“We actually don’t need desks in our primary schools…”

Madawati 1So we have seen impressive and noble efforts by individuals, charities, business companies etc working so hard to contribute desks to our primary schools. Impressive indeed. As many school pupils in Tanzanian schools are still sitting on the floors. We have long miles to go to yet realise every primary school pupil in Tanzania is sitting on a desk while in class. I have myself contributed to such and have previously looked for funds towards that for my home village primary school.

On Wednesday, as I was sitting on beautiful green lawns in one of the colleges at the University of Oxford, I couldn’t stop pondering about education issues at home (Tanzania). I saw sadness. Then my heart ached and my soul bent. As usual. And so I thought of how pupils, often hungry, sit and squeeze on uncomfortable floors seeking to learn. But then I remembered a phrase that I never thought of before. Seriously. It was from my lil bro- Shirumisha. Him and my dad had once visited and spent time in a classroom in one of the primary schools in Nottingham and when they came back home we had a long discussion on learning and education issues at home. My bro said one sentence:

“we actually don’t need desks in primary schools”

I ignored that sentence for a while until this Wednesday when I was trying to work through my research reflection piece. The sentence came back to me. Strongly. So I bothered to ring my bro and asked, “why did you think we don’t need desks in our schools?” He explained that for children to learn they don’t necessarily need to sit on desks. It is old fashioned and our classrooms can be arranged in different styles to encourage confidence, teamwork, and other skills that are crucial for learning.

I was shocked. Shocked because with my 2 years engagement on education research where I’ve often come across issues of global learning crisis and the need for learning “soft skills” along with the traditional numeracy, literacy etc. But I had never thought, “Desks are actually irrelevant in this context”. Even with my more than 3 years teaching experience where I always encourage students to sit in circles or randomly as I move around or stand in the midst of them, I still could never thought of the needless desks in our primary schools.

But why have we been “trapped” into one single way of thinking – that desks are a must? It is indeed frustrating to see children squeezing and sitting on uncemented floors trying to listen to the teacher in front of them. They can’t write properly nor concentrate. But are the desks the solution?

Well, let’s think together:

First, I think we are trapped in this because we are also trapped into “rote teaching” which is a popular style in our primary schools. Rote teaching is not good. So we also think of a teacher busy with chalk and board and students sitting behind busy copying notes while waiting for the teacher turn and allow one or two pupils to ask a question or answering one.

Madawati 3Well, we can’t continue to learn this way. We need to move away from this kind of rote teaching towards interactive teaching and learning. Then we wont need desks. We can actually improvise with only chairs and a few big tables where groups of children can share while some of them can be sitting on “mikeka” working on other activities….and they keep exchanging positions while alternating into different activities.

We can subsequently change our classroom atmosphere and build confidence, team spirit, interactions, tolerance, and communication skills among pupils. These are “soft skills” that are much needed and relevant in the 21st century.

Moreover, if we plan our school timetable well, resources can be shared among classes in the sense that not all students at different levels should be in a class simultaneously. Pupils from one class level can be playing outside or doing out of class activities while pupils in another class level are being taught in the classroom. So one classroom can be use by one or more class level. In that way we don’t need many classrooms.

I think with our few resources allocated in education, Tanzania can work “smart” and use its scarce resources to ensure learning for all children. We can also make education more fun and attractive to many more children.

We need to work “smart” in education – because that is how to survive in the 21stCentury.

So we don’t need desks.

By Aikande Kwayu

Aikande is Development and Management Research Consultant-BUMACO Ltd 

*This article was initially published in Aikande’s blog

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