It’s a country that was rocked by a decade of civil war – an event that has had long-lasting repercussions on its social and economic development.
Think buildings that remain bombed out 12 years later … or a road system in such disrepair that it can take more than three hours to travel 70 miles.
The war ended in 2002 and, according to the U.S. Department of State, Sierra Leone has made progress in its transition “from a post-conflict nation to a developing democracy.” Still, there is much work to be done.
Dr. William Edwards and Jeanie Cozens, members of the teacher education faculty at Missouri Southern State University, will be returning to the country in West Africa over spring break in an effort to improve teacher training at the Northern Polytechnic College in Makeni.
It will mark Edwards’ third trip to Sierra Leone, and the second for Cozens.
“They had a 10-year civil war and there are still buildings on campus that have not been repaired,” Edwards said. “A lot of infrastructure has been damaged, and kids didn’t go to school for a long time.
“(Literacy issues) affect the potential teachers coming in. The faculty is frustrated because how do they work on literacy comprehension when the students who are going to be teachers aren’t getting it? Part of our job is to teach ways to work on literacy and help mitigate some of the problems they’re dealing with.”
Edwards and Cozens are members of the International Reading Association. Their work in Sierra Leone comes from a grant issued to the association’s international development division.
“They secure grants from around the world to work on literacy projects,” said Edwards. “Most are in the developing world. Our work in Sierra Leone is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Education grant.
“The grant is mostly to provide food, but it has an educational component as well because it’s recognized that just feeding the people isn’t enough.”
The Missouri Southern educators said that their counterparts use what they term a “British lecture model” when it comes to working with students, who are often packed up to 50 at a time in small classrooms.
“They’re called ‘lecturers,’” said Cozens. “That’s how they see their role – to get up and lecture.”
“The lecturers were very good, and thorough,” said Edwards. “But they would ask questions and the students would never respond … they’re conditioned not to respond to questions because they know the teacher will eventually give them the answer. Everything is about the examination.”
The results of those examinations underscore educational issues that still hinder students in Sierra Leone.
The pass rate for the 2010 West African Secondary School Certificate Examination was just 1.02 percent. A year later, the pass rate climbed to 3 percent.
“They were celebrating the increase, but less than 5 percent even passed the test,” Cozens said. “We talked about putting (students) in groups or pairing them for partner work, and tried to use different teaching strategies so they could actually see that they were beneficial.”
In a four-day workshop last May, faculty members at Northern Polytechnic College were split into two groups. Edwards provided instruction on Socratic teaching and basic questioning skills, while Cozens covered early literacy and was to address student progress. After two days, the training groups switched places.
During their upcoming trip, Edwards and Cozens hope to spend a day with the faculty members they worked with last year to see how well they were able to implement new teaching strategies.
Both said that their time in Sierra Leone has given them a different outlook on the American education system.
“I have much more respect for American education,” said Edwards. “We have so much here, when you think about it.”
“We’re quibbling over insignificant things,” said Cozens. “They’re trying to get paper, pencils and chalk. You come to appreciate the struggles they’re trying to address.”