Category Archives: Development

Day 4 – Attempts at Goal

This is what my Thursday looked like at Tamasco:


...but no teacher

We sat in class from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.  and not a single Master showed up. I asked some of the students if this was unusual and they told me that, in fact, they hadn’t had an ICT (Information and Computer Technologies) Master in their three years at the school. So, it’s not like the Master was lazy, there just wasn’t one. I was astounded; Ive heard that teacher absenteeism is a big problem in Ghana, but to experience it firsthand was eye-opening. I guess that’s the value in a school-stay.

When I told my classmates that in Canada, or the US (and probably parts of Europe, although I have no way of knowing), a teacher would be immediately queried and disciplined, if not sacked (fired) for such behaviour, they laughed. “Welcome to Africa,” said Daniel, a Dagomba brothah of mine, “feel free to put that in your report.”

I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. Literally one week prior, a classroom full of teachers had told me that their students “weren’t serious”. I wonder: were they talking about the same students who were faithfully in class, studying from their textbooks and practice question sets while their Masters did who knows what? The same students who get up for the 4:30 a.m. prayer, even if they are Christians, so that they can get in extra study time before class? The same students who study for 2+ hours every night in the empty classrooms on campus?

After “class” (a.k.a. free study time), Emmanuel told me that he wanted to show me something. We hopped on his bike and he directed me to a seemingly secret location whose purpose he wouldn’t disclose. He stopped us under a tree close to a nearby JHS where many bikes were parked. “See that?” he asked me. “Yeah, but what am I looking at?” I responded, confused. He went on to explain that the Masters who had not been present during the day were holding extra classes and charging students 4 Ghana cedis for entrance. He told me that usually 80-90 students would show up to these extra classes and that if you don’t show up early, you won’t get a seat.

The whole thing was abominable to me. The teachers know they won’t be fired for missing classes, because there is little to no accountability for them to actually do their jobs. For them to create a demand for extra classes and take students’ hard-earned and sparse money through their inaction is just disgusting, in my opinion. I know that not all teachers do this, but that it happens at all just astounds me. I wanted to weep under that tree right then and there.

We had to leave the extra class quickly, because there was a football match between the two Agric classes. All of my classmates wanted me to play, so I pushed out of my comfort zone and laced up. I’d like to point out that I haven’t played a real football match in maybe 10 years, and that back then football didn’t involve three different languages (Twi, Dagbani, and English), a bunch of grown Ghanaian men who have been playing since they could walk, herds of goats on the pitch, and the occasional moto driving across the field. Even without these things, I still had a penchant for scoring on my own team’s net back when I did play. I figured this match would be interesting.

The whole time, I felt like I was just running to keep up with the other guys, let alone actually play. I got the ball a total of four times. Once was a good block that received some cheers from my team, another was during a collision with one of my own players (no injuries sustained), and the last two were attempts at goal. The first attempt was laughable: the net was wide open and the ball was right in front of it. My foot never actually made contact with the ball and I ended up on my ass. The second attempt was a little better, but the ball rolled off the top of my foot and ended up going over the net instead of into it.

The whole game made me truly feel like a Ghanaian student. I was always running, working so hard just to keep up. When I did have a chance to attempt a goal, I didn’t have the skills to follow-through to success, because I was horribly out of practice.

As I high-fived my teammates after the 3-2 win, a mix of happiness at our success and raw desperation at the reality of these students hit me.

I had become part of the missing bottom line.



Day 1 – The First Lesson

They told me that we’d have an assembly at 6:30, but when I wake up on Monday morning I can hear rain pounding the zinc roof of our hut in the Wemah House compound, so I assume that it will be cancelled. It seems that most things in Ghana are cancelled when it rains and rightly so. The rain is serious here. So I roll over and fall back asleep, hoping that my roomies will wake me when the time is right.

The rain stops in time for breakfast, which consists of bread and tea with lots of milk and sugar. Afterwards, I head with my room-and classmate Francis to General Agriculture. I’m excited for it, because I know nothing about agriculture, and because it’s my first class as a Ghanaian high school student. Francis shows me my desk, a misshapen contraption made of very hard, flat wood, and I sit down as students start to arrive.

The teacher, or Master (“Mastah” in Ghanenglish), is late. When he shows up, he doesn’t notice me and I wonder if it is unusual. It seems as though he doesn’t know any of the students’ names, so I guess that it’s probably not out of the ordinary for him not to realize that a new, and decidedly different, student is in his class. In any case, I learn plenty about market structure and function during the class which seems comprehensive.

The Mastah for the next class–Core Maths–is also late. When he does arrive, he wants to know what I’m doing in the class. He accepts that I’m a new student from Canada here to see what it’s like to be a Ghanaian student and we continue with the lesson. A student gives him a vector question that he reads to the class. It goes like this:

Given triangle PQR such that PR = u, PQ = v, the midpoint of PR = M, and the midpoint of RQ = L, show that PL = 1/2(u+v). Now, given that PX = 1/3(u+v) and PY = 2/3(u+v), express MX, RY, and XQ in terms of u and v. 

(If you’re vector-illiterate, have no fear. Please, continue reading.)

The Mastah goes through the first part of the question with no problem, but when we get to the second part he reads the question again and tells the class that there must be a typo which has rendered the question unsolvable. I’m shocked; in the time it has taken him to consider the problem, I’ve come to a complete solution. That the teacher hasn’t even attempted it surprises me. I raise my hand.

Before I know it, I’m at the blackboard, demonstrating that MX = -1/6u + 1/3v. Mastah considers my solution. “Ah, I understand,” he says after about a minute, “okay, let’s find RY then.” He reproduces the diagram sloppily, misplacing the point R then proceeds for a good ten minutes to mumble incoherently away from the students while he scratches away at the board with the chalk.

I feel bad. I’ve put the teacher on the spot and if I were in his position, I’d probably be equally challenged. I look back at the students from my desk at the front of the class and see a bunch of very confused faces. Now I’m torn; the students need to understand this, but I’m not a teacher. It’s not officially within my role to be the one to help them understand. Screw it, I think, the students are more important.

I get the Mastah’s attention and ask if I can show the solution. In two minutes, I’ve written the complete answer on the board and get many understanding nods from students. I’m still conflicted, but I tell myself that the students’ understanding rationalizes my not-so-humble behaviour. Mastah sits at the teacher’s desk at the front and stares at the solution wordlessly for the rest of the period.

After the class is over, Mastah calls me to speak with him. He tells me that the problem with the Ghanaian education system–the one in which he was educated–is a lack of practical use of the theory. He tells me that there is knowledge, but no skills.

He didn’t show up for his classes for the rest of the week.

This is why Striving for Humility is one of EWB’s core values. The actions I took in that class were not within my role to take, and taking such actions has likely had a bigger effect than what happened in the class that I cannot predict. Sure, maybe that effect will be positive. The important part, though, is that I don’t know whether it will be or not. The ripple effects are out of my hands and unmeasurable from where I stand. I didn’t correct a Master for the rest of the week, even when the errors they made were glaringly obvious.

It’s not surprising that my first lesson as a Ghanaian high school student had little to do with what was written on the blackboard. Funny, Isn’t that the case with most lessons in life?


The Biggest Stakeholders

“I beg, tell me if this graph makes you happy or sad, and why,” I instruct a group of teachers in my very best Ghanenglish. They’re seated in one of their own classrooms as Alhassan and I present data on staffing, enrolment, and BECE results for their schools for the past five years.

Alhassan delivers the results of a survey on teachers' perceptions of data use, student performance, and their influence on student performance.

“It makes me sad,” begins one of the teachers, “because it tells me that teachers are not performing.”

It’s a valid answer; the graph clearly shows that the school is overstaffed and that performance is decreasing. His answer is incomplete, though.

“It makes me sad, because it means that parents don’t value education,” suggests another teacher.

It’s good that she’s thinking of potential causes for the data I’ve presented, but still she’s missing something.

“Basically, it means that the stakeholders-government, parents, NGOs-are not taking responsibility,” says a third teacher.

The group buzzes with agreement like a bunch of satisfied bees. I sense that they have accepted this as a complete and final answer deserving of 10/10 on a test. This seriously concerns me and I have trouble controlling my voice as I ask my next question.

“And what of the students?”

The buzzing stops and some of the teachers perk up.

I continue, “this graph makes me sad because it tells me that 60% of students who come through these schools won’t even have a chance at going to high school. It makes me sad when I think of the futures that these kids will have.”

The teachers remain quiet. I hope I’ve had some impact with that statement, but the teacher sleeping in the back tells me otherwise.

I’m starting to realize from my research, both academic and on the ground, that there’s a missing bottom line in Ghanaian education. Alhassan and I have only hit 4 junior high schools with 2/5 presentations so far, but the attitude that we’ve seen is one of a near-complete disregard for the biggest stakeholders in education: the students. I wonder: why?

Is it because donors want to see numbers telling them that 100% of children are enrolled in basic schooling? Or is it because the job market in Ghana is so crappy? Believe me, these things are definitely part of the multifaceted cause of the issue. The first because donor focus dictates policy focus, and focussing strictly on enrolment means that students are in school, but not learning. The second because teaching is a lucrative career that includes a nice steady paycheque and infinite job security. These, and not delivery of good education, are the motivations for many people to become teachers in Ghana.

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that these things (and more) certainly play a causative role. So, then where is my value-add in all of this? That question filled my head for the rest of the presentation.

Teachers give us feedback on what they can do to improve the quality of their teaching.

It’s something I’m still working on, but getting the teachers’ thoughts has been invaluable in informing me of my potential role. From my interactions with them so far, I can tell that the context in which they work is extremely demotivating. They are used to being blamed for low performance, but don’t have the managerial support they ought to in order to be effective. They see their colleagues treating the job trivially and feel powerless to change that.

At the end of the day, how can I blame them for wanting to wash their hands of a problem that they believe is unsolvable by any action they might be able to take? It would be overwhelming for me to accept responsibility, even in part, if I were in their shoes.

All of these things were swimming through my head as I packed up after the presentation. The demotivation of the teachers had rubbed off on me, I won’t lie, and I was feeling pretty blue.

“Excuse me,” probed a teacher, breaking the concentration I held on packing up the projector. He put out his hand for me to shake and said genuinely, “thank you for this. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and not once have we ever gotten this kind of feedback. I had no idea that my students were doing so poorly. You asked if the presentation had any impact on us. Well, it has impacted me in a way that I can’t even describe. So, thank you.”

His words contained such validation, reinforcement, and–best of all–hope that I couldn’t help but break into a huge smile as I shook his hand.


From Buzzwords to Actions

What am I doing in Ghana?

I’ve written about my work before, but so far I haven’t said anything too concrete. This is problematic because my chapter is supposed to be connected to my work, and I’m sure the rest of you would like to know what my work really looks like too. The problem is that what I’m doing is outcome-oriented, so my daily activities aren’t consistent, but rather structured around the outcomes that I’m trying to achieve. Those outcomes are essentially evidence-based decision-making and the creation of a sustainable culture of analysis at the Regional Education Office.

Um, excuse me? I know, I know, I’ve just thrown a bunch of buzzwords at you that don’t really make a lot of sense because they are somehow technical. That’s fair, so I’ll recap my activities from the summer and in doing so try to give a sense of what a workday might look like for me.

I arrive at the office at around 7:45. It seems early, but there are many reasons for my keenness. First, mornings aren’t that exciting for a guy in my compound, since we’re not allowed to take part in any of the activities that are going on (dish-washing, cooking breakfast, gathering water etc). Second, I eat my breakfast of egg and bread at the office, because my family thinks I don’t like the porridge they make. I’ve actually never tried it—there was a weird language barrier-caused miscommunication that I haven’t yet ventured to correct. Third, I only get internet at the office! I like it this way, but it means that I usually have piles of emails to get through each day. I reserve the time between my own arrival and Alhassan’s arrival for doing my daily interwebbing.

Alhassan usually arrives at about 8:30. At that point, we’ll sit down and go over our work for the day. Here’s where things get variable. At the beginning of my placement, work plans for each day consisted of me asking a tonne of questions of everyone in my office, learning about the current data management systems in place and getting feedback from Alhassan on ideas for moving forward. That turned into developing a database using Microsoft Excel, which usually involved a lot of heated (and I mean heated) back-and-forth discussions about the best ways to manage the data and the best analyses to do with it.

I should mention that my office is a great space for ideation. For some reason—I hypothesize that it has to do with the impermanence of my role—I can navigate roles freely at the REO and as a result I have a lot of flexibility in what I can reasonably put out in terms of useful ideas. So, there is a sort of background level ideation always going on between Alhassan and I, Newton and I, and/or Mr. Acheampong and I. Oh, those are other employees at the RESO by the way.

The idea to use the database template as a template for data collection came out of this ideation. We looked at what challenges might arise from that idea and developed a plan for getting feedback from end users—district EMIS officers. Then we carried it out and inputted the feedback into a database that I whipped up. That’s right, I made a database so we could manage database changes (whoa, meta). We used the database to decide which feedback to incorporate into the collection tool and made the necessary changes. Meanwhile, I was doing some entry and analysis of old data.

Then we decided to work out a process for data use at the REO, so we visited some schools to collect old data. We used our database to analyse it and come to some conclusions. We’re at the stage now where it’s time to deliver feedback to the schools in question to see what improvements they can make or learn what they’re doing right. If the process turns out to be a good one, we’ll look at adopting it at the REO as a means for using data to plan for monitoring and evaluation of schools.

Oh, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I work with some other employees who are computer-literate to offer demand-driven, needs-based computer training to every employee of the REO. We’re working towards using computers for data analysis, but some of the employees have never even sat in from of a computer before, so we’ve got to start easy.

So, as you can see, there’s not really a concrete pattern to each day at the REO. Activities might include planning with Alhassan, working on a database, visiting schools, offering training, or, if the office is empty, blogging. Overall, though, my work looks something like this:

Ideate –> Design –> Test –> Collect Feedback –> Reiterate

It’s not concrete, I know, but it’s the best way that I can describe it. So, any questions?

(Seriously, give me some questions).


So You Want to Build a School In Africa?

Well, it turns out that you have plenty of opportunities to do so:

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But, are you absolutely sure that it’s what you want to do? What are your motivations? What impact do you hope to have? If it were me, the driving force behind taking part in such an activity would be to provide education to those who don’t currently have access. I would hope to change the lives of those people by giving them an opportunity at a better future.

It’s amazing how easy it is to link the physical structure which houses the process of education with good education and, by extension, a chance at a better future. I think that sometimes the process which goes into producing such a structure in Canada is taken for granted. It’s not as simple as erecting a building with classrooms, then filling the place with students and watching their bright minds blossom. Will there be resources for those students? Will there be staff? Who will manage the school? What funding sources will it draw from? Will there be access to running water and electricity? These are just some questions that must be addressed before choosing a place for a school.

Generally, the information to answer such questions is readily available in Canada and it’s probably safe to assume that, barring any politicization, the school will be built in an area where students will be able to access it. Keep in mind that “access” is a complex thing; it doesn’t just mean physical access to a building. In fact, I like to think of access as a lack of barriers. When it’s thought of in this way, access becomes an idea that encompasses staffing, resources, facilities, location, transportation, management, and community sensitization.

Aside from all of the questions that I’ve been throwing out, there’s one big one that must be answered: is the school needed?

As leading as it may be, this question is one with a complex answer. When is a school needed? When there are students to learn in it? When a community requests it? When there is money to build one? Integrating all of these factors (and plenty more) into one decision is a tough task faced by District and Regional offices in Ghana. It’s one that involves a certain level of risk, as well: place a school in a low-access area and children in the area won’t be able to get the education that ought to be provided at the school; place it in a high access area and it is likely to be faced with overstaffing or crowding issues that will require management in the future.

There’s something else to consider: Africa is diverse. There are 54 countries on this continent and not all are in need. Truthfully, I can only speak for the Northern Region (NR) of Ghana when I say that I don’t think building a school is the best option in which to invest your money if improving education access is what you’re looking to do. Okay, I’ve got to give something to back that statement, so here it is:

Enrolment and Students Per Classroom in JHS in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

Please note that this data is only for Junior High Schools (JHSs) in the Northern Region of Ghana for the last four years. It comes from a mix of EMIS data (I talked of the collection method previously) and data collected directly from districts by the REO. I’ve done my best to verify that the two sources are within 5-10% of each other.

You can see that enrolment is increasing in the NR. In fact, on average, it increased by 8000 students/year (R = 0.97) over the 2007-2010 period. However, the pace at which new schools is built has been more than adequate to meet this increase in enrolment. Over the same period, the ratio of students per classroom dropped by 1.3 students/year (R = 0.82). It looks to me like the NR has enough JHSs and is managing to keep up with the demand of enrolment in constructing new ones.

What’s more alarming in my opinion are the BECE results for the same time period:

BECE Results in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

The Basic Education Certificate Exam (BECE) is a standardized test for all of West Africa that tests JHS students’ basic ability in Maths, English, and Integrated Science. If a student doesn’t pass the BECE, s/he will not go to Senior High School (SHS) and will not be eligible for university.

For the last four years, there has been little change in the BECE pass rate in the NR. The boys sit at an average of 47% passing and the girls sit at about 33% passing. That averages out to a pass rate of about 40% over the last four years and translates to about 51 000 students (29 000 boys, 22 000 girls) who have not had the opportunity to go to SHS. For those 51 000 students, JHS3 is the exit point from education for the rest of their lives. To me, this leaky pipeline is a more serious issue than the need for new schools right now in the NR.

But, you know what? It’s not really my place to identify the education issues that the NR is facing right now. It’s not my job. I’m here to help my office to create a process to do that themselves. As it turns out, Alhassan was the one who wanted to investigate this trend; the above analysis is all his own. He also wants to ensure that it continues to be observed in the coming years so that the planning office here can understand what’s going on in the NR in order to make effective plans.

So, you want to build a school in Africa? Well, alright. But, please stop and ask for the data and make sure that it will indeed be a place to sustainably house the complex process of education first. You wouldn’t build one without ensuring this in Canada, so why wouldn’t you do the same in an African country?


This is the original article that I had written. A smart person told me that blogs are a good space for controversy, though, so I decided to push out of my comfort zone yesterday. Isn’t it interesting that a blatantly controversial post gets me 100 views and 4 comments in 2 hours, but one that comes from my heart and headspace gets 12 views and 1 comment in an entire day? Why is it that controversy is required to get a discussion flowing? If you have a minute to let me know, or if you just have something to say about this article, drop me a comment. Much love.

So You Want to Build A School in Africa?

It turns out that so does everyone else:

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I could come up with a comprehensive list of organizations to suit your school-building desires, but that would be an exercise in frustration and wasted internet credit. My favourite, though is this group. They built one kindergarten in the Volta Region of Ghana with carefully selected textiles and a unique, modern design that aims to “raise the bar on the designs of kindergarten facilities in Ghana…”. The whole thing only took one month to complete and even used locally-sourced management (from Accra) and materials. Success! Now, let’s start an organization and feel good about ourselves help children to have better futures in Africa.

Because, obviously African children don’t have bright futures due to the lack of physical structures required for schooling, right? I mean, what else could possibly prevent them from getting an education and being successful later in life?

In fact, for the past four years enrolment in Junior High School has increased steadily in the Northern Region (NR) in Ghana. On average, the increase has been about 8000 new students each year (R = 0.97).

Enrolment in JHS in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

So we definitely need to build new schools. Quick, call your friends and family, rally your school, call the textiles designer! We’ve got 8000 new students to prepare for and only a short time before they’ll be starting school. Thankfully we can whip up a state-of-the art, bar-raising school in only one month. If we get 53 teams organized across the country, we can singlehandedly ensure that all those new students will have schools for the next school year. And who knows how many future-changing NGOs we can get out of the operation!

Hold up.

It also turns out that the picture is a little more complicated than that.

Students Per Classroom, Major Repairs Required in JHSs in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

Students Per Classroom, Major Repairs Required in JHSs in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

The increase in enrolment in Junior High School (JHS) in the area has been far outpaced by the rate at which schools have been built and as a result, the ratio of students per classroom has been decreasing by 1.3 students each year (R = 0.82) since 2007. Additionally, the percentage of schools requiring major repairs has decreased by about 4.5% each year over the last four years (R = 0.91).

Fewf. Looks like all of the do-gooding that schoolbuilders have been up to has paid off. There’s no need to worry about those 8000 new students not having classrooms, since the amazing work they’ve done is already going at the pace it needs to in order to keep up with demand. Just continue with what you’re doing now, schoolbuilders, and Northern Ghana will be fine.

Actually, it seems as though construction of most of the 132 new JHSs in the NR in the past four years was managed by district offices with the help of School Management Committees (SMCs). And Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) raised most of the money for the major repairs required by existing schools.

But surely all of the schoolbuilding my Western colleagues have been up to has had some impact on education in the NR. To be honest, though, I don’t know what that impact has been and neither does the REO here. That’s because almost none of the wonderful schoolbuilders offering their services to Ghana talk to the Ghanaian government about their activities. When they do, the details are vague, incomplete, or incorrect. As a result, coordination of external activities by district offices is very, very challenging.

No matter, though. Those courageous schoolbuilders are doing their darnedest to tackle the biggest issue facing education right now! What’s the problem with a small lack of reporting, when the work they’re doing is so paramount to giving Ghanaian children bright futures?

Well, maybe access isn’t really the biggest issue. Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) is a measure of enrolment normalized to the population. In the NR, the GER currently sits at 70%. It is up by 10% since 2007. So, access to education is increasing and families are taking advantage of that increase.

Now, keep in mind that these numbers are based on census data that is ten years old with a 2.7% yearly projected population increase.

Take a look at this, though:

BECE Results in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

The Basic Education Certificate Exam (BECE) is a standardized test for all of West Africa that tests JHS students’ basic ability in Maths, English, and Integrated Science. If a student doesn’t pass the BECE, s/he will not go to Senior High School (SHS) and will not be eligible for university. Do not pass BECE, do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

For the last four years, there has been little change in the BECE pass rate in the NR. The boys sit at an average of 47% passing and the girls sit at about 33% passing. That averages out to a pass rate of about 40% over the last four years and translates to about 51 000 students (29 000 boys, 22 000 girls) who have not had the opportunity to go to SHS. For those 51 000 students, JHS3 is the exit point from education for the rest of their lives. Talk about a leaky pipeline.

Imagine going into an exam with 9 of your classmates. You’ve studied hard, despite setbacks, and feel as ready as your teacher could make you feel (which is likely not all that ready—more on teachers in a later post). Unfortunately, only 4 of you will even pass that exam and none of you will really do well on it. The other 6 of you will lack the skills required to do anything productive with your basic education. In fact, it’s likely that those 6 are illiterate. Now consider that not only can you not read at age 15, but also that you’ve just wasted 9 years of your life learning things that cannot be useful to you in the future, when you could have been perfecting your maize growing skills and adding to your family’s livelihood.

But, hey, at least you had a school in which to do it. And the textiles were so nice for all of those 9 years.