Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On teaching "why"

Approaching the end of my first year of teaching, I find myself asking a lot of the same questions that I asked myself before leaving. Why teach English? What role (if any) will it play in the lives of my students? Is this a good use of time and resources? I began to answer some of these questions during training, when I learned that English is both one of the official languages of Cameroon and a mandatory subject at school. Students who don't learn English don't pass their national exams and don't graduate. I set off for post thinking that at the very least, I would be increasing the chances that some kids would finish school, and that probably made this whole thing worth it.

Bilingualism Day gave me another perspective – English might actually be pretty useful for a lot of my kids. They will use it when they go to Nigeria (we live really close to the border, and everything is cheaper at the Nigerian markets), they will use it when they listen to the radio and can then translate for others, they will need it if they go to university, travel (even within their own country), or work. Speaking English can open up a lot of possibilities for young people in Cameroon.

Lately, however, I've been thinking that my bigger contribution as a teacher might not be related to the subject matter, but rather from the way in which I teach. Cameroonian students are taught to copy and memorize, and they are indeed excellent copiers and memorizers. Indeed, especially at the lower levels, it can take awhile to realize that a student does not in fact know how to read or write, because they are so talented at copying the symbols on the board. They may have no idea what they mean, but they can give you a perfect representation of what you have written. In my upper-level classes, I was originally astounded to assign reading comprehension questions and receive papers that merely copied phrases from the reading with the same words as the question. We would spend entire classes talking about why “Mansa Musa was the emperor of Mali in 1337” does not answer the question “Do you think Mansa Musa was a good emperor? Why or why not?” I would get irate students raising their hands, saying “Madame, it is not fair, the answer is not in the text!” The idea that reading comprehension meant comprehending the reading – understanding and analyzing it, not just running your eyes over the words and copying portions of it – seemed entirely foreign to them.

A good example of the way many Cameroonians teach this copying mentality comes from an exam the other English teacher at my high school wrote for his 7th grade English class. He gave them a reading passage about a man named Ali who ran a race and won it. It described Ali running fast, then winning the race and receiving a prize and some money. One of his multiple choice questions asked “What did Ali win?” and the answer choices were: a) the race b) a prize c) money. I brought this question to the attention of my colleague, asking “Aren't all of these answers correct? Ali wins all of these things in the reading.” His response was that, “No, only one is correct. They have to look in the text. It says 'Ali won the race' so that is the correct answer.” I tried to explain to him how questions like this teach kids to copy, and discourage them from thinking about what they read (a kid who understands the passage will be confused, and could select any of the answers; a kid who doesn't even know the verb 'to win' or what 'a race' is can easily select the correct answer)...I was met with a blank stare.

Since then, I have realized that I need to be a teacher not just of English, but of thinking, and I try to practice this with my kids as often as possible. In correcting reading comprehension questions, I ask someone to read the sentence from the reading that answers the question, then I ask someone else to tell me a good answer to the question. Whenever we do grammar, I ask them not just how is this tense formed, but why do we use it? In vocabulary exercises, I ask them why am I teaching them how to change verbs into nouns? There is usually a lot of confused silence, which usually leads me to translate the question into French, which then usually leads to more confused silence, then a follow up question like, “Is it because I think it is very important for you to know that 'to encourage' becomes 'encouragement'?” Some of the bolder kids agree that no, that's not it...Finally, we agree that the point of the lesson is not for them to learn the vocabulary words, but the patterns that allow them to create nouns from verbs, which will allow them to greatly increase their vocabulary. These types of questions lead us to bigger ones, like, “Why do you study English in Cameroon?”, or “Why do I give you homework?” (this one blew their minds).

In seconde (sophomores) this past week, we read a short passage about a mythical giant who lived among the Bamouns (a tribe in the south). The passage described the parts of his body in detail – how his neck was too long, his face covered in hair, his feet so big that chickens could fly under the arches of them. We made a list of the parts of his body and what they looked like, and then I asked the kids to come forward and draw a part of the body on the board. At first, they chose the best artist in the class, and he came forward with the textbook and began copying the drawing provided in the book. I stopped him and explained again – I know what the picture in the book looks like, I want to know what you think he looks like. I had to coax the first couple students up to the board, but eventually hands were in the air, everyone was laughing and shouting things like “No, his head must be bigger!”, “More hair!” At the end of class, we had a ridiculous drawing of a giant, hairy man on the board, and I asked them, “Why did I ask you to draw this picture today?” I was met with blank stares, and finally explained that what they did today was read a passage, understand it, and imagine it in their heads. To draw a picture on the board, they had to not only understand the words on the page but think about what they meant, and that this is what I wanted them to be doing every time we read anything. I saw a lot of eyes widen, and I think some lightbulbs turned on in their heads.

“Why” is an incredibly powerful word – in any language. Before you can fix a problem, you have to understand why it exists. To understand why things are the way they are is to open the door to discovering a way to improve them. When I leave next year, I hope that I will have helped some students to pass their exams, and I hope that I will have helped others to learn enough English to go shopping, communicate with others, and maybe even get better jobs. But I hope most of all that even my students who retain almost no English a few years from now will remember the word “Why?” and think to use it in their lives.


  1. I believe that thinking about "why" is the essence of what makes a person a teacher rather than a manager. You have to question yourself in the purpose of your lesson, in the purpose of the materials you use, in the purpose of the outcomes you anticipate. When you ask yourself "why?" you take yourself into higher levels of cognitive thought and challenge yourself into creating purposeful learning and purposeful teaching. This is why not everyone can be a teacher. This is why business people should not make educational decisions. Those who think of teachers as blue-collar slot-fillers, have not been challenged to raise their level of thought to these upper echelon ranges. They have not been taught to think, but to copy and get the 'right' answer, perhaps by teachers who have been hired to fill slots rather than to teach thinking. Those who think of teacher sin this way will forever be hiring warm bodies to manage classrooms rather than warm hearts to light the fires in the minds of students. Perhaps this is how the American education system has been dumbed down over the past 30 years.--Sid Monroe

  2. great post! we encounter this a lot here too. it takes so much effort to even attempt why, and then at the same time not get everyone in frog class discouraged. keep it up!

  3. Sounds like you are figuring things out! In reading your text I finally found a way to explain "why" I do what I do!

  4. This is a beautiful post. This is exactly why you should teach in Cameroon. If it can get even one student to start thinking on their own, it might result in some real, hopefully good, changes. Madagascar definitely needs a dose of that.

    I once went to observe a class, briefly, at the primary public school in Andasibe. It consisted of a teacher sitting at a desk, yelling her 'teaching' above the chatter of the kids. She did NOT care at all, and it was a sad sight.