The Heritage Academy provides perhaps the best primary education within Ghana’s entire Central Region. Heritage Academy students achieve a 100% pass rate on their 9th grade national exams, when the national average is around 35%. Passing these exams is required to continue onto high school education.
Yet despite these incredible results, the school’s educational model is in many ways different from the K-12 American education we received. The school, while innovative, still adheres to an older pedagogical style that emphasizes a distinct hierarchy within the classroom and the memorization of facts over critical thinking. Ghana’s learning model is therefore modern in the philosophical sense. Modernism in the educational sense focuses on facts, figures, and concrete conceptual frameworks. Modern thinking sees the world in terms of black and white, and the role of the student is a receptor of knowledge from the all-knowing teacher.
In contrast, the model of education to which we have become accustomed in America (and especially at F&M) is post-modern. Post-modernism teaches the relativity of truth and works to dissolve traditional power structures. Thus, the role of the student is to develop critical thinking skills and to evaluate multiple positions about a given topic. The teacher therefore acts more as a facilitator of learning in the classroom rather than the source of absolute truth.
As volunteers who are coming into this modern framework but teaching in a post-modern way, we are in a unique position to evaluate the differences between the two. This is most clear in the areas of classroom authority and how information is passed on.
In a typical Heritage class, the teacher takes charge and dominates the classroom discussion. Students address their teacher as “Sir” or “Madam,” and habitually stand up to speak. The structure of the classroom is ordered linearly, with students seated in rows all facing a single direction. In contrast, as volunteers, we have adopted a post-modern framework that seeks to undermine the student-teacher dichotomy. In our classes, ranging from public speaking and creative writing to neuroscience and beat boxing, student participation is crucial to the success of the class. The teacher will introduce the topic of the day but then allow students the freedom to decide what information is most important or essential to their personal goals. We adopt a more casual relationship with the students, telling them to address us by first name and encouraging them to question us if they have a question or contrary viewpoint. Often, the students use class time to teach us Fante, reversing the traditional student-teacher roles. Finally, we eliminate the spatial hierarchy of our classrooms by having the students sit in circles, collaborative pods, or even by having class outside.
On the pedagogical front, modernism stresses rote memorization and recitation. Studentsoften lack the critical thinking skills to evaluate what they learn, and are flummoxed when we ask them “why” or “how” questions. Students are used to only learning the “correct” information, which often prohibits self-expression and creativity. When Sarah asked her students to write their own short stories, one 10th grade student turned in one entitled “The Gingerbread Man.” When Sarah asked her to be more creative, the student told her that she did not know the meaning of the word “creative.” In contrast, post-modernism centers on collaborative learning and subjective evaluations of the material. There is not necessarily a “right” answer in the post-modern classroom, particularly in the humanities; instead, students work with each other in their pods to create their own bodies of knowledge. This is particularly apparent in Andrew’s public speaking class, where students were invited to produce their own topics for debate and discussion. In Sarah’s creative writing class and Kacy and Rachel’s music and poetry class, students write original stories, lyrics, and monologues.
Obviously, as volunteers for only ten days we cannot truly understand what defines the Heritage Academy. In many ways, Heritage is more post-modern than most Ghanaian schools, exemplified by its refusal to cane students and its eagerness to allow foreigners to teach. However, Sarah and Andrew feel that in general the Heritage Academy remains a thoroughly modern institution. We believe that, for now, the modern framework may be necessary. Ghana remains largely unindustrialized outside of its southern coast, and many in its hinterlands are undereducated, if not illiterate. A post-modern educational system that promotes multiple viewpoints and the importance of teamwork fails to address Ghana’s most pressing needs. But ultimately, we are grateful for the chance to share a bit of our post-modern worldview with the students of the Heritage Academy.
Andrew Berg and Sarah Mills