Craig Esbeck improves the way young children in Uganda learn by equipping primary school teachers with learning aids that are affordable, culturally relevant, and engaging. He also provides the instruction and encouragement teachers need to use the aids effectively.
The New Idea
In Uganda, where memorization and repetitive learning techniques characterize education, Craig equips primary school teachers with a new set of tools–games, flip charts, and puppets–that engage children and foster their creativity. The tools offer schools, teachers, and parents a low-cost, culturally relevant alternative to some of the imported products that, for example, require hard-to-come-by batteries, seem utterly alien to teachers and students or are unaffordable. But Craig sees that producing and making these tools accessible is only the first step in changing the prevailing approach to learning. Inspiring lasting changes in the education system requires a sustained effort to reach–and teach–the teachers, encouraging them to adopt creative approaches in their classrooms. To do this, he works closely with the national primary teachers' colleges, offering frequent workshops that introduce his products and help teachers learn how they may use them to engender curiosity, teach cooperation, and keep children in school. As Craig has begun to demonstrate, the teachers find many valuable professional development opportunities in the workshops. Furthermore, Craig encourages teachers to develop their own new tools, refine creative techniques, and mentor less experienced teachers by offering such incentives as awards given to truly inventive teachers, as well as prizes of free classroom games and toys that they can readily integrate into their curriculum. Although he primarily focuses on teachers, Craig applies his work beyond the traditional teaching sphere, offering progressive learning strategies to community health workers, environmental educators, and others.
Memorization and rote learning remain the hallmarks of education in Uganda, and in many cases, teachers are reluctant to adopt methods that encourage greater participation by students in the learning process. The Ugandan school system, largely inherited from the British system, has over the years concentrated on grade achievement to the detriment of all other creative aspects of education. Worse still, teacher refresher training and in-service development have been almost nonexistent. As a result, the typical Ugandan child goes through the school system drilled to pass exams only to proceed to the next level of the academic ladder. Teachers are generally not empowered to use teaching aids and are therefore limited in their ability to teach basic math and language skills creatively.
The Ministry of Education is now working to make the system more effective. It has introduced Universal Primary Education for four children per family in a country with a 6.9 fertility rate. This program supports tuition for these children, while parents remain responsible for the rest of their children's school needs. However, the ministry has not yet adequately addressed the issue of improving teacher quality and has failed to provide schools with culturally appropriate learning materials that encourage the creative engagement of students. International donors have provided some materials, but as Craig notes, teachers often find these aids unfamiliar, fragile, and irrelevant.
Craig uses two distinct approaches. First, he designs, produces, and sells child-centered, affordable learning aids that inspire creativity in children. And second, he reaches teachers through workshops and ongoing trainings, encouraging them to break with the tradition of rote learning and introduce creative and interactive methods in the classroom. Craig believes that the two approaches, combined, will transform the way young children in Uganda learn and change values and skills they take with them as they advance through the education system and assume roles in society as engaged, responsible citizens.
Through his organization, Mango Tree Educational Enterprises, Craig offers custom-made educational tools and classroom learning aids, including games, wall charts, maps, books, flash cards, puppets, and letters and numbers made from recycled materials. To design and make these products, he contracts with local craftspeople who use raw materials that are familiar to people in Uganda, thus supporting the local economy and reinforcing pride in local products. Mango Tree now offers over 60 products to schools, teachers, and parents, as well as to national and international civic organizations. At present, the enterprise employs seven Ugandan artisans in East Uganda, and plans are in place to open three additional regional production workshops across the country.
The products are made available to teachers through frequent workshops and ongoing training sponsored by the National Coordinating Center Tutors of the Primary Teacher Colleges, the national program for elementary school teachers in the country. Mango Tree contributes free materials–equal to roughly 10 percent of the day's workshop sales–to the NCC Resource Center. As Craig envisioned, this alliance has offered a strategic foothold for Mango Tree. During the 2000 academic year, 500 teachers participated in the workshops, representing nearly 200 primary schools. The next year saw considerable growth as 1,350 teachers representing 535 schools participated. At the workshops, Craig and his team introduce and create a demand for Mango Tree products. In doing so, they are also accomplishing something bigger: they are beginning a shift that Craig hopes will result in a reformed, improved educational system, one weaned from a near total reliance on memorization and mechanical learning.
Craig registered Mango Tree as a sole proprietorship because it was the quickest and simplest form of registration, allowing him to get on with his work. He also sees that this arrangement enforces the discipline of a "bottom line" and helps ensure that products are responsive to the real demands of clients. He currently reinvests all profits from the sale of Mango Tree products into advancing his ideas and spreading them throughout the country. He plans to restructure Mango Tree at a later stage in its growth into a worker-owned cooperative. Craig also intends, over the next 18 months, to establish a "sister" Mango Tree Foundation, which will solicit grant money, both locally and abroad, for research and development activities related to his primary mission. Through the foundation, he expects to expand his awards program for especially talented, enterprising teachers. The "Teacher of the Year Awards" will be given in each district of Uganda to motivate teachers and encourage creative solutions that can be applied broadly. Under Craig's supervision, Mango Tree will bring the award recipients together to share ideas and identify systemic solutions regarding primary school education. These teachers will then return to their districts to mentor less experienced, less confident teachers.
Mango Tree has been enlisted as a consultant on instructional materials development and creative teaching by many local, national, and international institutions and educators, including the Forest Exploration Center of Mount Elgon National Park, Child Restoration Outreach, Save the Children USA, World Learning, and World Vision.
As an international relations major in college, Craig spent his junior year in an innovative adult education program. It was there that he began to understand the critical importance of teachers in creating a classroom environment conducive to learning. This experience steered him in the direction of education and resulted in his obtaining certification to teach in the public school system. Through his early experiences as an elementary school science teacher, he learned the importance of a creative curriculum in guiding not only students but also teachers. His assignment led him to research, write, and pilot a creative, primary education curriculum, for which he received a national honorary award as an innovator in science education. During his three years as a science teacher, Craig also designed an outdoor education project that gained broad support from the community and resulted in the designation of a community nature center as well as an expansion of the school to include five outdoor classrooms. Craig then spent another three years in a community-based employment education initiative for developmentally disabled adults in Boulder, Colorado, where he developed partnerships with local businesses to provide experiential training opportunities for individuals and small groups.
Craig sees his move to Uganda as an extension of his years teaching in the United States. In 1997 he went to Uganda as a United States Peace Corps volunteer and took up a post in one of the country's primary teachers' colleges where he saw first-hand the challenges Ugandan teachers face. Craig also learned of the high value that Ugandan parents and children assign to education. After his Peace Corps assignment, he decided to settle in Uganda, and in 2000 he founded the Mango Tree Educational Enterprises in Kampala.