In Search of Meaningful Learning

As an education volunteer, we work within the BF school system. A quick overview
Elementary School (Ecole Primaire): CP1, CP2, CE1, CE2, CM1, CM2 (1st-6th Grade)
End of CM2 – Take the CEP exam to go into middle school
Middle School (college): Sixième, cinquième, quatrième, troisième (7th-10th grade)
Troisième – Take the BEPC to get into high school (Most village students stop here)
High School (Lycée): Seconde, Première, Terminale
Terminale – Take the BAC exam to graduate

Since the BF system is based largely on the French school system, lessons consist of rote memorization, copying lessons down into notebooks, and regurgitating the information verbatim on exams. Most village students stop after/during middle school and frequently students repeat a grade level.

I remember in my Educational Psychology class at the University of Illinois, we put a large focus on holistic, meaningful, applicable learning. Our group examinations consisted of creating classes, curricula, and school programs reflecting that focus. For example, two of my music education colleagues and I created an AP music theory course that would prepare the students for music school and the AP examination without directly teaching to the test. The students would be given assignments where they had to compose their own music and analyze the music of their choice. This class repeatedly asked the question, are students just learning to learn, or are they learning to live?

In BF it’s not exactly the same. Critical thinking is not widely taught or pracriced. Students memorize answers and memorize how to solve math problems. During our training, in model school, I found out that my students did not like the question Why? Every single time I asked the question they froze. Critical thinking is not encouraged, and the goal is to pass the CEP and BEPC so that the students can qualify for job trainings. In village this is discouraged even further because if the students fail the exams, they can work in the fields, and help their family raise crops and animals.

For example, I have a theatre group in my village consisting of CP2-CM2 students. After meeting and talking with several people with a theatre background, they suggested improvisation, retelling folktales, and games. The teacher advisors of the group want to start writing plays and have the students memorize them immediately, without learning how to improvise or basic fundamental acting techniques. They feel like the games are not helping the students learn theatre, and they want to start working on a tangible product (plays and skits). I understand where they are coming from, but If the students cannot act, then they will not create a good play.

My original intention for this group was to hold community awareness sessions (sensibilisations en Français), give the students an incentive to practice their French outside the classroom, improve their reading skills, and to have fun. The vast majority of villagers speak only Moore, and as soon as the students leave their classroom, they no longer speak french. The students do not practice French at home (because everyone else speaks Moore) and their reading skills do not improve. Unfortunately in BF, many students are not read to, and parent involvement in their children’s education is not present in the same way it is in America. For example, the students get out of class at 5pm, and then they have to do chores, prepare dinner, and the sun is already setting. By the time they are done, it is dark and many students do not have lamps to study by.

In the search for meaningful learning I know that rote memorization is not necessarily the answer. Case in point: I did Suzuki violin school when I was 4. I continued that for about 4 or 5 years, and it is a method of call and response, listening to tapes, and memorizing. It gives students great tone and it is a great starting point, but what happened to me is that I was unable to read music. I was able to hear something and play it right back, but I could not sight read or read what was on the printed page. In order for Suzuki to be the most effective, it must be supplemented with note reading exercises, and learning how to sight read music.

So if you are an educator, actor, theatre teacher, or have some advice about how to make the learning in my theatre group more meaningful, or how to implement more meaningful learning in a West African, rote memorization Context, I’m all ears. Please feel free to email me directly at, and let’s chat.


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