Developing practical work in Ghana: the Ghana Science Resource Centres

In August Dr Emily Perry made her fifth trip to Ghana, spending a month working with twenty-five chemistry teachers from across the country.  These are part of a group of two hundred Ghanaian science teachers and school technicians, sixteen UK and Ghanaian teacher trainers, a UK and Ghanaian technical support team and the representatives of the Ministry of Education.  It is a major operation to bring us all together for the month.  
The reason for this influx of science teachers to Kumasi, Ghana’s second city, is a massive investment by the Ghanaian government in science education, which is seen as critical to the development of a sustainable economy.  Like many countries, the government has identified a technical and scientific skills shortage in its workforce, and has chosen to start from the bottom up, by supporting science teachers to build these skills in their students.
The challenges in using practical work in Ghanaian schools will be familiar to many teachers: a lack of funding, large class sizes, unsuitable classrooms and lack of specialist knowledge.  In Ghana these challenges are intensified.  Many schools have no laboratory facilities, no technician support and class sizes of 40-60 pupils.
Funding is in short supply and assessment of the curriculum does not encourage an enquiry-based approach to learning, instead focussing often on knowledge rather than skills or understanding.  
In order to tackle some of these challenges head-on, hundreds of senior high schools across the country have received huge shipments of equipment and chemicals to enable their teachers carry out practical work in science.  The equipment ranges from basic test tubes, voltmeters and measuring cylinders, through microscopes, magnetic stirrers and glass blocks to computers and dataloggers.  Many secondary schools in England would be thrilled to be able to fill their classrooms with such wealth.
Of course, supplying equipment is not enough if teachers lack the experience of using it, and so each school sends a team of three teachers and a technician for the month, learning how to use and look after the equipment.  Many teachers have never carried out much more than the basic repetitive practical work which is required for the practical exam, and teach (and have been taught) almost entirely through theory.  We therefore work together to carry out experiments from dissolving to distillation to synthesis of dyes.
The schools receive a generous supply of chemicals which we supplement by activities which use items that can be readily bought on the street or in the pharmacy, such as fruit and vegetables, oil, eggs and indigestion tablets.  Indeed, these are some of the most well-received practicals, including making indicators from flowers and fruit, making soap from vegetable oil and making ice cream using an ice-salt mix – a significant feat in a country where classroom temperatures average around 29°C!  We also take the opportunity to look at how to use practical work effectively in developing learning, through pedagogical approaches including questioning, assessment and group work.  The aim is to boost teachers’ confidence in moving away from their traditional approaches and to get the most from their practical work.
In order to build sustainability beyond the programme, we have identified Ghanaian teachers who have the skills, enthusiasm and desire to take on the role of teacher trainers.  These “co-trainers” then work with us to develop their own skills in supporting their colleagues by team-teaching and by leading sessions alone.  The hope is that ongoing support can then be provided across the country without the need for further UK input.  The teachers themselves are also building self-supporting mechanisms through social media networks, so we hope they can continue to learn together.
The programme is managed by ITEC Global, a long-standing partner of the Centre for Science Education, and funded by the Ghanaian Ministry of Education.  Ghana is a peaceful, democratic country and we very much hope to be able to visit again on further work with ITEC Global and with the wonderful teachers there.  
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