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Child-friendly education goes digital to reach all 20 atolls

A four-year-old girl climbs across a low table ringed by preschoolers. Her schoolgirl tie hangs over a boy's drawing as she brandishes a pink crayon, quickly marks the page, and retreats back across the table. “A princess needs a pink crown,” she announces. The boy beams and holds up his drawing, a princess with a pink crown.

In the play corner, walled off by an imitation palm tree and picket fence, a brown teddy bear hurtles into the air. Six little boys and girls scramble to catch it. All looking up towards the rapidly descending bear, they collide, knocking each other down. Nobody catches it. They laugh at the slapstick moment and hurl the bear back into the air to try again. Can this really be Ameer Ahmed Preschool in Male', the capital of the Maldives? For Maldivians who spent their earliest years sitting in rows at tiny uncomfortable school desks, it is difficult to believe.

The difference here is child-friendly teaching, which aims to get children fully involved in their own learning rather than simply memorizing what they are told. It's proven to keep girls and boys in school and to help them learn, as well as to grow up into involved, proactive citizens.

Teacher Training Centres reinforce child-friendly learning

The Maldives is located on a 1,000 kilometre-long chain of islands where the cost of transporting teachers for training is exorbitant and many teachers lack formal training, let alone training in child-friendly methods. UNICEF and the Ministry of Education have come up with a novel solution: a series of 20 Teacher Training Centres (TRCs), one in each of the atolls that make up the country. These TRCs provide teachers and students with a trove of modern online teaching and learning tools at the touch of their fingertips, thanks to banks of high-speed Internet-enabled computers, SmartBoards that allow for interactive training at a distance, and a website being developed by Cambridge International Examinations that's adapted specifically to the Maldives.

Back at Ameer Ahmed Preschool, child-friendly teaching involves children's bodies moving and twisting across brightly-coloured spaces, everywhere you look. Some are in the number corner, building the high-rise skyline of Male' with number blocks. Others are rolling around in the reading corner, where different girls and boys take turns reading to the group.

"Sometimes I don't believe it myself,” says Fathun, one of the teachers. She tells us about the old Ameer Ahmed preschool, with rows of children sitting silently at assigned stations.

But the change wasn't easy to get used to. “The first year I came home every day to my husband crying,” says Fathun. “I would run from the creative corner to the reading corner and back to the play corner, only finding children were sitting and writing  like I was used to. That was two years ago, my twentieth year in the classroom. I could have retired, but I wanted to see this thing through. We don't become teachers to get wealthy. We do it because we want to help children become good adults. This method is more difficult, but it's good. It really works.”

A quiet young teacher adds that “child-friendly allows the children to see learning as fun”. Fathun says that each day begins with a “sharing time”, where children tell how they spent the last evening. “They are more social, more confident, and they express themselves so much better. Even the timid ones are not afraid to talk”. Fathun laughs, embarrassed to be dominating the group, and invites a young teacher next to her to speak. “It's good for the girls,” the younger one says. “Sometimes we don't have as much confidence to speak.”

Children file out of the classrooms, standing silently on line. They are ready to go to the computer lab for the one class of the day that does not involve collaborative learning, running, playing or tossing a stuffed animal into the air. In the cool quiet lab, the children sit in tall chairs at glowing monitors, where they work with a digital colouring book. As the woman who manages the computer lab observes, even four-year-olds sometimes like quiet time to work on their own.



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