“Every day in my work I see teachers teaching in remote locations under extremely difficult conditions, often outdoors, with no resources, huge classes and often in dangerous conditions. These teachers are not only making a difference in education, but without them there would be no education for these children.” – Martha Hewison, Tanzania

Martha Hewison - Tanzania
Apr 25

As many of us wrestle with the challenges of integrating the latest technologies into our classrooms, it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture – how far we’ve come in education, and for some students, how far we still have to go. Martha Hewison, an education advisor with Save the Children of East Africa has seen first-hand the unmet basic needs of students in conflict zones, and she’s playing a critical role in addressing those needs. “Every day in my work I see teachers teaching in remote locations under extremely difficult conditions, often outdoors, with no resources, huge classes and often in dangerous conditions,” says Hewison. “These teachers are not only making a difference in education, but without them there would be no education for these children.”

A former teacher, Hewison was inspired to apply her knowledge, experience and passion for education to humanitarian efforts after a volunteer assignment in apartheid South Africa.  As a member of the Save the Children team and of the Inter-Agency Network Education in Emergencies (INEE), she helps to ensure that students have access to education, despite the staggering obstacles they face in conflict-ridden countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. Hewison notes, “I would like to think that my involvement in the INEE working group on education and fragility has contributed to the recognition of the importance of delivering education in these contexts and the development of tools to ensure that when we deliver education in conflict-affected fragile states we do so in a conflict-sensitive manner.”

In communities where camels serve as mobile devices and school fees are paid in goats, technology hasn’t yet become an everyday part of classroom learning. But with educators like Martha Hewison helping to ensure that learning is available to every child, we’re moving one step closer to closing the digital divide.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

Some 60 years ago in South Africa, members of the Anglican Church established a priory alongside the Jane Furse Memorial Hospital, and, alongside that, a small secondary school. When, in 1952, the apartheid government brought in the Bantu Education Act, the Anglican Church decided that it was better to close the school than to work with such a deceitful, discredited policy. However, that was not the end of the Jane Furse School.  In the 1980s the government of the day, still experimenting desperately with its apartheid philosophy, formed the so called self-governing states. Lebowa was one of them. One of the dispensations allowed these “states” was to found schools of their own. Accordingly the former students of the earlier Jane Furse School formed a committee and asked the Anglican Church to found a new independent school on its property in Jane Furse. This was St. Mark’s College.

I was drawn to work in the field of education after completing a year’s voluntary work as a teacher at this school in the late 80s during apartheid.  Although I was young, it had a huge influence on me and made me want to become a teacher. After teaching for several years I moved out of the classroom and into education work in the humanitarian world where I am today.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

Peter Anderson, the head teacher of the St. Marks College, made a difference in my education as he inspired me to do what I am doing now. Mrs. Haywood, my primary school teacher, also inspired me. It was my first experience of school and it was only positive.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Save The Children uses technology quite a lot in projects around the world. We have used mobile phones for teacher training and solar powered radios and MP3 players in pastoralist communities to allow children to listen to lessons whilst on the move. Technology in many of the places we work is not so appropriate but we have many innovations, including camel libraries in Ethiopia. Save the Children are working with their local partner to set up and run a mobile camel library service to deliver books and reading materials to communities in the Somali Region.

The camel is integral to life in the Somali Region, and is a natural way to deliver services as the library itself reflects the nomadic way of life of the region. The camel library consists of two camels, each equipped with two boxes full of books, mats and a tent structure. These are accompanied by a librarian and a camel herder. As the library arrives in a community, the books and other items are unloaded, the tent is pitched and the books are then displayed on the mat. A floor mat is also provided as sitting space for those who wish to browse the materials. Children arrive with the book that they borrowed on the last visit, and their library registration card; they then choose a new book to borrow and read. The librarian stays with the community overnight, giving plenty of time to share the books with the children and adults, read stories, and promote a love of reading.

In Somalia, due to the big number of children who are out of school in the district, coupled with high poverty levels, Save The Children initiated an innovative way of financing basic education. It was agreed that if a parent cannot afford school fees, then each year he/she gives the school one goat for one child to go to school. The goats donated to the school eventually reproduce and increase in number. The school sells out these goats to raise money to pay teacher incentives, buy teaching materials and meet other operational costs. This not only increases income for the Community Education Committees (CEC’s) to run the schools sufficiently, but most significantly increases access to education for poor and marginalized children.

South Sudan Save The Children implements an accelerated learning program for children and youth that have missed out on their education due to the conflict. This is the regular primary education condensed into half the time so students can cover two years in one and catch up with their education.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

Not so much an innovation but a change in thinking. In my context, the support and recognition of the importance of ensuring education continues in an emergency or in delivering education in conflict- affected, fragile contexts (though still not enough) is a positive trend; the change of focus from creating access to education to the focus on quality and on ensuring children are learning is a positive shift.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

Critical thinking – if children can think critically, if a society can think critically, it will really make a difference.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

A book and a pencil, or basic teaching and learning materials (that’s more than one!) — whatever the tools are to allow children to learn and teachers to teach. In many countries, especially those affected by conflict, children and teachers lack these basic resources. More widely, I would give children the tools to access education in some of the hardest to reach places in the world.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

The East Africa region in general has done well in creating access and increasing enrollment for the majority of children through free primary education. Excluding South Sudan and Somalia many have surpassed the 100 percent gross enrollment rate for primary school.

How must education change in your region to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

Now the issues lie with retention: how many children actually complete their primary education, how many transition to secondary school, and do children actually learn at school? The quality of education in the region is low with extremely low literacy and numeracy rates among primary school students.  Education must change to focus on retention, quality and transition but also look at issues of inclusion- which children are not accessing education?  We must consider those children who are outside the main stream (marginalized children, ethnic minorities, those from different language groups and disabled children or those with learning difficulties).

To donate to Save The Children, or to help fund a camel library, click here.

About Martha Hewison

  • Birthplace: UK
  • Current residence: Tanzania
  • Education: Masters of Science in Emergency and Devolvement Practices and Bachelors of Education- Primary
  • Website I check every day: I don’t!
  • Person who inspires me most: In the countries I work in I am inspired when I see children, especially girls, against all odds walking to school in the mornings. It reinforces their commitment to education and the importance that children place on going to school. That inspires me.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Swimming in the river where I grew up.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): South Sudan (work!)
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? About five minutes ago… a colleague walked in and made me smile.
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Not sure — I receive a lot!
  • Your favorite quote or motto: ‘’Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

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