I Want to Learn: Mateus’s Story

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How One Boy Refused to Let COVID-19 Stop Him From Learning

Mateus spends his mornings sweeping and doing chores around his family’s home. With schools still closed in Mozambique due to COVID-19, he’s stuck at home. When he finishes his chores, he runs inside, opens up his exercise book, and sits down in front of the TV. But he’s not watching cartoons. He’s watching TELESCOLA, a remote learning program that’s helping 1.2 million kids across Mozambique keep up with their classes while schools are closed.

Mateus is 10 years old and in 5th grade. He lives in a small town in Maputo with his family, and he loves school. He particularly enjoys learning Portuguese (Mozambique’s official language) because the teacher uses word games and other fun exercises after being trained by Right To Play. He’s also excited for how progressing through school will open up a world of possibilities for his future in a country where only 46% of students complete primary school. But school closures from COVID-19 placed all of that in jeopardy.

5th grade is important for students in Mozambique because it’s when they write exams that determine whether they continue onto the next phase of their schooling. Mateus was confident he would pass – and then COVID-19 shut his school down. Mateus’s exams were postponed until they reopened, whenever that would be.

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Mateus loves school, but COVID-19 closures have put his plans to write his exams on hold.

It took only a few days before the fun of staying home from school turned into boredom, anxiety, and frustration. To keep him busy, his parents assigned him chores around the home. But in the back of Mateus’ mind, he was thinking about his exams. Every day he was out of school was a day that his skills at math and reading were growing rustier. The longer he was out of school, the less and less likely a pass would be.

Interrupted learning is behind thousands of dropouts each year in sub-Saharan Africa. Boys and girls miss school for different reasons, but the effect is the same for both – they begin to fall behind their peers, and the sense of progress that keeps them going fades away. The longer their learning is interrupted for, the greater the erosion of their academic skills from lack of practice, and the less likely they are to ever return to school.

“I was worried about not knowing if we would be able to go back to school because this year 5th grade students have exams” – Mateus, Grade 5

This problem predates COVID-19, but it has grown to catastrophic proportions because of pandemic-related school closures. Educational experts estimate that over 24 million children worldwide have dropped out of schools due to COVID-19 disruption of schooling. Most of these children are concentrated in countries where few families have internet connections and remote learning options are limited or unavailable to the poor.

Mateus is one of the 1.5 billion children around the world who found their educations on hold and at risk. Like many others in rural Mozambique, his family doesn’t have a computer in the home, so taking lessons online was impossible. That’s where the TELESCOLA program came in.

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TELESCOLA is a collaboration between Right To Play and the Government of Mozambique that’s providing televised lessons that help primary school students at home continue to learn. It uses active and engaging exercises to teach young children core academic skills from Mozambique’s national curriculum in their own homes.

The program uses play and specially-designed activities to engage young students who struggle with more traditional methods of lecturing and to overcome the boredom and distraction that many children feel during remote learning.

Right To Play was chosen to design the curriculum because of our extensive experience and long partnership with the Mozambique government training teachers to use similar play-based methods in Mozambican schools. That partnership meant a rapid turn-around, so that students like Mateus weren’t left waiting for months but could immediately resume their studies.

Shortly after the launch of the program, Mateus’s parents heard about it through a radio broadcast. Mateus was excited, and he begged his parents to let him watch and follow along.

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“After listening to those messages, my parents started to let me watch the TELESCOLA program every morning,” he says. He jumped at the chance to keep studying, even though his parents weren’t sure how school could work without a teacher’s direct supervision. They got him an exercise book and a few pencils so he could work through the questions TELESCOLA posed each day.

An important part of the TELESCOLA program is setting up remote networks between teachers and parents. While most households in Mozambique do not have the internet, mobile phones are common. They allow parents to connect with teachers to make sure students like Mateus are hitting their educational goals and to get support if students have questions their parents can’t help them with.

“My parents saw that I wrote down my questions and helped me answer what they could. The questions they didn't get, they texted to my teacher and he explained through short videos. The teacher always wrote that I was doing well and I should continue to study.”

TELESCOLA continued over the summer, and into the new school year. Schools remain closed, so Mateus has not yet written his exams, but the anxiety he felt during those first listless days has fallen away, and he’s been imbued with a new confidence and dedication. He’s still watching TELESCOLA every weekday and diligently practicing the exercises. Even though he’s not sure when he will be back in class to write the exam, he says “I am happy that I am able to keep studying at home, I am sure I will have good grades when we get back to school.”

In 2018, Right To Play launched the Gender Responsive Education and Transformation (GREAT) program with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Active in three countries, Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda, GREAT uses Right To Play's play-based learning approach to remove barriers to education, especially for girls, and to build teacher capacity to improve learning outcomes.