Education in Developing Countries: Some Problems and Concerns

This is a presentation I prepared for Gateway Model United Nations in St. Louis, Missouri. I was supposed to present it at a prep session for their mock conference on Haiti, but unfortunately it was canceled due to snow. Since I couldn't make it back to the Lou for the rescheduled conference, I decided to present by remote using YouTube, HubPages and the magic of the internets.

Video Presentation

My name is Megan Kennedy, and I'm a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I was also a Peace Corps education volunteer in Kazakhstan from 2007 to 2009, and Arthur's invited me to talk to you all about some of the educational issues that arise in developing countries. I decided to break down the topics I wanted to address into three categories: material resources, human resources, and socio-economic resources.


First off, material resources. I want you to think for a minute about all the STUFF you might find in an American classroom. Books and paper and pens and posters, maybe special materials for a subject like maps or lab equipment. How much of that would you say you really, truly NEED in order to learn?


The building? Desks and chairs? Chalkboard? Textbooks?


For schools in developing countries, not even all of those are a given. Just to give you some reference, I asked a couple of Missouri teachers I know how much they spend on their students out of their own pocket, after they get supplies and funds from their school—some of them spend as much as three hundred dollars a semester. That's how much a teacher in Kazakhstan makes in a month. I had to pay to make my own copies and print-outs, buy my own chalk, and bring in my laptop in order to play movies and audio—we had tape decks, if we wanted to play casettes in class. (When was the last time you even saw a cassette?)


This kind of shortage in material resources has two effects. One, administrators have to make some hard decisions about their priorities—what do they pay for first? Build a new school or renovate an old one? Hire a teacher or buy a new set of textbooks? Those aren't easy decisions to make, and plenty of them end up robbing Peter to pay Paul—they short the schools in one area in order to afford something else.


The other problem affects how teachers teach. How would you teach children to read if you don't have any books to give them? If they don't have notebooks and pencils, how are they supposed to take notes? Can they study at home if they're not allowed to take their textbooks with them? Teachers may have to do more recitation and memorization just to get basic ideas across—they lose time to do really interesting activities, and students learn less.


A second problem for developing countries is human resources. Many countries don't have enough qualified teachers. Sometimes it's because teaching pays poorly, especially some subjects—anyone who knows a foreign language or computer science well enough to teach it, can probably get a better job in the business world. I had many students in Kazakhstan who were training to be teachers, but didn't really want to teach—they just wanted to get a certificate so the could become interpreters and translators.


They also may not have the higher education infrastructure—I'll talk about that in a minute—the universities and colleges and institutes that are supposed to teach teachers how to teach. If those programs don't exist, or they don't turn out enough new teachers to meet the demand, schools have to hire the people they can get. Weakness at the top of the system ends up feeding weakness at the bottom, in other words.


So the result of the human resource shortage is, you have people trying to teach subjects they don't know well—the blind leading the blind. For instance, in Kazakhstan I met many German teachers who also taught English, because their school didn't have enough English teachers. Now, German and English are kind of similar...but not really. Some of them couldn't even clearly read a paragraph of English text, so how well could they teach it? You also have teachers coping with large classes, maybe thirty or forty students crammed into one room. In rural areas, you might even get a real one-room schoolhouse—one teacher with students of all different ages, all doing different things, in one space at one time. Americans have these romantic ideas about that kind of education, but really picture it for a minute—do you think students can concentrate? Can teachers pay enough attention to everyone? Is this really effective?


The final problem is what I'm calling socio-cultural resources, and these are "big picture" problems that are the hardest to fix. Because even if you throw money at people and airlift in teachers—and this is precisely what the Peace Corps used to do, in the sixties and seventies—socio-cultural resources can still be a problem. Like getting kids into schools, and keeping them there regularly. In some countries, kids may be expected to start working very young, whether there are child-labor laws in place or not. Kids might be expected to help with planting and harvesting, in farming communities, and the local climate might not mesh very well with a traditional September-to-May school year. There are still nomads in the world, people who move around with their herds or to pick crops—they can't just hop from one school to another easily. Girls in particular may be kept at home to babysit younger kids and help with chores.


On the other end, girls might get married young—or at least get pregnant young. And I think every country faces the problem of how to keep students motivated through high school—we all know, or knew, the person who couldn't wait to drop out because he or she didn't see any point in getting a diploma. And that's in America, where we're surrounded by examples of successful people with college degrees. Image how much harder it is to keep students from dropping out when everybody they know is a farmer—or a factory worker—or unemployed.


There's also a school culture that we take for granted—we were raised to expect it, by parents who were raised to expect it, and back and back. We all went to school more or less understanding how to follow a schedule, and listen to the teacher, and when we go home our parents make us do our homework and maybe even help us with it. That isn't necessarily part of other cultures, and parents who never went to school or never finished it can't really help their kids learn it. Just as an example, in Israel in the fifties some teachers did a study on why their Arab students had so much trouble learning to read when their Jewish students were learning so well. They found it was all about parents—the Jewish parents were helping their kids, reading to them, that sort of thing. Most of the Arab parents were illiterate themselves, so they couldn't help their kids with homework at all. How do we socialize kids to a school culture that's not familiar for them? Or, from the other side, how do we change a school culture to work for the local conditions?


There are a lot of other, general issues. Like language—there are seven thousand languages in the world, and you can't print books or write software in all of them. Haitians, for instance, mainly speak Haitian Creole, which is related to French but grammatically very different. Do you teach them in Creole, when there are no books? Or do you try to teach in French? It would be as if all your teachers at school on Monday were speaking Dutch to you—how fast could you learn it? But do you have the material resources to produce brand-new materials in Creole on demand?


Also, there might be problems of transportation transportation. How many of you travel more than half an hour to get to school in the morning? That's on American roads and highways, in cars and buses. What if you had to walk the same distance? What if the road could be flooded for weeks at a time? What if you had to pay for a taxi every day, to school and back? In a developing country, the transportation infrastructure may not be there, and students in remote areas may not be able to get to a school in another town—and because of material and human resource problems, the schools may never get to them.


I've tried to raise some questions in this talk, but I haven't tried to give you any answers. I don't think there are any—at least, not universal ones. I hope I've given you some good ideas, and that I've framed everything in ways you can understand. I'm sorry I couldn't be there with you in person to take questions, but you can always email me at kennedy.me AT gmail DOT com if you want to pick up a discussion. Thank you, Arthur, for letting me talk—and good luck to everyone at the conference!

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