Can a Tech Start-Up Successfully Educate Children in the Developing World?

After some uncertainty over whether to use ‘‘this’’ or ‘‘that,’’ the children began to dutifully respond. ‘‘This is a FEEEESH.’’

Nyambara pressed on, repeating the call-and-response five more times. ‘‘This is a FEESH. Now class?’’ Snap. ‘‘This is a FEESH,’’ responded the children, their voices moving from uncertainty to singsong, pleased to be catching on.

The curriculum transmitted into classrooms is one of the company’s main selling points to investors, many of whom see the establishment of a standard curriculum delivered through technology as a solution to struggling schools. In 2013 the company began hiring United States charter-school teachers in Cambridge, Mass., to write Bridge lessons that were then loaded onto the e-reader in East African classrooms each day.

The challenge for the American writers was to meet the curriculum set by the Kenyan government while also trying to improve the outcomes. ‘‘We found that teachers in Kenya were used to lecturing at the front of the classroom, and children were passive — they weren’t asking or even formulating questions,’’ says Michael Goldstein, a charter-school founder who worked as chief academic officer at Bridge from 2013 to 2016. ‘‘So in our lesson scripts, we tried to get away from long periods of teachers talking. In a typical Bridge lesson, the teacher reads the explanation for about 10 minutes, he cold-calls a student to check for understanding, he gets students to talk among themselves or work in groups for 20 minutes as the teacher moved between desks. What we are going for is active classrooms — and this is something really different for the children we serve.’’ During 2016, Bridge’s curriculum team pushed to learn from their results so far, poring over 10,000 photographs of lesson books in Kenya to see evidence of what teaching techniques are working best.

The e-reader all but guarantees that every instructor, despite his or her education or preparation level, has a lesson script ready for every class — an important tool in regions where teachers have few resources. But scripts can be confining, some teachers told me. And in some of the 20 or so Bridge classrooms I observed, pupils occasionally asked questions, but Bridge instructors ignored them. Teachers say that they are required to read the day’s script as written or risk a reprimand or eventual termination, and they do not have time to entertain…

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