Teaching the teachers

All children love bikes. Shafiqul Islam does too, but this also funds his education.

Short on money, Shafiqul, who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, gathered his savings and purchased a second-hand bike. Rather than tearing around his local neighborhood, the youngster started to rent it out to earn a little cash. Shafiqul then started to teach his friends to ride, thus creating a captive market.

After two years, the young entrepreneur has quadrupled turnover. He now owns four bikes and puts the money towards his schooling.      

On the other side of the world, another entrepreneur is blooming. Keen to help her grandfather provide for the family, 14-year old Isabella formed a collective that makes and sells pens topped with recycled flowers. Fulfilling the duties of CFO, Isabella works out the cost of materials and production, runs budgets and even calculates profit margins.

Isabella and Shafiqul have something in common. Both were taught the art of entrepreneurship and financial planning by teachers that benefitted from training and materials provided by Netherlands-based Aflatoun International.   

Sure, Isabella and Shafiqul’s microbusinesses might not turn into a sustainable source of income. But even if they don’t, they have acquired vital life skills that will equip them to prosper in the world of work.

Regional master trainers 

Aflatoun wants to empower 20 million children by the end of 2020. The organization tackles the disturbing truth that millions of children and young adults lack the essential skills they need to thrive in the modern world. Social enterprises have long tried to right this wrong by providing textbooks and exercise books to schools in poor countries. 

But this alone doesn’t work because the material is only as good as the teacher providing the lesson. So Aflatoun focuses on empowering educators to deliver quality social and financial education to children. 

The organization doesn’t teach any children itself. Instead it provides teachers at 192 partner institutions with the curricula and training materials they need to cover five core elements: self-esteem; knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as citizens; responsible saving and spending; planning and budgeting; and learning through enterprise. 

This material is complemented with a series of three-day to three-week training workshops led by ‘regional master trainers’.

Its core program, called Aflatoun, teaches children of primary school age. Its lesson plans include songs, worksheets activities and games that are catered to children of this age and encourage active learning.  

For example, a key activity of the program is to collectively create a small business or community improvement activity. Last year, more than 700,000 children took part in a social enterprise and more than 600,000 participated in a small-scale income generating project. Separate teaching programs have been designed for younger children (Aflatot) and older children (Aflateen). 

Aflatoun’s teaching methods clearly work. A study designed to rigorously evaluate their impact found that teachers in Rwanda that received the training were 15% more likely to apply participatory teaching methods that those that did not. This resulted in 47% of students feeling more engaged in class. These statistics were obtained from one of eight randomized control trials.

Teachers like this approach too. “The Aflatoun methodology has personally enriched my work as the promoter of the Aflatoun Club “Exploradores Solidarios” of the Coomuldesa Institute, because it is dynamic, creative and innovative, which allows the enjoyment of the activities of both the students and the teacher,” says Maria Aminta Zambrano Estupiñan, a teacher at the Coomuldesa Institute, in Colombia.

Local problems, tailored solutions 

Aflatoun’s country reach has grown tenfold in the past decade. It currently reaches 5.4 million children through its partner network, which spans 102 countries.  

Key to its success is the fact that its teaching programs can be customized to local requirements. For example, the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps adapted one of Aflatoun’s programs to create a scheme to tackle the health risks associated with increasing teenage marriages in Tajikistan. The curriculum therefore covers reproductive health, family planning and HIV.    

Aflatoun has also partnered with Mobaderoon, an open network of institutions committed to education for peace, to create a program for children living in post-conflict zones within Syria. The course, which reaches more than 10,000 young people, promotes critical thinking skills that are vital to analyze the underlying causes of conflict. 

What next?

To realize its ambition to reach many more children, Aflatoun is exploring e-learning solutions. But while this may widen its audience, the organization is conscious that face-to-face learning is most effective. Its program may therefore never be 100% digital.

Aflatoun also wants to expand its partner network, especially with corporations. It is already doing so. In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, it works with chocolate producer Hershey to provide young adults with relevant skills for cocoa production. Future areas for potential co-operation include agri-business, digital (for example, mobile banking), and commercial banking.

Despite working with millions of children and hundreds of global private and public sector institutions, Aflatoun is keen to keep raising its international profile. And help teach more teachers new ways to inspire children. 

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Nurturing a lifelong passion for knowledge

Two young students are talking excitedly about the future. Their focus is not on acquiring personal wealth and status; they want to help grow their parents’ cotton farm, and make their village a better place for families to live. Their attitudes and ambitions can be traced back to their pre-school experience at Hippocampus.

Founded in 2011 in the state of Karnataka in south-western India, Hippocampus Learning Centres focuses on pre-school children between the ages of 2 and 6. Its goal is to instill a lifelong passion for learning during the key Early Childhood Development (ECD) phase, with the aim of making positive changes to all levels of Indian society. 

Umesh Malhotra, founder and CEO of Hippocampus Learning Centres, says Hippocampus empowers children by making them self-learners from a young age. “We notice a difference in the cognitive development of those children who attend kindergarten and those who don’t. As they've continued into primary grades, these children have also tended to outperform their peers.”

Overcoming parental prejudice

Malhotra says it is these gains, as well as instilling the importance of giving back to communities, that will help Hippocampus convince parents of the value of its programs. Many parents in rural areas do not see the point of sending their children to school at such a young age.

“At the beginning, when people came and saw a classroom at a Hippocampus Centre, they would see children playing. ‘I’m sending my children here, and you said they would learn. But I don’t see you teaching. I see them playing. How will they learn?’ 

“It’s a mindset shift for them to understand that children learn and socialize that way,” explains Malhotra. “In India, learning is understood as a very serious activity, while the Hippocampus culture is about playing and having fun. So, parents find it unnerving to see children playing in class when they expect them to be learning in a more traditional way.”

With a combination of proof of their children’s progress and regular contact with teachers, Hippocampus has overcome skepticism to the extent that parents’ tuition fees fund a significant proportion of Hippocampus’ mission, together with equity investments from organizations such as Asian Development Bank, Khosla Impact Fund and the United Seed Fund.

The Hippocampus method: playful learning

Hippocampus has adopted the modern approach of addressing the holistic development of the child. The organization’s core three-year program is built around age-appropriate play-based experiences and activities and is designed to be both economically and culturally appropriate to the communities it serves. 

By the end of the program, more than 85% of children have attained basic literacy in both English and Kannada (the local language) and basic mathematical skills.

Hippocampus seeks to continue to accompany the children on their educational journey through its Primary Schools Programme, launched in 2014. Partnering with private schools in rural areas, Hippocampus involves itself at all levels of the school structure, with aims including improving enrolment rates; raising teachers’ capacity, motivation and retention; and improving student achievement.

A focus on the teacher

One of Hippocampus’ key achievements has been hiring the right candidates and then training them to become capable, motivated and committed teachers. “Getting the right person and empowering her to be an amazing teacher through the right training has been our main driver of success,” confirms Malhotra. 

The pronoun is significant, as Hippocampus’ teachers are usually young women from the local community who show a strong commitment to children and education, who go through an intensive training program. This training introduces the teachers to different educational practices and how to manage a class of children with different learning levels and needs.

They are supported with regular training sessions and provided with suitable teaching aids, including a detailed lesson plan, helping them to feel confident in the direction in which they are taking their students.

Taking the Hippocampus program worldwide

Since its foundation, Hippocampus has opened more than 225 pre-school centers, as well as seven primary schools in India. And this is just the beginning.

“We have a model which is scalable, extremely affordable, and has proven to show results. Hippocampus has been able to provide ECD for children for as little as US$60 per year,” Malhotra enthuses. “Looking beyond India, we are exploring opportunities in other emerging economies like Africa and Latin America, to make an impact there and convince them of the importance of ECD.”

To give an idea of the scale of Hippocampus’ ambition, Malhotra says it plans to increase its four centers in Mexico to over 50 by 2020. “This has been our journey so far,” he says. “Over the next five years, we want to see Hippocampus become a primary driver of ECD on a global level.”

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