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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

In Bangladesh / The Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning

Materials may be scarce, but the desire for enhanced educational opportunities is certainly not, as educators in Bangladesh incorporate the latest research in brain-based learning and multiple intelligences into national policy.

Imagine 50 to 70 first graders seated at rough-hewn benches and tables, facing a small chalkboard and a single teacher with one year of teacher training. Aside from government-provided paperback textbooks, few classroom materials are in sight. The prevailing teaching techniques are call and response and teacher questioning. Often the teacher cannot tell who is responding and who is learning. We didn't imagine this scene. We lived it for three weeks in August 1998.

Education for All

Bangladesh is a densely populated country, about the size of Wisconsin, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world. The mass of people in the capital city of Dhaka overwhelmed our senses as our hosts rushed us through traffic to the modern UNICEF offices. Our ears were jarred by a cacophony of honking as drivers claimed the right of way on streets clogged with vehicles and flooded from monsoon rains.
The government of Bangladesh has declared the 1990s the decade of "Education for All" with the goal of providing at least a 5th grade education to every child. By 1996, the enrollment in primary schools had increased to 95 percent of Bangladeshi children, and gender disparity had virtually disappeared, a dramatic change in the educational climate for this Muslim country. Yet in 1997, only 62 percent of children completed the 5th grade.
Our task, as consultants to the UNICEF/Bangladesh Education Section, was to introduce the latest research on brain-based learning and multiple intelligences, then demonstrate the practical implications for classrooms. The goal of the Bangladeshi project on Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning, which began in 1994, is to help teachers do a better job by integrating brain research and multiple intelligences theory as the foundation for understanding children's needs.
For the first week, we observed classrooms, from the most traditional to the very best brain-based, multiple intelligences schools. Instructors in the Primary Training Institutes, the Bangladeshi teachers' colleges, had been enlisted as trainers in multiple ways of learning. Further, the Intensive District Approach to Education for All (IDEAL) project was directed by the Department of Primary Education and the National Curriculum and Textbook Board—a must in a nation where primary education is nationalized, with curriculum, textbooks, and training manuals prepared in Dhaka for the entire country.
IDEAL's goals are to affect the quality of primary education through active teaching and learning methods and to improve the school environment. It is also committed to helping the local community once again be active in, and responsible for, the school and its environment. Such parent involvement was the norm before independence in 1971.
By 1996, IDEAL had trained 13,000 teachers from 2,900 primary schools in Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning. The program expected to reach 32,000 teachers from 7,000 more schools by the end of 1998.
We had been invited to propose strategies for boosting the success of all children in Bangladesh. What else needed to be done? What else did teachers need to know?

Establishing a National Policy

In Dhaka, UNICEF and the IDEAL project hosted a national seminar, "New Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in Primary Education." About 100 men and women in high-level positions from all aspects of the educational system attended. After the opening speeches, we presented concepts on brain research and discussed multiple intelligences theory. Three obviously special people sat off to the side, taking notes. Later, I understood the ramifications of that group.
Several hours of discussion followed our presentations. Some of the discussion was in English, and we were able to follow it; some was in Bangla, and although we had no idea what was being said, we felt the emotional tone.
About 5 p.m., Bangladesh's Secretary of the Division of Primary Education and Mass Education entered the room and asked for the group's findings. The three observers read the nine points that they had compiled. After determining that the distinguished participants agreed with each point, the Secretary declared, "Then it shall be national policy." We asked Mira Mitra, the project officer at UNICEF, "Are you really making national policy in relation to using brain research and multiple intelligences?" "Yes," she smiled. "The joint efforts of IDEAL and UNICEF will become the national policy." We were thankful that we had not realized the importance of our speeches before we gave them.

Developing Methods and Materials

Two days later, we drove north from Dhaka to Mymensingh. In the watery rice fields, men and boys plowed with oxen and hand-carved plows. Children lined the road, carrying heavy loads balanced on bamboo poles. We felt that we were seeing a movie documenting another century rather than the reality lived by millions of people today.
The three-day training session in Mymensingh was a joy to conduct. Teachers and teacher trainers from all over the country paid close attention
as we explained the applications of multiple intelligences theory. Excited teachers asked questions as we showed colored PET scans comparing the brain of a novice learner with that of an expert. The teachers examined a life-sized brain model as they pondered brain research implications and the link to multiple intelligences.
Next we turned our attention to classroom management strategies and ways to personalize the national curriculum. Teachers were already making visuals to accompany lessons and using natural materials as math manipulatives. We encouraged them to add student-drawn visuals and to have older children collect and organize more manipulatives.
Although teachers were already grouping students, we suggested expanding student involvement by encouraging the use of cross-age buddies to read together and to review math lessons. We taught teachers how to make paper dice for playing simple games using addition, subtraction, and multiplication. We created picture-word concentration games that reinforced vocabulary and sequence games that illustrated the months of the year or the steps in growing rice. We modeled ways to teach data collection, fractions, and percentages by using the people in the room. Because schools have essentially no budget for materials, we tried to model learning experiences that required no new materials.
One dramatic characteristic of the IDEAL classroom are the comfortable woven mats on the floor, which replace the traditional benches and tables. Students face the teacher in a single semicircle and can efficiently regroup in small learning circles or turn to the floor-to-waist chalkboards lining the walls. Letters and numbers in English and Bangla and a myriad of pictures decorate the once drab walls. In an unpainted room, we offered a suggestion: Why not have older children make posters to represent math problem solving, or have student artistic renditions of reading stories to increase student pride? Use the walls as places of learning to teach and to make a friendly environment. It is important for students to see their work posted and displayed.
Because our brains search to connect new experiences to prior knowledge, we urged teachers to continually make connections before they taught. "Collect leaves and make a classification system before teaching about trees," we suggested. "Ask children to draw a series of pictures about growing rice before reading the related story," we encouraged. "The rural children live with the daily process of tending to the rice. They will learn better if they connect their prior knowledge to the process of reading."
We involved teacher trainers in a number of self-reflective strategies. "Use your fingers to create a scale of 1 to 5 and ask the children to respond." We modeled repeatedly, asking the teacher-trainers, "On a scale of 1 to 5 (best), how are you feeling today?" "On a scale of 1 to 5, how well do you understand this subtraction idea?" "On a scale of 1 to 5, how well can you use this idea in your schools?" We spoke of the research on emotions and the research linking reflection to deeper thought processes.
In an IDEAL school, School Management Committees are responsible for planning. We encouraged teachers to think about how parents could supplement the school curriculum by making or collecting classroom materials. We suggested using people in the village as resources: "Why not bring in the neighborhood potter before reading the story about a potter?" "When you study trees, could your wood carvers share their knowledge of different wood qualities?"

Looking Ahead, Reflecting Back

We ended our three days of teacher training, made intense by the rapt attention of teacher trainers and the heat of the postmonsoon August, by exploring a vision of the future of education in Bangladesh. It was a powerful experience. As we breathed a sigh of relief that our responsibilities for the teacher training were over, a Bangladeshi teacher began singing "We Shall Overcome"—a reminder of another struggle for civil rights. These Bangladeshi teachers, beautiful in courage and strength, are determined. Deep in their hearts they believe that they will overcome their current obstacles and provide quality, personalized education for all their students.
In Bangladesh, more and more children are attending school and enjoying their learning experiences. They are actively engaged and increasingly attentive. Teachers move among the children, talking to individuals, coaching students, and listening to the processes of cooperative group work. The teachers now use stones and sticks as counters; they use flowers and leaves for classification.
Mothers, talking through thankful tears, explain how much the changes in education have meant to their children. They told us that their older children did not like school and would not attend, but that their younger children have a chance for a better life because the Bangladeshi schools are improving, despite large class sizes and little money for materials.
Are these Bangladeshi classrooms as rich as a multiage class in Minneapolis? Clearly not. Are they significantly more personalized than similar classrooms five years ago? Most definitely, yes! The Multiple Ways of Teaching and Learning classrooms are using an understanding of recent brain research and the theory of multiple intelligences to guide their practices, within the parameters of Bangladeshi culture. It was a privilege to work with these professionals in Bangladesh and to support their work in creating a national model of successful education.

Launa Ellison has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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