Baraket now studies in a government class after graduating from a Speed School. His mother, Sheto, participated in a collective savings group with other Speed School mothers. She has recently been able to set up a coffee shop and can now afford to send all her children to school.
Brightly colored posters, hand-drawn by young students, adorn the classroom walls. Desks are clustered together throughout the classroom; the teacher weaves her way between students while they mold the letters of the alphabet from clay. A group of children crowd around a table, creating a song using the three letter words they just learned, while another group across the room is busy making flashcards to review their vocabulary. Laughter and voices drift in through the window as children outside jump rope to practice their multiplication tables.
This scene is taking place in classrooms in rural Ethiopia where the traditional chalk-and-talk style of teaching is being replaced with something new. Those hand-drawn posters are hung from the mud walls and thatched roof of a one-room classroom; the children writing songs are learning English, Amharic, and a third local language. This is Speed School.
The Speed School classroom promotes child-centric learning where the students dictate the speed at which the curriculum is covered. Teachers undergo training to present core concepts through a variety of play- and activity-based methods, including singing, role playing, crafts and visuals made from locally available materials, and the Think-Pair-Share approach in which students engage in peer-to-peer learning. The repetition of concepts is designed to reinforce learning and to reach children with different learning styles; to that effect, the teacher cannot move ahead with the class until all children have grasped the core concepts. This underpins one of the key principles of the model and of our thinking: every child can learn.
The Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex, our evaluation partner in Ethiopia, describes Speed School classrooms as a place where children not only become functionally literate and numerate but also “learn how to learn” which instills in our children a quest for lifelong learning. In a 2016 review of the Speed School pedagogy, evaluators wrote, “The Speed School approach…questions assumptions prevalent amongst people all over the world about who can and who cannot learn. The teachers…seemed convinced that all the children could and would learn what was necessary to succeed within the curriculum. It is clear that the Speed School Program in its training had been successful in getting teachers and students to re-conceptualize who can learn and why."
In 2017, Dr. Susan Rauchwerk, Associate Professor at Lesley University, authored a full analysis of the elements of play in the Speed School pedagogy and their positive impact on students’ learning, drawing from a broader program evaluation conducted by the University of Sussex. Published in the International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, the article states, “In Speed Schools, play is a platform for communication between teachers and students where teachers actively draw upon students’ life experiences and promote an environment where students feel safe and supported, ultimately leading to positive student outcomes. Play provides a pedagogical framework that shapes both the social structure and content delivery within the Speed School classroom. Classrooms are interactive, and learning is a process rather than an outcome.” The online version of Dr. Rauchwerk's article is available on the IJLTER website, and a PDF version is available on our website.
The Speed School program demonstrates how the integration of play- and activity-based learning into severely under-resourced contexts helps children develop both cognitive and non-cognitive skills that prepare them for lifelong learning. According to one of our young, female students:
“We were learning like playing and the things we learned as play have remained inside us like heritage.”