Teaching without tech: Lessons from Malawi

Written by: Simone Tulloch-Foley | Published:
Lessons: Teaching without technology in Malawi has led Simone Tulloch-Foley to reconsider her lesson and curriculum planning

Having taught in Malawi for the past five months, Simone Tulloch-Foley has had to adapt to teaching without tech. She describes how this has improved her practice and the lessons she has learned

Over the last two years our profession has boldly gone where it has never gone before: almost exclusively online. A quick trawl of the Twitterverse will send you rocketing through a constellation of twinkling PowerPoint presentations, a nebula of hyperlinks and Zoom IDs and, for the unluckiest among us, a deep dive into the blackhole of forging the perfect Bitmoji.

In many ways, online teaching, ushered in by the pandemic, has been a benefit for our profession. It has provided national exposure to the excellent teaching practice that normally goes unseen by wider society.

Generous banks of well-designed resources have been created and shared between schools and our confidence in producing e-learning content has developed.

But while technology has indeed provided us all with a teaching lifeline, can our rationing of it help us reclaim our most precious commodity: time­?

For the last five months, I have been working as an English teacher within a secondary school in “the warm heart of Africa” – Malawi.

The nickname is accurate. Malawi without question is filled with the most genuine and friendly people you could wish to meet. How cruel it is that within such a generous country, the fourth highest data costs in the world are imposed. This becomes even more unjust when you consider that Malawi is currently ranked as the 12th poorest country in the world.

The dizzying costs of data, coupled with the significant taxes and tariffs imposed on the importation of electronic goods has meant that most schools in Malawi rely solely on blackboards, pens and chalk.

While this eradication of technology may appear to many as restrictive, I feel that there are important lessons to be learned from pressing the pause button on technology.

Less is more

Unfortunately, it is far too easy to waste copious amounts of time attempting to design immaculate and eye-catching slides for our lessons. With the mere click of a button, we can upscale our simple slideshow into an Oscar-worthy production.

The ceaseless fiddling with animations, transitions, font sizes and backgrounds can easily add 30 minutes onto our planning time for each lesson. Ironically, this PowerPoint preening can often obscure the clarity of whatever it is we are trying to teach.

The working memories of our students is limited, and any extraneous load jeopardises their learning (Chandler & Sweller, 1992). If students are forced to split their attention between two disparate pieces of information, then their attention can shift squarely to trying to decipher what these opposing pieces have in common.

Swapping the PowerPoint for a whiteboard and pen made me far more appreciative of the power of a blank board gradually becoming populated during the phases of a lesson.

This slow and emergent introduction of content helps build anticipation in students – they want to see what is coming next – and reduces the risk of overloading them with unnecessary information.

Images and diagrams can still be utilised when using the pen and the board and, from my own experience, diagrams are far more effective when presented in this way.

Again, the methodical and gradual addition of information onto a blank board can allow the students to completely focus on the content you are delivering.

Defeating over-planning

In 2019, the Teacher Workload Survey concluded that despite there being a reduction in average working hours, most teachers interviewed still felt that they spent too much time planning (Walker et al, 2019).

During my time teaching in the UK, I would often over-plan my lessons and used PowerPoint as a crutch for poor pacing. Whenever, I couldn’t finish the activities I had often painstakingly designed, I would either be forced to skip them or adjust my next lesson to teach the content that I hadn’t been able to cover.

It appears that the ease of planning had created a paradox, where I was over-preparing and under-delivering. I would argue that because writing on the board takes substantially longer than clicking through a PowerPoint, you become far more aware of how much time you have in a lesson.

The stakes are also much higher in a lesson with only a board and pen, as if you fail to complete a task before the lesson concludes then you have to invest time during the next lesson to rewrite what you were working through previously.

In other words, working from the board forces you to tread the shortest path, from point A to point B. I found Doug Lemov’s 4Ms – from his 2021 book Teach Like a Champion 3.0 – singularly useful when planning “board-friendly” lessons.

The 4Ms consist of creating a Manageable and specific learning objective that is Measurable to both myself and students when written on the board at the beginning of the lesson.

The lesson is Made First which means that all activities in the lesson are created to enable the student to achieve the learning objective first and foremost. And finally, the fourth M being what is the Most Important content in terms of setting students on the path to the next stage of their education.

Technology has made the art of teaching easier, however, becoming reliant on just one medium to teach through will stifle our growth as a profession. Trialling one day of technology-free teaching can demonstrate the necessary elements of a lesson as well as highlighting the activities we can no longer afford to cling on to.

  • Simone Tulloch-Foley is a Teach First ambassador who is currently working as an English secondary school teacher in an international school in Malawi. Simone has been teaching for four years and specialises in curriculum design.

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