Kizito Omala on Teaching at the Right Level in Uganda

Global Networks Program Associate Chelsea Downs talks with EASST Fellow Dr. Kizito Omala about his work to adapt Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) — a proven education program — for students in Uganda.

In the middle, Dr. Kizito Omala at Research Transparency Training in Uganda (Credit: Jayne Tusiime)

Thirteen years of teaching math and physics in the Ugandan public school system was more than enough for Dr. Kizito Omala to see that students weren’t getting the individualized attention they needed to succeed.

Now, as a full-time lecturer of Statistics at Makerere University and fellow of the East Africa Social Science Translation (EASST) collaborative, Dr. Omala is putting his training and passion to work by helping J-PAL and the Ugandan Ministry of Education improve learning outcomes for children in his home country.

The Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach, rigorously tested over many years in India, Kenya, Ghana, and Zambia, uses a simple assessment tool to group students according to learning level rather than age or grade, with consistently positive outcomes. With a Policy & Partnership Grant from EASST, Dr. Omala was able to work with J-PAL Africa and the Ministry of Education to adapt TaRL for the Ugandan context.

C: How did your experience as a teacher influence your decision to study learning outcomes?

K: Working in the Ugandan school system, you realize that children are promoted to the next grade as a group, yet there is no chance to follow up on those who are in need of specific attention. If classes are smaller or kids have the opportunity to be in classes at their learning level, educational outcomes will improve. By witnessing this first-hand as a teacher, I decided that this is a problem I wanted to focus on.

Children play a learning game in classroom in Zambia (Credit: Dr. Saint Kizito Omala)

C: How did you know that TaRL could be effectively scaled in Uganda?

K: To be able to “scale up” an intervention you have to understand whether the intervention actually fits in the new context. You have to take into account the interventions that are already in place in the country and ask yourself, how does this connect with the interventions we’ve already had? Since we already had a letter of support, we were able to interact directly with policymakers and incentivize them to move faster.

C: What are the next steps?

K: This last month we held a participatory workshop for key stakeholders and policymakers in Uganda, where we presented on TaRL and our support models to be piloted across selected districts. We got a positive reaction and a consensus from policymakers to move forward on the project. The next step is to meet with Twaweza’s Uwezo Initiative. The Uwezo team is interested in piloting the TaRL approach in Uganda. We are convinced that some evidence from Uganda will help us obtain buy-in from technocrats and other stakeholders, and also offer us a learning experience to inform the scale-up of context-specific interventions.

End of visit to a school in Zambia implementing TaRL by TaRL interest teams from Botswana, Uganda,J-Pal Africa and Zambia. (Credit: Dr. Saint Kizito Omala)

C: What advice would you give someone who wants to scale up an intervention that they have studied?

K: One must be interested in sustainability of scale-up; therefore, it is crucial to work within existing institutional structures. This demands networking, appreciating the context, and transparency to be able to identify persons within institutions who are intrinsically motivated to see change. Having a local collaborator within the target research area is fundamental to the success of a scale-up.

C: How has the EASST fellowship influenced you and your work?

K: I am completely different since the fellowship. I can see that EASST has widened my network and improved my teaching methods. Both the fellowship and my engagement with research transparency through the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences (BITSS) have changed the way I teach my students. To be able to express my research intention was a key skill I developed, as well as being able to engage with anyone — from professors to students to policy makers. In addition, I learned data management using contemporary techniques like dynamic documentation, and research workflow management tools like OSF. When I returned to Uganda I became a better teacher, modeling my style after Berkeley professors. I also became convinced that I should be teaching more than anything else, which is why I happily changed jobs from a data manager at our National Examinations Board to teaching statistics at Makerere University. Now I am engaging in research that informs policy.