Five things I learned in Gambia

As part of his role at Colfe’s School, Andrew Foster, Head of Education with Tougher Minds, accompanied a group of pupils on a half-term trip to Gambia. In this blog, he gives his impressions of the visit and of the importance of education in the small West African country. He also explains how he found the opportunity to pass on some Tougher Minds techniques for improving learning.

Five things I learned in Gambia


Gambia has a population similar in size to that of West Yorkshire and a GDP equivalent to that of the market town of Ossett.

A young nation in two senses, gaining independence in 1964 and with a median age under 20, most Gambians I have met are very aspirational, both for themselves and the country. And almost unanimously, they recognise education as the means to achieve their aims.

I have been fortunate enough to travel to Gambia on five occasions and I am writing this in the departure lounge of Banjul Airport after another amazing week spent with our friends at Kotu Senior Secondary School. You can read more about the fantastic partnership that they have formed with Colfe’s School here, but what follows are five observations based on my experiences this week and previous visits that I hope will be of interest to teachers everywhere.

1. Gambian pupils know where they want to go

Every time I have asked a Kotu pupil what they want to do when they are older, they have had a clear idea of a career and how they intend to pursue it. This contrasts with my experience of some of their UK counterparts, who often feel comfortable abdicating responsibility with a “don’t know” all the way up to and through the UCAS process. This is something we can and should address.

2. Playing the hand they are dealt
Opportunities for young Gambians are more limited than those available to even the most deprived children in the UK. The impact of the Ebola scare (Gambia saw no incidence of the disease whatsoever) on trade, particularly tourism, has exacerbated that situation. However, the pupils I have spoken to clearly regard this as all the more reason to excel at school to give themselves a better chance of being able to support their families in the future.

3. Chalk and talk
Kotu pupils regularly sit in lessons of an hour and twenty minutes, the single activity of which is the teacher explaining the content of the lesson from the front of the room. The teachers make fantastic efforts to engage the pupils throughout, but this is always limited by the sheer numbers in the classroom, often in excess of seventy with three to a desk. These pupils are not biologically different to those in the UK and yet they exhibit fantastic behaviour for learning even as the lecture enters its second hour and the temperature in the room pushes towards forty.

4. An appetite for innovation
While Kotu pupils may demonstrate great control of their outward behaviour, those that I spoke to reported difficulty maintaining concentration and recalling all the detail that they have been taught. For this reason, it was really pleasing to be able to share with them some of the simple, effective techniques that I have learned through my work with Tougher Minds to assist them.

Asking my History class to walk around the quad twice partway through the lesson helped to demonstrate the importance of low-intensity exercise to healthy brain function. And allowing pupils time between ten minute bursts of explanation to write, reflect, self-test and ask questions is something that I know my friend and colleague at Kotu, Muhammed Jobarteh, is increasingly incorporating into his teaching. Pupils stayed long into their break to ask further questions of he and I regarding my presentation on how the brain learns and effective strategies for securing learning.

5. Common ground

Perhaps more than ever, Kotu and Colfe’s pupils formed friendships over the course of the week, supported by email exchanges that took place before the trip, coordinated by Kotu principal Lamin Sanyang and Colfe’s trip leader and pastoral deputy head Alison Cobbin. We as teachers recognise that school should be about more than academic achievement.
We want our pupils to have enjoyable social interactions with others. However, human beings and teenagers in particular being as they are, pupils often let anxiety prevent us from engaging with others. Teachers have a key role to play on breaking the ice, subtly, carefully, systematically and not just on trips such as these but within their own schools back at home. Because of Lamin and Alison’s work, bonds that might never have been made now stretch from South London to West Africa.

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