Getting Education Right


The Problem with Education Volunteers

Typically education volunteers:

  • Only volunteer for one or two months
  • Have no teaching training
  • Have no teaching experience

This just makes it hard for them to have a meaningful impact on developing communities.

The temptation is just to get the volunteers into the environment and hope things will take care of themselves.

All too often, one of the following happens:

  • The volunteer takes over the classes from a local teacher.
    Even if the volunteer was the best teacher in the world, how much meaningful change is really made?  Not much.

    And why on earth should we be replacing a trained teacher with an untrained volunteer with no teaching experience?  It doesn’t make sense and smacks of colonialism: We can do it better than you because we’re from a developed country.

    It also tends to generate guilt in the local teachers.  The feel somehow that they are not doing their job right.  Many locals in developing countries are of the mistaken assumption that just because you are from a developed country that your somehow superior to them.  Replacing teachers with volunteers does nothing to help change this mindset.
  • Ad-hoc tutorial groups are formed
    Tutorial groups are better than just replacing a teacher.  Something more is added. 

    They are often geared towards the students that are struggling, which is a good thing.  

    The tutorial groups often take place during normal school hours and students are taken from their normal classes to attend the tutorial group.  Is this a good thing?  It is hard to know for sure, but it is difficult to imagine the student gaining meaningful benefits to her education.

    The tutorial groups tend to last for the duration of the volunteer’s stay and then dissolve.   Useful information like who the struggling students were, what worked, what didn’t, what resources were used and so on, are rarely passed onto future volunteers.  

    The wheel gets invented, and then the wheel gets invented again.

  • The volunteer becomes little more than a volunteer tourist.
    Sometimes there is a real mismatch between priorities. 

    Yes, we want to the locals to staff the schools: People in developing communities are the best people to help people in developing communities.  

    But, we also want to involve the volunteers as well: They paid good money to be here, so we better get them doing something.  That something often involves observing classes and marking the odd bit of homework here and there.
    Volunteers can make meaningful impacts, and just having them observe and mark amounts to little more than volunteer tourism.

  • Volunteer confusion. 
    “Heck.  What do I do now?” is a much uttered phrase when a volunteer arrives in a country.  

    The effort of the many volunteer placement companies is just to get the volunteer there.  Little thought goes into what will actually happen there.  

    The volunteer ends up lost, frustrated and confused.  They inevitably either “give up” and become a volunteer tourist, or try to set up some sort of tutorial group or income generating scheme.  More often than not, they are trying things that have been tried before and have failed due of lack of long term planning or poor communication between successive volunteers.  

    Their solutions inevitability last for the duration of their stay,

All these ad-hoc solutions are repeated time and time again across the volunteer world.  So, what can be done?

The Meaningful Volunteer approach to education

The following ideas underpin everything that we do here at Meaningful Volunteer.

Measure, measure and measure some more.

We might have the best ideas in the world; we might have the worst ideas in the world.  We think we have good ideas, but we don’t really know.

How can we find out?

Measure, measure and measure some more.Before an English program launches – for example – we will conduct an extensive survey of the target demographic to determine the level of their English competency.  The same survey will be given to the students participating in our program.

We will then try our solution over a period of time, and then repeat the surveys.If there is not a significant improvement of the students in our program when compared to those not in the program, then something needs to change.  We may completely rethink our philosophy.

Many of these programs will take place in RYE Schools.  If the RYE School is not providing a significantly better education to the participating students, then we may even go so far as closing the school.  That is how seriously we are committed to providing a meaningful change.

Detailed Class Information

The more information we can give volunteers, the better volunteers they will be. 

Detailed information will be kept on all classes.

Supplement when necessary.  Provide when necessary.

In the town of Mukono, Uganda there is the Nalusse Primary School.  The superstar at Nalusse is a wonderful woman called Nasubuga.  Nasubuga does her best to run the school put she is seriously understaffed and sometimes there is just no one to teach the classes.  In this type of situation, can set up a RYE School program to provide an education where none is available otherwise.

There are – of course – more extreme situations where there is no school whatsoever and children are denied even a basic education.  Once again, this is a situation where the RYE School setup can provide an education to children that would otherwise be denied.

Sometimes children do get to go to school and have some semblance of an education.  Too often the school is underfunded and under resourced.   Items as basic as chalk, chairs and textbooks are denied the teachers.  The brighter children still seem to manage, but the slower children struggle and eventually fall so far behind that they just give up.

In Mumbai and Valodara, India, remedial English and Math programs were setup to assist students struggling at school.  Each student received two hours of tutoring a day.  The programs increased the average test scores by 0.28 standard deviations in English and 0.47 standard deviations for Math.  A year after the tutoring, the initial gains retreated to a still highly respectable 0.10 standard deviations.

It is this approach that Meaningful Volunteer will take towards supplementary education.  It will provide additional tutoring and help to the students that are lost in the system.

Great resources

An average school can be made into a great school with the addition of great resources.  Meaningful Volunteer is committed to getting the best resources available into the hands of the students and teachers.  Click here - for example – to see the books that Meaningful Volunteer uses.

Train the volunteers before they arrive

Great resources are useless with adequate training.  Meaningful Volunteer provides in depth training for its entire book collection.  Click here for an example.  Volunteers can add additional information to the collection if they find any especially useful tricks.

Videos will be provided so that the volunteer can see a class in action.  (Videos coming soon!)

Ensure good communication between volunteers.

Volunteers inevitably learn many lessons during their placement – often as a result of mistakes.  This information is very useful to future volunteers.  All too often this information is lost. 

Meaningful Volunteer will require that all volunteer teachers create handover notes for each class that they teach.  This information will all be stored online and freely available to everyone.

Have the volunteers “meet” the students before they arrive

The more volunteers know about the students that they are teaching before they arrive, the more effective they will be as teachers. 

In depth information will be kept on every student attending a RYE School.   Once again, each volunteer will be required to create handover notes for each student detailing their strength and weaknesses.  This information will also be freely available online.

Break the language barriers

Even some rudimentary language skills can help increase the effectiveness of teaching.  Phrases such as “sit down”, “say after me” and “future tense” can be invaluable as part of a lesson.

Basic language lessons are provided to volunteers prior to their placement.

Have committed students

A well trained volunteer that is fluent in the community’s language and armed with fantastic resources is next to useless if the students themselves are not motivated.

This is one of the key ideas behind the philosophy of the RYE Schools.  It is important that students contribute something to their education.  Money is obviously hard to come by, so we insist that they pay in garbage.  If a student is prepared to put in a hard weekends work collecting garbage to earn enough labour for a terms worth of fees, then they obviously understand the importance of a good education.

This idea also helps us to identify areas where we can be most effective.  It is very hard to get slum kids who are working the begging circuit to commit to an education program.  They will point out the uselessness of an education when they can earn $10 a day by begging.


It is hoped that by bringing all these ideas together that will have a significant and meaningful educational impact on developing communities.

We will know if we are succeed or not by comparing before and after statistical information.