Texas Tech University

No Pencils, Just Rocks: Professors Are Helping an African School Use its Resources

Heidi Toth

September 7, 2016


Several Texas Tech professors went to Malawi this summer to aid a rural village in improving education.


The children look expectantly at Stacy Johnson, Malinda Colwell and Michelle Pearson. The educators from Texas Tech University have new and exciting ways to teach these preschoolers shapes, colors and sounds. Everyone is eager to learn.

But they're stymied by their circumstances. The children sit cross-legged on the cement floor. Although the ABCs line the walls, there is no other art in the room – no posters with friendly animals explaining a new concept, no blocks of a variety of shapes to which the teacher can point. The students learn words through memorization; they know the word “circle,” but don't know the sun, their eyes or a ball are circles. There is a chalkboard in the classroom, but a single piece of chalk is shared between three classrooms.

They can't even turn on the lights.

Yet the students are learning. In place of flashcards, textbooks and iPads, they have teachers who are excited to learn and teach, who have a deep appreciation for education and are committed to try new teaching methods to help their students learn. That passion shone through to the American educators, who'd flown about 10,000 miles to be standing in the classroom that day.


Pearson, Johnson and Colwell spent a portion of their summer at the Grace Center, which is both a school and an orphanage in Mvera, Malawi. While it is lacking – Malawi is one of the 10 least-developed countries in the world – the students and teachers are bright, excited and willing to try new tasks, Johnson and Colwell said after returning to Lubbock. Colwell, who's become a frequent visitor to the south African country, was impressed with the education the students received given the resources they had available.

“One of the things that most stood out to me during our work with the teachers in the schools is how much they do with so very little,” the human development and family studies professor said. “There are very few material supplies available to the teachers, and yet they engage the children in meaningful and enriching activities. It was also a good challenge to be creative in terms of how to help teachers learn to promote problem-solving in their classrooms by using primarily only objects found in their natural environment, like rocks and sticks.”

Building a better campus

This trip was Colwell's fourth to Malawi since 2013. She started going as part of a study on food insecurity with meat science professor Mark Miller; they studied a goat meat intervention to determine how food and nutrition insecurity can affect children's development. This time, she and Johnson focused on the education these children received in preschool and training the teachers. It was a second trip for Johnson, the director of the Child Development Research Center (CDRC).

Group Photo
Michelle Pearson, Malinda Colwell, graduate student Mickenzie Brownlow, Stacy Johnson and her 12-year old daughter, Kayla.

It was the first for Pearson, an interior design professor who studies how educational spaces contribute to health and well-being in children. She and fellow interior design professor Kristi Gaines joined the consortium with the goal of designing a campus for the Grace Center, finding grant funding and getting it built.

They worked on it for months, basing their ideas on what Colwell and Johnson said. However, when Pearson found out they were planning a trip for the summer she cleared her schedule and went. She and Gaines were having difficulty designing for a culture neither had experienced.

“It's hard to imagine,” Pearson said. “Stacy and Malinda had done a great job of telling me what it was like, but when you actually go and see and experience and smell and touch and taste things, you start to really see what it's like there. I have a much clearer understanding of their needs now.

“My goal was to really understand the Malawian people and culture and to see it firsthand to understand what education spaces are like there.”

Pearson and Gaines, who researches classroom design for special populations, collaborated with Peter Raab, a professor of architecture, and Charles Klein, a professor of landscape architecture, to design a campus that better fits the Grace Center's needs.

Because all the design research came from developed countries, relying on what they already knew wasn't helpful. Pearson said she couldn't even rely on typical classroom design for staples like desks, chairs or tables because she didn't know if the Malawians' lack was due to financial difficulty or cultural norms.


“Right now it's dirt and concrete,” she said. “They sit on the floor. They have no desks, no electricity. It's very barren.”

Upon return, she coordinated again with Raab, Gaines and Klein to come up with a design, starting with the early childhood development center. It will include a couple of classrooms plus a multipurpose room that will serve as a dining hall and event space for the villagers when school isn't in session. It'll have garage doors that can provide ventilation and tables that can be put away as needed. Pearson said they wanted to be careful to not force American cultural norms on the Malawians.

They plan to use local materials and have bricks made on site by a hand press. This will provide jobs and skills for the community in the short-term and make long-term maintenance easier as well.

Once the design is complete, Pearson will apply for grants and other funding to actually pay for the structures. The design team will start designing a secondary school, again asking themselves how to design a well-equipped school in a town that has such limited resources.

“Here at the CDRC it's state of the art,” Pearson said. “We have access to anything we could need. There it's just so rudimentary and basic. You have to really scale back and know what you really need to learn.”

Teaching the teachers

Identifying the critical learning gaps was necessary for Colwell and Johnson as well. They knew the students spent much of their school days memorizing information. They also knew children learn best when they're active, when they can use their bodies and hold blocks and books and each other's hands, when they're solving problems and engaging with each other and their environment.


Knowing this, the two spent weeks preparing lessons, keeping in mind how few materials the teachers in Malawi had with which to teach. They came up with ideas that used rocks and sticks or allowed the children to find colors and shapes on their clothes. They developed lessons that let the children make circles with their hands.

“Those are the things I remember because those are the things we actually did,” Johnson said. “We had a long list that, from day one, we realized we wouldn't be able to do pretty much anything on this list. We really overshot it.”

In the three weeks they were there, they spent the mornings with the preschoolers, either observing the teachers or modeling how a lesson should go. When the children went home after lunch, they worked with the teachers to create lesson plans, brainstorm new ideas and discuss what was effective.

They experienced what Johnson termed “varying degrees of success,” as evidenced by the day they read “Mouse Paint.”


“Mouse Paint” is a book intended to teach colors. The mice get into different buckets of paint, then walk around, the paint overlapping and creating different colors. One day one of the Americans read the book to the students, with the teacher translating. (Malawi has two official languages, Chichewa and English.) As one does when reading to children, she didn't stick just to the words on the page, instead responding with feigned surprise, wondering what would happen next and asking questions.

The teacher, who was reading along so she could help translate, frequently got lost in all the extra words that weren't in the book. It provided insight to the American educators, who didn't realize how many extra, and often unnecessary, words they used.

But they got through it, and to encourage learning Colwell and Johnson suggested they act like some of the animals they'd read about. One group could be cats, the other could be mice. All of the Malawians – teachers and 4-year-olds – were baffled by this idea. Education involved sitting quietly and repeating after the teacher. It did not involve pretending to be a cat.

“Every time we did it they thought we were crazy,” Johnson said. “You have to model what you want the children to do but also model for the teachers. It doesn't seem so strange in our culture, crawling on the floor with 3-year-olds, but it's very strange to them.”


However, they did it. Students and teachers crawled around like cats, tried to guess what was in Johnson's mystery bag and held hands with each other until they could make a giant circle. The most frequent response Johnson and Colwell heard to each new request was, “Oh, no problem.” The teachers were excited to try each new strategy or approach. Johnson said even when the teachers thought their ideas were crazy, they embraced them and joined in.

Colwell did not collect any data on this trip, she said. On future trips she'll look into expanding the development data in Malawi, which is limited, and expanding what students in Mvera are able to achieve.

“I believe ‘achievement' is specific to context and culture and there is value in understanding what this looks like in different cultures,” she said. “I also want to contribute to our understanding of growth and development in Malawi.”

Life in Malawi

It's hard, quiet, uncomfortable, peaceful, joyful, painful. There's little electronic noise. No one stares at a cell phone. There are no strangers.

“There is much emphasis on relationships and spending time together,” Colwell said. “Even in the act of walking down the road, everyone stops to greet each other and wish them well. It's a beautiful custom and very different from our daily lives in the U.S. when people are rushing to get places and get things done.”

Playing Ball

But life in Mvera, for all the smiles and friendly faces, is a constant struggle. 

“It is really hard,” Johnson said. “It's hard physically because you really are never comfortable. There is not any comfortable space by our standards. You're walking on hard dirt and rocks, you're sitting on concrete …”

“Or hard dirt and rocks,” Pearson interjected.

And the Americans got the best the city had to offer, Johnson said. They stayed in people's homes, so they had beds and got home-cooked meals. There was just so little. The homes didn't have running water, so they brushed their teeth with a cup of water in the yard and showered down the hill from the house with a bucket and a cup.

The difficulties don't end with the physical discomfort, either. The emotional challenge of coming face to face with such extreme poverty – “it's hard to witness,” Johnson said. “It's hard to ever be settled with the life that we live here and the life that they live there.”

She's still not done.


“It's hard spiritually to think how could this be so, how is it ever OK that so many people suffer so much,” Johnson said. “But …”

She and Pearson are quiet for a moment.

“The important part is the but,” Pearson said.

“It's also life-changing in the most wonderful of ways, because the Malawians are truly a joyous people,” Johnson said. “They're extraordinarily generous in ways that we are not generous and joyous in ways that we are not joyous as Americans.”

Both said they wanted to pack the little orphans up and bring them back to the United States, where they would have better education and medical care, more food, more opportunities – by almost every measure, they would have a better life. But after reflection, neither would. The Malawians they met, by and large, are happy.

And it's not because the Africans don't know any better or don't know what they don't have. Johnson dismissed that idea as distortion caused by looking at the world through an American lens.

“We can't get outside of our own understanding of what's supposed to make people happy,” Johnson said. “That's why we say that. No, I think they're happy because they get it in ways we don't get it. They understand what it means to be happy, what it means to be content.”

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