Stephanie Shine and Andrea Parker donated 200 children's books to African schools while attending a conference on early childhood education.
It's well known that Texas Tech University is striving to play a global role in education, so when faculty at Jigjiga University in Ethiopia contacted the Texas Tech Department of Human Development and Family Studies for support in developing early childhood programs, Early Childhood Program director Stephanie Shine was ready to go.
On her recent trip to speak at an education conference at Jigjiga, Shine and doctoral candidate Andrea Parker wanted to make a difference for school children – not just the educators. So in addition to speaking about the importance of education for young children, the pair also put their words into action, donating 200 children's books to Ethiopian elementary schools.
Education in Ethiopia
"Talks at this conference explicitly addressed one issue: how to improve the quality of education in Ethiopia," Shine said. "There was a sense of urgency in finding solutions to problems, such as low scores at the university or how to best educate the nomadic or pastoral populations. The conference was covered on television so that the presentations were part of a national dialogue about how to improve public education."
Shine and Parker were two of only three women at the conference, compared to about 200 men. Shine said in Ethiopia, the distinctions between boys and girls begin at a young age. Boys may start school younger, as it is not unusual for girls to be kept home for a few years before attending school.
Both Shine and Parker used their talks to address children's need for education at a young age.
"I discussed the importance of high-quality preschool for young children," Parker said. "I discussed why preschool quality matters, what high-quality preschool programs look like and do, and ways that both researchers and parents can evaluate preschool quality. I chose this topic because Ethiopia has just recently begun to focus on early childhood education. There is a big push for early childhood education at the university level so teachers are best prepared to teach young children."
Shine focused on the necessary experiences and skills that prepare young children for the academic and social-emotional challenges of school.
"Promoting language skills, book talk and problem-solving in the early years are strategies that do not involve extensive or expensive materials or infrastructure," she said. "Language skills are fostered when children and adults engage in open-ended conversations with multiple instances of turn-taking. Promoting vocabulary and concept knowledge is most successful when done in context and in taxonomic categories. Critical thinking skills in young children are developed when they are encouraged to question, explore, solve problems and make choices in their daily interactions.
"In a school culture where children learn through recitation, these concepts would require a fair amount of change in classroom practices."
In the classroom
Learning through recitation was precisely the classroom situation Shine and Parker found.
"We brought 200 children's books to give away, as much as could fit in a carry-on, because we focused in part on early literacy," Shine said. "I planned to give them to the university to distribute, but as soon as the organizers got word, they zipped into action."
Visiting kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, Shine was struck by what she saw – and didn't see.
"The kindergarten and first-grade classrooms had tables and chairs and a chalk board and not much else – there were no books, pictures, paper, manipulatives or children's art in the rooms," Shine said. "Children were called to the blackboard and used a branch to point to and recite letters and numbers. They were learning to recite in Somali, Amharic and English – three languages at age 5!
"The classrooms were more similar to early American classrooms than current ones; the teachers must be quite skilled to keep children engaged without materials. How many of us could keep a roomful of children attentive and learning for very long without materials?"
The children were enthusiastic nonetheless, the younger children eager and giggling, prodding each other to participate. Most joined enthusiastically in group recitation and singing.
"I was surprised, in a good way," Parker said. "The teachers were extremely passionate. It was impressive to see what they could do with so little. The children also seemed excited and eager to learn. To me it seemed that they were paying attention more so than students in the U.S., who are constantly actively engaged. Students in the U.S. typically go from one classroom activity to the next. They are also given a lot more autonomy and choice. In Ethiopia, the class seemed to do everything together and there did not seem to be a lot of options."
While the disparity between Ethiopia and the United States was obvious, Shine said the most striking thing to her were the similarities she saw.
"Despite the differences in material support and style of teaching, my sense is that early childhood teachers in the classrooms we visited aim to prepare children for success in school and to teach certain values, such as respect for others, just as early childhood educators do in other places," Shine said. "Teachers in Ethiopia might add the goal that children will 'finish their education and help the country.' That teachers strive to teach children with few supplies and in three languages is impressive."
Parker was likewise touched by the teachers' enthusiasm.
"It is amazing how much their teachers cared and how they were able to teach a lot of the same skills and information that are taught here in the U.S. without the same tools," she said.
But what surprised her most were the students.
"At the last school we went to, we ran out of books," Parker recalled. "None of the kids seemed upset. There was no anger when we ran out; they were just willing to look at their friends' books and enjoy that. I do not think we would see something similar in the U.S."
Teaching the teachers
Blending those experiences with their educational backgrounds allowed Shine and Parker to share knowledge at the conference that would be applicable to Ethiopian educators.
"When addressing the conference, Andrea and I were compelled to think of the most critical research with the most impact on early childhood education," Shine said. "For example, we know oral language vocabulary plays an important role in children's reading achievement. The task is to translate this knowledge to practices in classrooms where learning by recitation is the norm."
The trip also gave Shine an opportunity to put her work right here in Lubbock into perspective.
"I've been working with my colleague Michael McCarty to design programs to promote school readiness in East Lubbock as part of East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood," she said. "After hearing about this work and seeing our visuals, some educators at the conference said, 'You know, poverty in America is not poverty in Africa.' We can't downplay the real struggles people in both places face, but the comment gave me pause.
"We have so much research on how to read to children from various demographics and how home libraries promote reading success and what sort of book talk is the most beneficial, yet plenty of children have no books at all, not even at school."