Africa’s got SOLE

If you’d told Joe Jamison a year ago that instead of standing in front of his students as usual this term he’d be sitting on a dusty floor in an African village drinking from a fresh coconut, he probably would’ve laughed you out of his classroom.

But that’s exactly where he found himself this September, as part of his new role as pedagogy innovation specialist for Pencils of Promise (PoP). I spoke to Joe just before he went for the blog and his story touched so many people that I caught with him again to find out how it went.

“It was such a good trip but it’s almost too hard to put words around it,” says Joe. “I try to paint a picture to explain it to people and just can’t do it justice. Before I went, people working in international education told me what to expect and I couldn’t get my head around it and now that I know for myself, I’m having difficulty getting other people to understand what it’s like!”

Joe’s focus is on educational programs but when he saw the situation first hand in Ghana, he realised he had to take a few steps backwards. “I saw the structures they were using to teach in and realised I was looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in practice: just after physiological needs is to feel safe, so before learning is even a thought for these children we’ve got to step back and look at the basics first,” he says.

School facilities in Ghana are often pretty rudimentary: it’s not unusual for children to have their lessons under the shade of a mango tree with a chalkboard pinned to it. Joe tells me how PoP is doing a tremendous job by building safe, sustainable structures for students to learn in, with 56 schools currently operating in Ghana alone. However, many existing classrooms are often basic open structures consisting of just desks and chairs. Some are even potentially dangerous, constructed out of recycled, jagged metal.

Joe says despite these challenges, he was ‘astounded’ by the dedication shown by the teachers. “No matter where you are in the world a good teacher is a good teacher,” he says. “It’s all about building relationships and working with people and the teachers I met in Ghana are some of the best I’ve ever come across. They are fantastic and always want to learn more – they just lack the resources to do it. All we can do is give them the best training and resources we can to make their jobs easier.”

And he found this dedication also extended to the children. He had the opportunity to visit some of PoP’s ongoing builds and at one location he recalls how the junior high school currently operates under a tree with village life carrying on all around. “You couldn’t distract them if you tried,” he explains. “It was an eye-opening experience – they were so focussed on a chalkboard nailed to a tree. Every time I’m in a US classroom there’s probably about 25% of them that simply don’t want to be there, but all of these kids want to learn so bad.”

While in Africa Joe carried out teacher training for four teachers and one head teacher on how to run a SOLE session, most of whom had some knowledge of this approach but were lacking the pedagogical reasoning behind it. Rather than give them a traditional presentation, he decided on a whim to run a SOLE about SOLE instead.

“We were all a little apprehensive about it to start with and they were slow to start but once they got the ball rolling and understood what it was about, they were completely into it,” he says. Even the PoP staff – and this was new to some of them too – got involved as well.

“I wasn’t trying to be authoritative; I was asking questions and trying to learn from them as much as they were from me,” explains Joe. “There was suddenly a definite sense of everyone being in it together and then it really took off – the conversations we had are far more dynamic and in-depth than any I’ve ever had with teachers before. It was unbelievable how willing they were to put themselves out there and really get into the spirit of it. It made me so happy – I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Joe says when the members of the group presented and asked questions of each other, they had no difficulty being critical. “This surprised me a lot as I thought they would be more reserved,” he says. “Everyone just opened up and you could actually feel the spirit in the room of learning just happening.”

The Big Question Joe gave the group was: How can SOLE change the way students learn in school? and they had to pretend to be students during the session, which helped give them a better sense of their role as a teacher within a SOLE. Now those Ghanaian teachers are developing their own Big Questions based on their curriculum.

He told me how he had about 12 PowerPoint slides on the benefits of SOLE but only used a handful when there was something they hadn’t touched on. “They had grasped 90% of it and I just filled in the gaps with what the questions should look like and more about the teacher’s role,” he explains.


Michael Dougherty, CEO of Pencils of Promise, in a SOLE with teachers.

As SOLEs are constantly evolving, some educators are putting their own spin on the traditional style to ‘make it their own’ as their confidence grows. Joe is one such person and he explains to me where he differs from Sugata’s approach.

“Where Sugata likes to step back, I like to get in there and talk to every group and see where they are,” he explains. “I’ll pepper them with more questions such as ‘is this relevant?’ and ‘where can you go next with this?’ with the aim of gently pointing them in the right direction. They still have the freedom to go off and explore on their own, but I definitely help guide them.

“As a teacher I’m not doing this in a lab, I’m doing it in a classroom and it’s the same in Ghana. I’m accountable for these kids – they still have exams and set tests to work towards and they have to show improvement. If I can get SOLE into this at the same time that’s great but I’m not going to let them down.

“I want to help them be the best they can and by guiding the process a little I feel I’m doing that. I’m not telling them what to do (as that would undermine the whole SOLE process) – I just point them in the right direction.”

Joe says he learnt a lot from Sugata on how to consolidate student’s responses into a meaningful ‘summing up’ of the SOLE session when he came to visit his classroom for part of the Work Wonders Project and this also helped him enormously during his time in Africa.

One of his lasting impressions of Ghana was the warm reception he received after he touched down in Ghana’s capital Accra for his first-ever trip outside of North America. “Everyone was so great and welcomed me with open arms,” he says. “It felt like I’d known these people for years when in reality I’d only had a couple of conversations over audio Skype and email beforehand.”

Joe will return to Ghana in the Spring to see how the SOLEs are progressing. Alongside their existing literacy tests, PoP will also be carrying out retention testing in January on the same topic with two groups of 10 to 12-year-old students from both the 5th (Year 6:UK) and 6th (Year 7) grades. While one group from each will be taught using traditional methods, the other will be taught using SOLEs and how much they remember of the lessons will be tested four and 10 weeks later.

And as for Joe, it’s obvious he’s still enjoying his new role.

“This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Right here, right now. Not many people can say that.”
– Joe Jamison