“Don’t teach them to think like you. Teach them to think for themselves”

Last updated:

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s mantra sounds simple. But delivering it in 37,000 modest Bangladeshi schools is miraculous, as Robert Jeffery discovers

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed doesn’t exactly bound into the room. At 76, he can be forgiven for taking his time. But with a cup of tea on its way, he’s very quickly holding forth with considerable vim on his favourite subject: education, and in this case the IB Diploma Programme, which his daughter studied in India. “A great programme,” he says, settling into his seat in the office of affiliated charity BRAC UK, where he has jetted in for a catch-up.

Coming from the Bangladeshi entrepreneur, it’s quite an endorsement. Sir Fazle can reasonably claim to have educated more students than anybody else, with 9.51 million graduates from BRAC’s 38,451 schools worldwide (as of December 2011), with education programmes in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uganda, South Sudan and most recently the Philippines.

BRAC (www.brac.net) is, by many measures, the largest NGO in the world, with a staff of around 100,000, yet it shuns celebrity endorsements, preferring to concentrate on delivering real aid on the ground, including microfinance, agriculture and health initiatives.

The organization began life in 1972, when Sir Fazle – then a British-educated high-flier in oil giant Shell’s Pakistan operations – left his job to help disaster relief efforts in his war-ravaged homeland. In 1985, having already introduced microcredit initiatives that helped hundreds of thousands, BRAC began building and taking over schools across Bangladesh as part of its mission to lift the country out of poverty, providing teaching for students who had dropped out of the state sector, or those too poor or remotely located to find a local school.

Along the way, it revolutionized the way education is organized and delivered across the developing world (test results show the schools regularly outperform the state sector). As IB World considers international education, we asked Sir Fazle for his perspective on how more effective schooling can help solve global problems.

Why did you decide to make education so central to BRAC’s mission?

Education is the most important development intervention that one can make to a human life. I have worked on providing primary, secondary and tertiary education to millions of Bangladeshi children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to education. Our schools are particularly aimed at poor children and they are one-teacher schools – one teacher, 30 students in one room in a village.

We look for children who are eight and above who have never been to school, or have dropped out of school, and we give them a second chance. They are like the prairie schools in the US in the old days, except those were multi-grade schools whereas we teach a single grade. We finish the five-year primary curriculum in four years. We have set up nearly 40,000 schools with 1.2 million children at any one time.

Many of our graduates go on to secondary school. Many turn out so well that they go on to university – some are now in China studying medicine. They would otherwise have been illiterate. Even those children who don’t go any further than primary education do not remain illiterate. They are able to operate as functional individuals in Bangladeshi society. I believe the quality of education we provide is superior to what they would have received in the state system.

How do you begin organizing almost 40,000 schools into an effective system?

Every child is monitored. Every 10-15 schools we have a supervisor with a motorcycle who visits each school twice a week to check whether the teachers are teaching in the right way, whether the children are learning, whether they are absent. If a child isn’t coming to school, it often means the parents want them to do work at home – we try to get the parents to understand the children need to go to school.

We decided early on that our schools would give preference to girls, because boys get a preferential education in our society. Every BRAC village school has to be made up of 70% girls – as a result, Bangladesh is the only country in the world where more girls get an education than boys. But we wanted them to not only get an education, but to get a quality education – so child-centred teaching became our hallmark.

How do you make education student-centred without a huge professional development budget?

We look for women aged 20-30 with a number of years of education, mostly housewives. We don’t want young, unmarried girls because we think they will be married off to a different village. We want somebody who will complete at least one cycle of teaching. They are given two weeks of basic learning to explain what child-centred learning means – it’s not about you teaching, it’s about what the child wants to learn.

Each day’s lessons are worked out in advance, and no homework is given except work the children can complete themselves – many of them come from families who are illiterate and can’t help out. One day a month the teachers come to one of our centres, with their supervisors, for refresher courses. The teachers feel a sense of pride, and they can get a bit competitive, which is good – whose children are learning better?

Why is so much education in the developing world didactic?

In third world countries, most efforts go into getting more children into school rather than looking at the quality of education. My grandfather was minister of education in the government of Bengal in Calcutta, in 1941. He always said his job had nothing to do with education. It was the schools, colleges and universities he had to worry about – which one should get which grant, which one is doing well in exam tables – not the quality of learning.

We discouraged rote learning right from the beginning. You’re just teaching someone to memorize, and you don’t need to come to school for that. We try and get children to think. At the end of the first year, when they are just learning to form sentences, we give them an essay: to write about their mother. They’re not told what to write. None of the children’s essays will be the same, of course, because they are thinking about their own mother. We always tell teachers: “Don’t teach them to think like you. Teach them to think for themselves.”

What was the hardest part of building your network of schools?

The teachers themselves, changing their ideas about what good teaching means. They have themselves been taught in a rote learning system. They have to learn how to grade children who think for themselves. Most rote learning systems give you more marks if you write exactly like the textbook rather than constructing your own sentence that might not be quite as elegant.

We also had to get the teachers working harder. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to teach by rote. You don’t have to use your judgement. But as soon as they all write those different sentences, it’s hard work, and a lot of people don’t want to do that.

Are you optimistic about the potential of technology to transform education?

Technology will eventually be available to all societies and I hope it will make education much more democratic – available to every child, rather than just the best children in the best schools. It is quite cheap to provide education via the internet: even in the remotest parts of Bangladesh they will ultimately have access to websites.

I hope that within the next 10-15 years, most of the world will have access to digital information, so our job will be to develop materials for teachers and students. In the poorest countries, not every child will have access to a computer – there might only be one per classroom – but that will happen within the next generation or two.

Are you in favour of private providers entering the market for education, particularly in the developing world?

If you look at history, the state has only provided education to its citizens for around 130 years. Before that, it used to be the role of the church. It may be that ultimately education becomes something that is provided privately rather than by the state. In the United States, the Republican Party wants to get rid of the Department of Education altogether.

I personally believe the state should be responsible for educating all its citizens. In some of the Nordic countries they do this very well and they hardly have any private education. But not all societies are like Sweden or Norway, of course. Each country will have to decide its own priorities. There is scope for large providers to come into the market and provide education at a cost, which is happening quite a lot in Africa and parts of Asia.

Are you worried about Western governments cutting aid to programmes such as yours?

We don’t expect foreign aid to rise over the longer term. In some of the education programmes we are currently running free of charge, we will have to start charging a small amount to cover some of our costs. But in Bangladesh, we are currently spending 2.2% of national GDP on education and that has to go up, so we are putting pressure on our own politicians to provide greater resources. We shouldn’t be dependent on donor money to educate our own citizens.

What aspect of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

One of the wonderful things about education is that it gives the very poorest families something to aspire to, and people understand that now in a way they didn’t in the old days. Education is perceived as the only way to get out of poverty in places like India and Bangladesh, and that is good for those societies. In India, they will make a lot of sacrifices to educate their children because they value education. I don’t think the poorest 10% of people in the USA think the same way.

What can teachers and students in IB World Schools do to help fight inequality across the world?

If they could somehow – perhaps through technology – make some of the materials and the best teaching they have available to children throughout the world, that would be the most wonderful thing. MIT now makes every lecture it does available via the internet. When you are self-assured, you can share everything you have with the world.