Digital Storytelling for Social Change

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Zanizibar, like a number of developing countries, sees English as one of the keys to increased economic development, in their case through tourism. However, sometimes the question has to be asked: At what cost? One group of high school students in Zanzibar turned to technology to answer that question.



In “Teens Make Film in Broken English to Explain Why They’ll Fail English,”1 Gregory Warner at NPR reported on Present Tense,2 a short film in which three high school students use digital storytelling to examine whether all classes, such as science, math, social studies, etc., should be taught only in English. The young filmmakers talk about the move from all-Swahili education in their primary school years to an all-English education often taught by teachers who have little competence in the language themselves. In their award-winning film, the young filmmakers argue that instead of giving them an edge with improved language skills, they are learning almost nothing at all, neither English nor the content they need.

It is not clear whether a change was made due to this film, but the government in Zanzibar has decided to change the all-English policy and return to using Swahili as “the language of instruction in government schools” and returning English to the status of a foreign language class.

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1 25 June 2015.
2 The story on the NPR website also has a link to the film.

4 Responses

  1. A reminder that the shortest distance between ignorance and knowledge is the learner’s own language.

  2. Recently, the XPRIZE Foundation began a global literacy XPRIZE. Their initial draft had everything being done in English regardless of the language spoken locally. I commented strongly that this approach made no sense at all. Their rationale for doing so was that learning English would be financially beneficial to the students and their countries. Learning to read and write English as supposed to be a great boon. I argued that this approach was not only incorrect but also demonstrated an arrogance and English chauvinism that would not stand the test of time.

    Another part of the rationale was that the judges would find judging easier English, the judges being all English-speaking, and that the entrants would also have an easier time of creating the software.

    How can you learn to read and write foreign characters in a foreign language that you do not speak? I felt it was ludricrous. I really do not know if my comments had any impact, but I do know that the foundation changed their rules to use the local language.

    I also argued that the entire efffort may be moot in the 4-5 year timeline because of rapidly improving translation capabilities and declining prices of Internet devices, but that’s not germane here.

    It’s clear that the situation in Zanzibar would improve were English taught earlier but without having to take classes entirely in English. Unfortunately, education is filled with similar stories unrelated to language: well-intentioned ideas that fall apart upon the application of minimal critical thinking.

  3. Harry,

    Your example is a great one. As you noted oftentimes the decision to use English is based on reasons that are not always in the users’ best interest.

    • As I indicated at the end of my comment, this issue transcends the use of English in Zanzibar. Well-intentioned introduction of various approaches to teaching often founder on the rocks of reality. Sometimes, the idea works on a small scale and is expanded until it fails.

      From my own field of science education, this problem was illuminated by Robert Yager (https://etcjournal.com/2013/02/04/robert-e-yager-discusses-hands-on-science-education/) recently. He pointed out that doing hands-on (wet) labs because they are hands-on leads to loss of learning, not improvement. Pushing ever more hands-on experiences into your curriculum fails to advance learning if you do not pay attention to the pedagogy and focus of these experiences. What good are numerous, mindless “cookbook” labs that only answer questions already answered or only develop skills with equipment never seen again in a student’s lifetime? What about experiments that fail to produce usable results 90% of the time?

      Many will suggest that you have to try out these ideas to see if they work. I suggest right back at them that they can apply a little critical thinking and so streamline the process.

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