device. Anyone can learn and practise English by calling a mobile short-code from any Bangladeshi mobile operator.
There was a significant, consistent improvement in learning outcomes in English throughout the 10-year project. Compared with the 2010 baseline, 19% more primary students are able to achieve GESE grade 1 within six months, while 12% more secondary students achieve GESE grade 2 in the same period. After a year of the programme, 90% of student’s talk in the classroom is in English (from near zero levels before), with increased opportunities for students to speak and practice English during the lesson, whether in pairs or groups, or interacting with their teachers.
Through the use of technology, teachers even in the remotest areas of the country are now able to access the training and support programme in their place of work. This has changed a learning culture, which has traditionally relied on teachers travelling long distances to attend training courses with little or no follow up or support.
In total, 44 million Bangladeshis have been exposed to BBC Janala products so far. The brand’s two biggest series – the drama Bishaash and accompanying educational gameshow Mojay Mojay Shekha (‘Learning with fun’) – have enabled millions of local TV viewers to learn English together, reaching 20 and 18 million people, respectively. Now whole families and communities can share the experience of learning.
Time was on our side
Projects that are pushed on a country tend not to last. By building the capacity of local education officers to own and manage the programme, it meant they could lead and drive subsequent initiatives, in close partnership with teachers.
One practical gain was to ensure all materials were produced with and for Bangladeshi people, with real teachers teaching in real classrooms. Teachers’ confidence grew, as they were encouraged to contribute to materials development and take part in training. For the first time, they were empowered to ensure change happened in their classrooms. The government now recognises that teachers are the best people to provide training for other teachers.