Prof Opoku-Agyemang writes: On STEM education in Ghana

Prof Opoku-Agyemang
Prof Opoku-Agyemang

This article shares with the reader the steps that were taken at the Ministry of Education between January 2013 and January 2017, when my team and I had the privilege to serve in the John Mahama administration. The President had expressed his concern about raising the levels of performance in education in general and about the STEM subjects in particular.

 The article begins from the premise that everyone, regardless the future choice of profession, needs proficiency in STEM. The final emphasis might differ, depending on the terminal area of specialization of the individual. It argues that at the basis of STEM lay Mathematics and Science, because the other complex areas-, Technology and Engineering are themselves derived from Mathematics and Science, even though many other disciplines apply. This makes the study of Mathematics and Science the centre of our concern in this discussion, for this time.

At the core of the complex areas of Vocational Technical training are both mathematics and science. It is ironical that the near universally established, but wrong  perception, that  those of our learners who are unable to score high in mathematics and the sciences end up in the vocational and technical professions where these subjects are most desperately needed and applied! I have had many occasions to explain how the subjects are very much alive in the professions of the technician, the woodworker; the metal worker, the fashion designer, the tailor, the seamstress, the food technologist, the hairdresser, the plumber and many others. Every discipline is critical in driving society forward; however, math and science mathematics remain central factors in this vein, underpinning nearly every discipline. Therefore, the teaching and learning of mathematics ought to be strengthened everywhere.

When this premise is accepted, it justifies why Math and Science continue to be compulsory subjects at both the basic and secondary levels of education in this country and elsewhere. The assumption is that both are so necessary that everyone must learn it, and of course, by implication, everyone must know it, apply it and benefit from it. Lofty, but not far-fetched expectations. Indeed the emphasis on the subjects is further underscored by the fact that one must pass them in order to move up the educational ladder. However, the results have never proved that they are subjects everyone can and must pass. The performance has been consistently abysmal. This continues to be is an important area for effective interventions.

The outcomes in terms of evaluation aside, attitudes to the subjects are worthy of examination. Many are the terrifying stories of learner experience and engagement with the subjects. For some, the image that reveals itself is of the math teacher holding a stick above the frightened young learner’s head and with a threatening voice, demanding instant answers to multiplications that, at the time, make no sense at all to the young mind. For others, it is the smile that greets the announcement that the math teacher will be absent. For still others, it is a virtual prayer for the minimum pass in the subject so they can move ahead with their studies and abandon the study of math for the rest of their lives. The fear of mathematics is real in our schools. However, we use Math and Science everywhere and nearly at all times, regardless.

Science which, like Math, is also assumed to be universal and omnipresent does not appear to be taught and learned with these conventions in mind in our schools; the outcome in terms of evolution is no better than that of mathematics. The subject is taught in a more or less reified manner, to the extent that our learners equate a subject which is supposed to be all around them as something most remote. The diction, images and equipment employed are usually far removed from the lived experience of the learner, thus establishing the myth that the subject is not to be comprehended by everyone, while the opposite indeed is the truth. This is not to suggest that there were no effective and efficient math and science instructors in our schools. There were many, are still many, great math and science teachers, but the poor outcomes and attitudes beg the question of what exactly is the problem and how it can be confronted. Many interventions have been applied, including special treatment of the students and teachers of math and science, considered almost as endangered species. All that has been good, some outcomes accrued from the effort, but overall, but the results have not been commensurate with the inputs. We need many more mathematicians and scientists in our schools, workplaces and communities and besides, we can all do with an appreciation and heightened understanding of these subjects.

Dear Reader, I am sure you have other experiences to share, and my wish is that they are positive ones. It is not surprising that subjects that most students find themselves re-studying for another attempt at an examination remain mathematics and science. Mathematics scores a high place on the programs of remedial courses in this country. This raised many questions for my team and I, including the following: What accounts for a dislike and poor outcomes of subjects that everyone must pass? What explains why many a student has to write these subjects again and again in order to move forward? Why do some n ever move up because they did not manage basic passes in these subjects? Why are these the most dominant subjects in the remedial classes offered by many institutions in the country? Why has a constant cry of the private tertiary institutions sprung from their inability to admit as many students as possible because applicants have not obtained passes in these subjects? The pressure from some quarters to reduce the acceptable grade from C6 to D7 is all linked to the inability of the majority of students to attain the minimum requirement. The ministry shared in the frustration, saw the assent as temporary and embraced the need to enable students pass these important subjects and pass them well. Anyone who has studies the raw scores of D7 might come to share in the need to raise, not lower the standards for whatever the reasons. Our conviction was that when the impediments had been properly removed and workable alternatives had been implanted into the whole learning atmosphere, many more students could succeed in these subjects.

The point needs to be made that Ghana set on the STEM path many decades ago. The fact that the original aim of establishing what has now come to be called the University of Cape Coast (name as inception was the University College of Science Education), was to train science teachers for a country that was envisaged to add value to its primary commodities through industrialisation, speaks volumes to the premium placed on the STEM subjects more than five decades ago. In same country, we have a whole university, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology that is expected to translate the practice of science and technology into applicable usage for industry. We also have a number of technical universities, polytechnics, technical and vocational schools. These types of institutions give meaning to the expected wide application of Math and Science to deepen the relevance of education to national development.

Admission into the institutions under discussion has nearly always been challenged by an inability to reach enough qualified students in the subject areas of Math and Science. The University of Cape Coast came up with two major innovative ideas. One now phased out, was to admit the students from the 6th form with low passes in science and math (and indeed in many other subjects), to undertake what was known as a preliminary program for one academic year. Today we have many engineers, agriculturalists, doctors and other health workers, technicians and others who benefited from this program. The second, related to the first, which came much later, was to temporarily seal off the admission of science and math students who had attained the desired aggregate. The rest who fell within the cut-off point but without high aggregates would be invited into residence on campus for about eight weeks and be given rigorous tutoring in the subjects. Some would have access to science teachers and laboratories for the first time, and conduct experiments they had previously only read about. The university would then conduct examinations to determine the level of preparedness of the applicant for university work, and admit those who passed the prescribed exercises.

These interventions made a lot of difference, but there was still a lot to be done. We did not think that reducing the pass grade from C6 as minimum pass to D7 or D8 was a long term solution, especially if one examined the raw score that earned the student those low grades. So, how do we continue to grow the number of science and math students? Where should we actually begin? What should we advance? How do we make subjects that are greatly needed yet which few seemed to wish to continue to study?

Such were some many more questions that engaged my team and I (including my two deputies, Hon. Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa and Hon Alex Kyeremeh and the technocrats we worked with) at the Ministry of Education, between January 2013 and January 2017, as we sought ways to propose ways to improve quality delivery of education in areas we had identified as requiring urgent interventions. Our belief was and still remains that the fear can be removed; math and science can be as enjoyable as any subject. They need conjure no earth shaking negative images.

So, what are the problems? At the heart of interventions in education is the facilitator of knowledge creation, also known as the Teacher. It became important then to ascertain the backgrounds of our teachers at the basic level, because that is the most important area of education, where attitudes to the learning process in general and to subjects are formed. These teachers’ knowledge level took a centre stage in the formulation of any strategy to raise the level of sustained interest in math and science, so that the nation might end up with many more persons who were proficient in the subjects. We assumed that some of the teachers at this level themselves might have been taught in some of the ways described above, those ways that succeed in putting learners off. Such teacher trainers might not exactly bring a positive attitude to the subjects and would begrudge teaching them at best and avoid teaching them in the classroom if at all possible.

When a teacher of any subject shows confidence and is on top of his/her material; when this teacher is able to translate this confidence onto an environment that empowers the learner to raise his/her own level of assurance in the learning process, half the desired outcomes are already more or less achieved. For example, when the lesson begins with an assertion of the ease and joy with which the subject under discussion can be understood, a great deal of the process of the ability to understand flows easily from there. When the teaching and learning materials are adequate and the curriculum is structured to take into account the levels of concentration, understanding and what interests learners at that age are factored in; when the teacher’s own understanding of what is to be taught is clear; the results should be encouraging. All of these requirements, there is no doubt, some of the teachers exhibit and more.

But beyond all of this though, the most important is the language of instruction. We are all yet to see high PISA scores by any country where teachers their children are taught in a language they do not use regularly or do not use at all. More of this in another discussion over our efforts towards a workable and realistic language policy for our schools. Any learner who struggles over the language of instruction, who must think in one language, fully mastered or not, and who must constantly translate concepts over which this pupil has little grasp into a language little understood, is already losing the battle of excellence in education.

The rest of the article shares the manner in which my team and I confronted the worrying phenomenon of poor performance in math and science in our schools. Science and Mathematics hold powerful places in contemporary society, setting the foundation for effective industrialization and entry into some of the most productive, competitive, robust and highest-paying industries. The preface I wrote to a document that we developed at the Ministry of Education in 2014 in response to the determination to raise the interest and outcomes in the subjects sums up the thinking that led to the plan. We believed in the imperative that nations commit resources to sustain a literate, numerate, analytical and skilled youthful society, who would be critically minded, acquire digital literacy, develop creative and innovative skills and be ready to take calculated risks.

It is for this reason that the Ministry of Education considered the state of science and mathematics education in Ghana and found the subsequent poor output of examination results, an area of urgent intervention. Having studied trends both locally and internationally, it became apparent that school’s curriculum and study programmes, especially in mathematics and science, particularly at basic level required urgent overhaul not so much in content as in modes of delivery. This, we believed, would help to ensure that a solid foundation was built at the basic education level which would propel the needed capacity for sustained development. However, effective education in mathematics and science has not been made equally available to all students, with some of the students from the poorer areas of the country, and ironically those who would benefit most from their acquisition, being continuously underserved.

This ongoing problem in education highlights one of the core causes of the widening social gap and denying the country of diverse human resources for sustained growth. While this educational inequality can be attributed to a number of economic and political causes, major areas limiting progress in developing the critical mass, have been over the years attributed to pedagogy, curriculum and teacher training issues, and have spilled into the larger question of how and why students must participate in math and science.

Eminent scholars in the area of science and mathematics education from our universities and out of it, including Professor S. Anku, Professor J. Djangmah, Professor J. Anamuah-Mensah, The Ghana Education Service, technocrats from the ministry, members of the Science Association of Ghana, Ghana Association of Science Teachers, retired math and science teachers and significant others were brought together by the Ministry of Education, and charged to review basic school science and mathematics education in Ghana, put together a report which should provide the relevant stakeholders with the spring board for inspiring science and mathematics in Ghanaian schools. I remain forever grateful to them for their deep insights and useful contributions to confronting this challenge, in the supreme interest of our beloved nation. We also had occasion to speak with students who either loved the subjects or did not, to broaden stakeholder consultation on the subject that we considered very important.

The fine 65 page report is titled Transforming Science and Mathematics Education in Basic Schools in Ghana. It includes a six year plan and an implementation strategy. The recommendations include providing technical support to teacher training institutions, departments of mathematics and science education; refitting science resource centres; re/training of science and mathematics teachers; integration of ICT into teaching the subjects; review of the language policy at the basic level of education; and better alignment of agencies of the Ministry of Education with relevant ministries, especially the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation as well as the District and Municipal Assemblies. Further discussions were held with the expert group to aid the ministry to prioritize out of the priorities, in view of resource restrictions. Our objective in this exercise was to tackle the areas with the highest returns, for efficiency and effective use of resources.

As a result, the Ministry prioritized the Science Resource Centres Project. By 2016, 300 under-served SHSs had benefitted from the provision of science equipment, furniture, science software, electronics items and chemicals. Similar interventions were ongoing in another 100 Senior High Schools. In designing the E-blocks, we ensured the provision of four laboratories- physics, biology, chemistry and integrated science, the latter subject which requires a sharper focus. The Ministry found this emphasis critical in raising the level and number of potential mathematics and science teachers, in order to deal with the existing poor ratios of science/math teacher to pupils. The Mahama administration extended the project to establish Science Resource Centres at the University of Cape Coast and the University of Education, Winneba. This was intended to help build the competencies of pre-service teachers to handle schools’ science programmes towards long term sustainability of the project. As well, a refurbishment exercise was undertaken at the science laboratories of a number of the Colleges of Education to help build competencies of pre-service teachers in new methods of teaching and learning math and science.

The workshops that we subsequently organized for teachers of science and, mathematics were facilitated by WAEC, aided by the chief examiners who shared with the teachers and heads of schools their experiences with the scrips over the years and what they interventions ought to be. It was important to include the Headmaster/Mistresses so they could gain a fist hand appreciation of what accounted for the performance that we all agreed needed improvement. I remember them all with gratitude.

There was immediate need for augmenting the number of existing math and science teachers in our schools. In this connection, 2,400 additional Maths and Science Teachers were recruited and deployed in 2016 to fill vacant places and strengthen the number of teachers of mathematics in public senior high schools. As well, workshops were held for teachers of the subjects in-country, to build the capacity of those already in the field. In addition, 1,200 science teachers and laboratory technicians were trained in the effective use of the equipment during the 2015/2016 academic year. This intervention remains of prime importance for learning STEM subjects. The laboratory assistant is key to the delivery of these subjects, yet this person is most of the time forgotten in the scheme of things.

Some of the programs to mediate the identified problems include the following: Transforming Teacher Education and Learning (T-TEL). This intervention was significant to address part of the problem from the level of training itself, while making other interventions, including what has just been mentioned, in the field, when the teacher was at work. The aim of the project which was initiated in 2014 to Transform Teacher Education and Learning (T-TEL) in Ghana through the following objectives:

  • Training and coaching for Colleges of Education (CoEs) tutors in Mathematics, English and Science;
  • Support the institutional strengthening and management of CoEs, including training of its Principals;
  • Support the Ministry to reform the pre-service curriculum;
  •  Establish a Challenge Fund to finance innovative initiatives in CoEs and their partner districts and schools;

T-TEL has supported the National Teacher Council (NTC) to develop the National Teaching Standards for pre service teacher education in Ghana.

Under the project, a draft national teacher education curriculum framework was developed.

Grants totalling approximately GH₵ 2,000,000 were, as at 2016, disbursed to 23 colleges to implement innovative concepts that would improve the quality of teaching and learning, and ultimately the skills of student teachers.

T-TEL also developed handbooks, totalling 40,769 for student teachers and their mentors to use during teaching practice.

The effort continued to afford teachers the opportunity to upgrade themselves and also, to reduce the number of untrained teachers in the system. The UTDBE program, a four-year program, continues to meet the main objective of improving the quality of teaching and learning by reducing the percentage of untrained teachers, who appeared concentrated in the rural and deprived areas, where the majority of our learners were located. It provides an opportunity for untrained teachers to receive appropriate support to become professional teachers. The Ghana Partnership for Education Grant (GPEG), as at 2016, had provided a total amount of GH¢19.5 million, for training 6,563 untrained teachers (2,430females and 4,133 males) from 75 beneficiary districts to receive professional training under the UTDBE program.

In order to raise the quality of education delivery in our basic and second cycle institutions, the Ministry of Education adopted a policy of zero tolerance for teacher absenteeism in order to enhance accountability, and increase teacher presence as well as time spent on task in schools. This had direct effect on the learning process in general and all subjects in particular, Math and Science included. After the minister had initiated surprise visits to countless schools throughout the country first hand, followed by a larger team drawn from the ministry, and later involving the National Inspectorate Board (NIB) and Ghana Education Service (GES) were resourced to intensify both external and internal monitoring in basic schools, among many other functions.  After three years of its implementation, the rate of teacher absenteeism declined from 27% in 2012 to 7% in 2016. This was a major achievement, with verifiable results. Special commendation goes to the various stakeholders especially the teachers themselves, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education, the Teacher Unions, traditional authorities, district education officers, the parents and communities who supported the Ministry to achieve this result. Among other outcomes, the reduction in teacher absenteeism and more time spent on enhance the image of our most cherished profession, raise the confidence of learners, parents and care-givers, and most importantly, it inures to the quality of tuition that our next generations deserve.

However, given the number of teachers in the sector, 7% was still a big number and strategies were to continue to champion this cause until the rate of teacher absenteeism was brought to zero.

In the four-year period, a total of 12,085 Mathematics and 2387 Science teachers across the country were re/trained under the In-Service Education and Training (INSET) Program. In addition, 5,626 non-core subject teachers and 5,923 Heads from public Basic schools in the 75 deprived districts and low-performing schools (public and private) were also received training as well.

In our efforts to accelerate ICT education at the basic education level, 81,000 basic school teachers were trained between 2013 and 2016 to enable them acquire the requisite skills in the use of ICT to facilitate teaching and learning. A total number of 54,500 Laptops were procured and distributed to basic school teachers, and 60,000 laptop computers were distributed to public basic schools across the country.

To further improve teaching and learning in secondary schools, Government invested in measures to integrate ICT in teaching and learning. The initiatives include the following:

  1. The evolution and unveiling of the iBox Technology.

It always gives me personal joy to consider the work that came out of the Centre for National Distance Learning and Open Schooling (CENDLOS). My team and I wished to connect all the dots of our 22 agencies and units in order to develop a sharper focus on education. What you will read below is the results of our engagement with CENDLOS, based on the firm belief that the country has great local expertise that can be harnessed towards problem solving. We believed that the country had trained enough excellent engineers who will work with significant others, and who are capable of handling our local needs and are poised to meet local and international orders for all levels of teaching, learning and training.

 In 2013, as part of its core functions, CENDLOS was charged and supported to intensify its research into the use of modern technologies for teaching and learning. CENDLOS realized that the VCDs currently being distributed had several limitations: memory capacity was limited; the CDs risked getting scratched; packaging was bulky; the content/lessons were not interactive. It made innovative recommendations.

In January, 2014, the Ministry of Education endorsed the research and recommended it to be a strategic component of the ICT rollout for the Government’s Secondary Education improvement Project (SEIP) which was about to be launched. The SEIP included the construction of 23 new secondary schools popularly called the Mahama Schools or the E-Blocks; infrastructural expansion of existing 125 secondary schools; quality improvements in 175 secondary schools and scholarship packages for needy students, with emphasis on girls.

The new e-learning technology which was conceptualized by CENDLOS and developed with a team of local IT experts was aimed at addressing the issues associated with the use of CDs, VCDs and even expensive internet connectivity. CENDLOS thus successfully introduced a solution named the Intelligent Box (iBox) technology. Simply, the iBox is an offline version of a complete online web site. It is a hardware indigenously built to international specifications to serve multiple functions in teaching and learning. It houses lessons which are accessed on computer and related devices via LAN and Wi-Fi. CENDLOS under the SEIP developed a set on lessons for the SHS Core subjects in partnership with media firms, graphic designers and qualified teachers who were given extensive training into e-learning lesson concepts and production. The lessons cover learner texts in the form of notes, videos, interactive quizzes and interactive practical/ virtual laboratory exercises 

The iBox covers a range of up to 100 meters Wi-Fi radius and can be boosted with Access Points to extend coverage. On LAN, it can support all the connections in a given school with unlimited user population.  

Government procured 160 iBoxes – containing the lesson texts, video, interactive exercises, and interactive practical lessons and additional material for distribution to 125 low performing senior high schools benefiting from the quality improvement of the secondary education improvement projects (SEIP). By November and December 2016, 70 out of 125 low-performing SHS had been equipped with the iBox as agreed in the SEIP, for impact evaluation on public perception and acceptance of the novelty. The President of the Republic, His Excellency Mr. John D. Mahama, unveiled the iBox technology on Friday, 11th November, 2016 at the Frafraha SHS while launching a series of new SHS aimed at increasing access to quality secondary education under the SEIP.

CENDLOS was charged to collaborate with teacher associations and school managements to select practicing/retired educationists, train them in eContent production and then assist them to train other teachers. Film media houses and graphic design experts were also given orientation into the SHS curriculum and methodologies to deliver the full complement of suitable electronic learning. Therefore, it ought to be possible for the student who wishes to receive tutorials in any given subject, for example, physics, to go to the lab, use the computer to access a topic and see a teacher at work teaching that same otherwise bothersome topic and leave the lab informed. We found this a temporary way of making up for the shortfall of teachers in some subjects and most importantly, aiding self-tutoring. The medium to long term efforts have been described above.

The Ministry further recommended that in order for the iBox lessons to be accessible to all and away from the physical school site, an accompanying web site was being developed for online learning and was to be operationalized after the impact evaluation.

  • E-Transform / E-Learning

The Ministry also implemented a World Bank project, E-Transform to add electives in TVET, to among others, enhance the eLearning for TVET students and improve the communication infrastructure in 200 senior high schools in Ghana. The beneficiary schools are expected to receive internet connectivity and be equipped with computer laboratories. Similarly, E-learning project, funded by Belgium will add more electives to aid the integration of ICT into the learning experience of students. The project is expected as well toprovide connectivity and other ICT hardware, software and SHS content to 230 Senior High Schools. As at the end of 2016, 555 public SHSs were being supported with ICT infrastructure to improve quality under the outlined interventions.

Our objective was to remove the dislike and subsequent low performance in the sector generally and in Math and Science in particular.

By Professor Naana J. Opoku-Agyemang, FGA, Chancellor, Women’s University in Africa and Former Vice Chancellor, UCC and Minister for Education, Ghana

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