"All 3 pictures show an up-close, even intimate, view of a human being writing. To me this says that literacy is not a skill, but an act - a person doing something to the world. Literacy is about making your mark".
When asked to document their perspectives of literacy, the participating boys from both communities produced images of football jerseys. The alphabetic letters form the name of famous football players with their positional number below. Xavi, van Persie, Drogba and Ronaldo. These are jerseys that have been donated from outside of Ghana, but find their way to second-hand shops in towns like Tamale and Savelugu in northern Ghana. The boys know the players' names, and are able to sound out the Spanish, Dutch, Ivorian and Brazilian names.
I sent these photographs to a friend in Sydney who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. He tweeted back, having arranged the images in a 2x3 grid. I asked him what these images tell him about the children's perspectives of literacy. He replied, "literacy is local languages through chalk and global brands on the back of shirts. The children understand what's around them, regardless of where it comes from".
"What do these photos tell you about children's perspectives of literacy?", I asked a recipient of crowdfunding rewards I recently sent. He has them displayed on his fridge in Canberra.
"Belief in knowledge. Literacy as a way of improving quality of life in its most fundamental way. The enjoyment of a book, the ability to share experiences in written forms. The man reading the book looks engrossed in it. The person practicing writing (latin characters) amidst a dust or concrete floor is animated, in motion. Conveys that writing is a part of life and an important one".
I ran a crowdfunding campaign early this year to support the exhibition of 28 photographs taken by out of school children in northern Ghana. These photographs are part of my doctoral research data, one aspect of which is exploring how literacy can travel via photographs.
In 2012, UNICEF Australia published the photographs of five out of school children I worked with in northern Ghana. I piloted a participatory M&E method that involved asking children to document their everyday lives with digital cameras. In 2016, I'm at the final stage of my PhD that was inspired by these children and their unique perspectives on everyday life, schooling and literacy. Facebook reminded me of this "memory" from four years ago. I had almost forgotten about some of these photographs, but not the memory that launched my PhD research topic for which I just finished my Completion Seminar; the penultimate event before submitting.
This post was first published in The Conversation Africa
Researchers know very little about the daily lives and education of children who are excluded from formal schooling. According to UNESCO’s definition of “out of school” these children are never expected to enrol, have dropped out or are expected to enrol later in formal schooling.
But a case study in Ghana suggests that there may be a different way of considering notions of literacy and schooling.
This is important because goals set for universal primary educationunder the Millennium Development Goals have not been achieved. What to do about this was discussed at the recent 2015 World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea where delegates mapped out the world’s educational agenda for the next 15 years.
A Ghanaian story
In Ghana, 80% of school-aged children are enrolled in primary school. This leaves up to one million children between the ages of six and 14 recorded as “out of school”.
Savelugu is a big country town about 650km north of Ghana’s capital city. The major - and only - highway to Burkina Faso splits the town in half. More than 97% of the area’s residents are small-scale farmers. Savelugu is considered a deprived district because it performs poorly against a number of key development indicators. The 2014 UNICEF Ghana District League Table ranked Savelugu 138th out of the West African country’s 216 districts.
A few kilometres from Savelugu’s town centre are the small communities of Botingli and Bunglung. Every morning the villages' children work on farms and do household chores. They also learn the Qur'an. They do not attend formal public school. Most never have and the rest dropped out during their early years.
But on four or five afternoons a week, 25 children in each community make their way into a classroom in twos and threes. During these lessons, which last for about three hours, children are taught numeracy and literacy in their mother tongue, Dagbanli.
The afternoon classes are part of a nationwide program called Complementary Basic Education. International donors, the government of Ghana and non-government organisations are working together to oversee and implement CBE for 200 000 children who don’t attend formal school. The programme aims to provide flexible and accelerated literacy and numeracy schooling to out-of-school children over the course of nine months.
Once they have completed the programme, children are encouraged to enter or re-enter public schooling at either Grade 4, 5 or 6 level. Children can achieve similar learning outcomes in nine months that their peers achieved in three to four years of formal schooling. This is a huge saving in opportunity costs to parents and families living in poverty.
Literary practices in the frame
For two weeks in February and March of 2015, 10 children from Botingli and Bunglung were invited at random to participate in a PhD research project. They were asked to document their literacy practices using digital cameras. More than 4000 images were captured by the ten children. These offer some fascinating insights and challenge long-standing notions of what it means to be literate or illiterate and out of school.
The children participate in emergent and complex literacy practices across three languages. From Qur'anic Arabic to Dagbanli, they are formally learning two languages through informal programmes. Children in Bunglung are also exposed to English language learning texts and material because there is a public school in their village.
It is also fascinating to see that their informal learning looks and feels very formal. They complete homework, study with their peers outside the time allotted for Complimentary Basic Education lessons and teach their brothers and sisters. They write on walls in their own homes as a form of note-taking.
This form of learning is shaped by social and cultural forces within the community. The curriculum and textbooks use Dagbanli names for characters. At the same time, it is a patchwork of global influences: this programme wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the millennium development goals which channelled much-needed funding and placed universal primary education at the top of the global education agenda.
The children are far from uneducated. In two weeks they produced a rich and thoughtful set of photographs. The data set is full of behind the scenes images of children reading and writing at home, daily life and classroom scenes. The children are creative, bright and motivated. They can read, write and complete arithmetic.
The children of Botingli and Bunglung may have much to teach us about rethinking ideas of literacy and schooling. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeing these as static, uniform concepts and start exploring them as fluid, mobile and flexible.