Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director of the Luminos Fund
The Luminos Fund has discovered something special in “joyful learning.” That is the name we have given to our pedagogy – our approach to teaching and learning. At the core of joyful learning is the mission to help children acquire foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Especially marginalized children, who have missed out on an education because of poverty, crisis, or discrimination. But the magic of joyful learning lies in how skills acquisition actually takes place. It’s all in the relationship.
You see, the joyful learning journey is not primarily about
amassing facts and details. It is instead a process of discovery that occurs
through holistic connections. By connections, I mean that joyful learning is
far from an abstract exercise. It truly invites children to engage. They engage
with their own hearts and minds, with their peers and learning facilitators,
with their families and communities, and with the broader environment and world
By holistic, I mean that joyful learning invites children to
muster, master, and mobilize all their faculties as they connect and engage. They
bring their consciousness, their physical presence, their attributes, and their
strengths. They marshal their emotional intelligence and they harness their cognitive
competencies. They draw upon their social acumen and they share the fruit of
their creative flair.
When discovery is fueled by holistic connections, as
children act and respond to the stimulus of relationship, joy is both
inevitable and automatic. They, of course, appreciate the fun in Luminos’
Second Chance program. But their joy is the product of that special “aha”
moment when they realize that the ability to learn has been inside all along. What
they needed was a little help to unlock the light within them. And that is
precisely what joyful learning does. It helps children make holistic
connections with their intrinsic power to learn.
We see this in so many profound examples of learning and life at Luminos. In my opinion, most resonant among these is the way our classrooms in Lebanon use psycho-social support and art therapy to help Syrian refugee Second Chance students work through the incredible trauma of their dislocation. There is great power in the act of using one’s own creative flair to make connections between the past, the present, and the future; great freedom in finding expression for one’s thoughts and emotions. Our students do so, not only through spoken and written words, but also through the much more communicative dialogue of markers, Crayons, and paint. As a testament to their resilience, artwork by some of our Syrian refugee students was celebrated recently at Christie’s, a pinnacle platform for global art.
Elsewhere recently, there was a different-yet-connected
celebration of the arts. Just this week, global newspapers announced that
certain iconic statues of the Zimbabwe
Bird, which had been stolen during colonialism, are now being returned home.
As a person of Zimbabwean heritage, who, among other things, also writes about
Zimbabwean history, this news was a source of joy for me. There is no deep
comparison between the trauma experienced by Syrian children and the journey of
my early childhood. However, there is some small connection in our stories. I
was born in exile as my parents, members of Africa’s formidable freedom
generation, worked with their peers to bring independence to Zimbabwe. I
therefore have a modicum of experience – not equivalent to our students in
Lebanon, but a modicum nevertheless – of what it feels like to be dislocated.
The joy I have regarding the return of the Zimbabwe Bird
statues is intertwined with my appreciation for the reconciliation the gesture
forges with the past. Their repatriation provides Zimbabweans some degree of
closure on a historical puzzle board that still has many missing pieces. In my
thankfulness, as I absorb the significance of this moment, I find myself
thinking about the eleventh-century artists who chiseled, shaped, and shined
formless slabs of soapstone into these magnificent sculptures. I marvel at what
thoughts, plans, ideas, hopes, and aspirations they might have sought to
reconcile for themselves through the expression of their incredible art. These
sculptures have provided an entire nation a great gift lasting many centuries. It
makes me wonder what sort of education these sculptors would have experienced
as children to make their work so brilliant.
I think that is why I feel so privileged to work at the Luminos Fund. In personal terms, Luminos is a place where I can contribute to the work of reconciling Africa’s past with its future. In broader terms, Luminos is also a platform upon which I can participate in helping children across the world unlock the light of learning in their lives. I derive pride that, in joyful learning, Luminos unashamedly embraces the arts as essential connective fiber in the holistic tapestry of relational discovery. I am also glad that in some small way, Luminos is playing a part in helping our Syrian refugee children build lifelong, stone-strong legacies that – like the Zimbabwe Bird – will similarly stand the test of time.
At this time, all of the Luminos Fund’s programs across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia are on hold due to school closures. Our team is sharing WHO guidance, monitoring the situation on the ground, tracking government and Ministry of Education responses to the crisis, and identifying opportunities to help. Our U.S. team has begun working remotely but is well-connected through digital tools.
In the near term, we are evaluating effective, agile ways to continue supporting our students. For example, in Liberia, we are distributing readers and numeracy materials for students to work on at home.
Our team is managing resources closely to leave room to respond in new ways as the crisis evolves: we want to both respond now and plan ahead for the long term.
Maretta Silverman is Director of Communications at The Luminos Fund
In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of Learning Poverty to measure when children are unable to read or understand a simple text by age 10. In poor countries, the Learning Poverty rate is as high as eighty percent. Often excluded due to poverty, conflict, or discrimination, these children are at risk of being forgotten or ignored as they are assumed to be uneducable. These are children like 13-year-old James in Liberia.
“I used to feel bad when I was out of school and could see
my friends go to school. I cried,” says James, a student in the Luminos Fund’s program.
“Now, my brother and I do homework together.”
“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist because I want to
talk about my country,” he adds.
The Luminos Fund in Liberia
Liberia’s struggles are well known. The country ranked 181
(out of 188) on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2018, there is a 64%
poverty rate, and the World Bank estimates that one third of Liberian children
are stunted. And yet, amidst these challenges, Liberian children are learning
to read in Luminos Fund classrooms at one of the highest rates on the continent.
Since 2016, the Luminos Fund has worked in Liberia to scale up Second Chance, an accelerated learning program that supports children like James to become literate and numerate in 10 months. We now operate across four counties. Many students in our Liberia program are first-generation readers and have been out of school, so the opportunity to learn to read is especially meaningful for their families and themselves.
According to Luminos external evaluation results from last year (2018/19), the average Second Chance graduate in Liberia identifies 39 familiar words per minute (wpm). This is up from essentially zero at the beginning of the program. Definitions of functional literacy vary and may include reading comprehension, like the World Bank does. Luminos sets a target of 30 wpm or more. By this measure, Luminos students are achieving functional literacy within our 10-month program. To put this in perspective, merely 21.1% of Grade 3 and 5.8% of Grade 2 students in Liberia can correctly identify this many words per minute (Ref. USAID Early Grade Reading Barometer, Liberia, Familiar words sub-task, 2013. https://earlygradereadingbarometer.org/liberia/results).
Our recipe for success
In Second Chance, Luminos applies the best global knowledge regarding what’s most effective for first-generation readers and reimagines it for the Liberian context. Through a joyful and phonics-centered curriculum, classes capped at 30 students, 8-hour school days, and locally developed reading materials, we enable children to become independent readers. In a Second Chance school day, on average, five hours are spent on literacy. Children see themselves in the texts and reading is presented as an integral part of the world around them.
We use a structured approach to phonics to ensure students
build the requisite skills to read by the end of the program. We try to strike a
balance between direct instruction, which is essential to teach the technical
aspects of reading, and activity-based learning, which is at the core of our
pedagogy. Students practice using Elkonin Sound Boxes and Blending Ladders, as
well as finger tapping as a multi-sensory way to learn spelling and syllables.
We are streamlining the process wherein teachers give students weekly timed
reading assignments and remedial support is provided to the bottom performers.
Our goal is to not leave any child behind as a reader.
We believe a structured approach, supplemented by honest,
regular feedback as well as space for creativity, is key to success. We created
detailed guides for our teachers to provide them with daily guidance on
technical aspects of the curriculum while also providing intervals wherein they
can innovate and design appropriate activities for children. This helps keep
teachers motivated and in charge of the learning happening in their own
Additionally, we provide weekly coaching and supervision in
the classroom, conduct regular teacher training workshops, and are proud to
partner with the Liberian Ministry of Education (MoE). For example, the MoE
provisions some classroom space to Luminos and we train MoE officials on our
Second Chance pedagogy.
More than seven thousand Liberian children have learned to
read through Luminos programs: children who now have a pathway out of learning
poverty. Ninety percent of Luminos students transition to mainstream school at
the end of the program. We have trained 350 teachers and government officials
at the district and regional levels.
Key opportunities and challenges lay ahead as we build our program and experiment with new routes to scale in Liberia, such as working more with overage students (i.e., children in school but years behind their correct grade level). We are immensely proud of our program to-date, but recognize that ongoing, urgent work remains to build our evidence base in Liberia. Our team is eager to expand upon the successful programming and strong relationships we have established to help more Liberian children, like James, realize their dreams of learning – and learning to read – in a joyful classroom environment.
“As Liberia works to provide all children a quality education, we are pleased to have non-government organization partners, like the Luminos Fund. They are working to ensure those who have missed out on an education get a second chance to learn. It is such vital support here in Liberia where for many out-of-school children the second chance to learn is a first chance at an education. Partners like Luminos align well with our national vision for education.” — Professor Ansu Sonii, Minister of Education, Liberia