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Using existing cultural artifacts to illustrate the relevance of mathematics to disadvantaged children

Rutindo School demystifies the importance of maths to children by developing and teaching a curriculum based on cultural artifacts.

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What problem does your innovation solve?

In rural East Africa, Maths is traditionally viewed as a "hard, difficult and elitist" subject. The complex concepts and theories of maths, mean that the slow learners or the disadvantaged (many times the disabled, girls, and children in poverty or war-torn area) struggle to understand the subject. Furthermore girls are at times distracted from concentration by home chores, family obligations etc. Over the years, girls in rural schools have come to distance themselves from the subject.

Explain your innovation.

Even if they are not going to school, children in rural East Africa make cultural artefacts. Many of these cultural artefacts are intrinsically very mathematical. Examples of crafts and trades include: - Hair Braiding - Making Mats - Weaving baskets - Knitting Table clothes - Making dolls, balls - Cultural dance Janet Kaahwa, PhD (Director, Rutindo School) has done extensive research on girls and maths, popularisation of maths, and maths in culture, in Uganda. Background: Numbers, counting and maths is a part of life, and without this basic knowledge, a child will go through life at a disadvantage. In urban areas children start gaining these skills at the ages 4, 5, and 6, unlike those in emergency settings. Even if a student from an emergency setting manages to make it through to secondary or university level, a majority fail to cope with new advanced maths and gain little academically. Many others are made to repeat classes for years. Some opt to drop out of school after a few years in school. Most do not even attempt maths. In communities affected by drought, displacement, conflict, etc, an easy and available approach to teaching numbers, counting and maths is to use culture; a free resource that surrounds us. These homes in emergency settings all have a bit of culture surrounding them. Rutindo Schools will ask parents and students to bring these artifacts to class. In the process the community is propagating both culture and maths. LOWCOST. SUSTAINABLE

Who benefits?

Currently Rutindo is teaching 200 children in North West Uganda. Many factors have hampered education in Pakanyi area, Miirya sub-county, Masindi district. One major factor is poor numeracy and literacy skills among primary school children. These are children from mainly peasant families which earn less than 1 dollars a day, usually from farming. Most children are between the ages of 3 to 16. Girls account for 40%. Projections: We plan to expand the program to reach 500 more children, classified in age brackets for grouped lessons. We will have a special remedial class for girls to encourage participation. The target is girls from disadvantaged homes; homes that are poverty stricken, warn-torn, displaced, in drought. Northern Uganda has seen an influx of distraught families fleeing the insecurity in South Sudan. This is in addition to the already existing struggling families who were displaced and destabilised by the brutal 20-year long civil conflict in Northern Uganda.

How is your innovation unique?

This approach uses already existing aids (culture is all around us). It is therefore a welcome route for families and communities to support heritage, preserve good traditions and strengthen culture. This encourages support from local leaders. It also builds a sense of ownership and a feeling of participation by the families. This in-turn makes the project sustainable. This approach is also a low-cost route because many artifacts are made from local and free resources. For example a ball from banana leaves, a mat from papyrus, braiding your own hair. Furthermore, there is the secondary benefit of passing on a skill or trade of craft making. This could turn build entrepreneurial ideas and opportunities in children. But perhaps the best advantage of culture is the simplicity and ease with which it illustrates particularly difficult maths / concepts: it makes maths a fun game, a joy, a basket, a hair piece, a clothe, a dance... (the child now realises why it is important).

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

We are trying to modularise the lesson plans, so that they can be adapted to any region, without spending alot to research new cultures. We are re-structuring our model to adapt to new regions. We also seek to further understand the root causes better: 1) Most students aspire to prestigious professions such as doctor, lawyer, engineer, accounts etc. Many frown on the teaching profession. Because of this, we have ended up with teachers who resorted to the teaching profession as a third or fourth option (when all else failed). They, therefore, lack the passion and zeal to teach, let alone effectively communicate maths. 2) Another mind boggling trend is that many girls literally fear mathematics. Many think it is the preserve for boys.

Tell us more about you.

Rutindo is a Nursery and Primary school with over 200 children, in North Western Uganda. Our funding is generated mainly through the modest fees we charge parents and some donations. The core team - Director: Dr. Janet Kaahwa - Mathematics researcher and Advocate for girl-child education. Director: Dr. Yusto Kaahwa - Physics professor Headteacher: Harriet Birungi Creative Director: Andrew Amara - Development specialist and Project Planner Lubandi Anthony - Head of Accounts and Audit

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster
  • Prolonged displacement
  • Extreme drought

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

This idea has been developed particularly for - the rural settings where the usually mandatory teaching-resources are meagre - the context of displacement (perhaps due to war or conflict) which does not afford the luxury of calm teaching environment with the right teaching aids. - the context of natural disasters such as drought or floods. These emergency settings present little formal aids, classroom space, chalk or desks. However culture artifacts are ever present even in distress.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

The Model is to spread a new teaching approach through a series of compact lesson plans. Pilot A will be run in Pakanyi, Masindi District Pilot B will be run in Kiryandongo and Bweyale districts in North West Uganda. (Both have seen an influx of families displace by conflict or drought or poverty) The 2nd phase would be conducted in selected camps of refugees from Southern Sudan, through partnerships with NGO in Gulu. Scaling up of the project will be to displacement camps in the region

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

Some partners include: - Pakanyi Local Council: Local leaders - Masindi District: District authorities - Ministry of Education - Makerere University: Academicians doing related research at the university - Town Build Limited: Private sector development company - Walyoba Church and St. Pauls Pakanyi Church - Individual donors from UK We are furthermore seeking participation of interested teachers at a subsidised cost, and using learning venues that are donated by the communities.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

The founders and school leaders are education professionals and academics at the country's best University. Dr. Janet Kaahwa's career and research has focused on mathematics education and the girl child. She has author the popular maths textbook for O-level secondary school, SMEA. Rutindo School has over 8 years experience in educating underprivileged children. The proposed project will be implemented by the team of teachers and co-ordinators at Rutindo, along with several local partners.

Innovation Maturity

  • Early Stage Innovation: I am exploring my innovation, refining, researching, and gathering inspiration.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered for-profit company (including social enterprises).

Organization Location

Masindi District, Uganda


How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

FLEXIBILITY: We are going to include an assessment module in the program at various stages, in order to gauge the arithmetic skills and deficiencies of children as they progress. This will inform us on how to adjust the teaching aids to suit the different learn levels & children. INTERACTIVE: The curriculum will be developed to be engaging, and interactive so as to maintain the enthusiasm & interest of both teachers and children. Created objects could be sold as incentives/rewards.

Who will implement this Idea?

Program Manager - Andrew Amara (Profession: Development specialist and Project Manager) Program Co-ordinator - Rwabusaiga Tadeo (Statistician) Program Co-ordinator - Harriet Birungi (Head teacher) Maths Teachers: - Aganira Florence - Jowala Katusabe - Kyalisima Sharon - Ngonzebwa Irene - Wabyona Samuel - Mugidde Lorna Program Development Team: Dr. Janet Kaahwa - Maths & Girls Researcher Dr. Yusto Kaahwa - Physics Professor Harriet Busingye - Governance & Legal Expert Anthony Lubandi - Auditor, Accounts James Alituhikya - Technology Expert Esther Kantate - Child education

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

Teachers: Ms Birungi a maths teacher: "Absenteeism interrupts the progress of learning. One day the child will come to school. the next day he will be absent. ... secondly, the pay for teachers is low in relation to the personal needs of a teacher" Ms. Katusabe: "...many children find difficulty in interpreting words/sentences and identifying figures/numbers: this points to a poor foundation." System-level challenges: Ms. Kyalisima: "We lack many fornal maths instruments: chalk board campus, long ruler, protractor, set square. We have to improvise with little means." Some of the children we interviewed believe that mathematics is hard (sometimes because of parents assumptions, teachers' attitude or performance in class).

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

Currently we collect modest fees from parents, which we use to cover the operation expenses. FINANCIAL: For the proposed program, - we will charge parents a small fee, - some artifacts can be sold for revenue - build partnerships with local vocational schools, universities, potential employers and private sector who could fund scholarships. CONTENT To maintain quality of the program - enthusiastic teachers/school are identified and inducted to champion the program - networks with ministry and schools will be developed so that the program is incorporated into mainstream teaching

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

IMPACT: Improve the maths competence of 2,500 children in 50 schools across Uganda, while equipping 200 teachers with new skills-set for interactive, culture-based curriculum through our program by 2021. QUESTION: How do we scale the program to multiple schools in East Africa region, while maintaining the quality of the curriculum, and robustness of the interactive model? How do we modularise the lesson plans in formats where we do not spend alot of time to customise it in different regions?

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

1. Qualitative Assessment with surveys and interviews on children, teachers and parents at the start, mid-way and end of the 3 month program. 2. Review of maths performance results in national exams. Long term KPI +3 years and social indicators on progress: 3. Number of school dropouts 4. Number of secondary school admissions 5. Number of university admissions 5. Number of employed youth

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Year 1 Month 1-6 Curriculum Development Month 6-9 Pilot A in Masindi Month 9-12 Pilot B in Masindi Year 2 Month 1-6 Revisions to the Curriculum Month 6-9 Program in Bweyale District Month 6-9 Program in Kiryandongo District Year 3 Months 1 - 12 Scaling up of the program to the North Uganda region and Refugee camps.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Under $50,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • Between 10-20 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are registered in all countries where we plan to implement.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • More than 2 years

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Development / Partnerships Support
  • Business Model Support
  • Product Design


Join the conversation:

Photo of andrew

Hi calistus
Thanks for the support.
We hope you will continue to give us feedback through the project

Photo of Calistus

Dear Andrew,
This is a wonderful approach and it will be forever in the memory of these children. I am happy for you. Congratulations!

Photo of andrew

@gilda Thanks

Photo of Gilda Given Silayo


Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Andrew and Team!

We’re excited to share feedback and questions from our experts with you. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your Idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your Idea. Your idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

Based on your knowledge and experience, is this a new approach or bold way of answering the challenge question?

One expert shared, “Math is not often taught in applied ways. I am enthused to see this approach being taken in an education in emergencies setting. I believe it is something that can be incorporated into existing school structures and lessons and improve the learning of students.”

Is this idea human-centered?
“This idea clearly aims to meet the needs of students who are struggling with the traditional method of teaching maths, by providing them a way to connect with it that they are more likely to understand. I think the pilot model is most likely successful because the teachers are on-board with the idea, but that expanding this style of teaching requires enthusiasm and interest from those who will be teaching the new style of lesson. I think if schools (formal and otherwise) with interested teachers can be found then this idea is very viable, especially if condensed into a series of lesson plans/ideas that can be easily distributed.”

Expert’s thoughts on your business model:
The idea in its current form appears to be low cost, and funded by Ministry of education, and donors from the UK? There is no mention of whether the current funding model will continue to fund and maintain the expansions. However, if it can be delivered in a low-cost method to be implemented by teachers already working, it may be readily funded by local universities/governments/donors. Would like to learn more.”

Final thoughts and questions:
Do you measure the impact on outcomes your lessons have on the children in your pilot? If so, how do you do it and what have been some of the outcomes? If not, why not and would you consider it? If you only use materials that are already being made in that local community, how do you propose to expand readily without spending a long time researching each particular region to tailor the lessons? Is there a better method in order to scale?

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - August 6 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your idea on the OpenIDEO platform.

Have questions? Email us at

Looking forward to reading more and thank you for the important work you are doing!

Photo of andrew

Thank you for the very insightful feedback.

We were able to go back to the local communities in Masindi Pakanyi and review and refine several areas of our idea. Below are some improvements and strategies we have incorporated in our proposal.

1. Is this idea human-centered?
In order to build and encourage "enthusiasm and interest from those who will be teaching the new style of lesson" we have introduced several points of motivation.
- the teachers are to be further involved in the program development cycle
- the teachers stand to benefit from the proceeds of revenues both from the parent fees and sales from some of the artifacts made during the program.
- the teachers will be regionally recognised with awards and special mention,
- when students' performance in exams improves, the teachers stand to gain credit for the success.

2. Revised Model:
Secondly we have revised our model, into a format where we are developing modularised lesson plans that can easily be adapted to different regions during the time of scaling up. This will me, we will do more ground work now, to include flexibility in the lesson delivery. We are also allowing for changes and adaptation in the content depending on the region and the aptitude of the children in the various regions.

3. Funding and Sustainability:
Currently most of our funding is through modest school fees paid by the parents.
In order to extend this program's reach to disadvantaged families that may not be able to afford, we have the following strategies:
- artifacts made during the program, can be sold for a revenue
- We are building partnerships with the local universities, potential employers and the professionals from the affected regions, in order to generate extra scholarships for students.

Likewise, we are stripping the costs down by using free locally available resources and natural materials from the gardens and fields, to make the cultural artifacts for teaching.
In the Scaling-Up phase are also seeking participation of teachers at a subsidised cost, and using learning venues that are donated by the communities.

4. Measuring impact:
We use the following tools.
- Qualitative Assessment with surveys and interviews on children, teachers and parents at the start, mid-way and end of the 3 month program.
- Review of maths performance results in national exams.

Long term KPI +3 years and social indicators on progress:
- Number of school dropouts
- Number of secondary school admissions
- Number of university admissions
- Number of employed youth

Some of the indicators of our impact has been, the growth in our student numbers by 350% over the last 3 years. Performance of the students has greatly improved: Our School was the best in the County in the last academic year. We now send over 50% of our students to institutions of higher learning.

Photo of Kathryn Zaniboni

Dear Andrew, I LOVE this approach! As a female engineer who sees math everywhere, I love that you are helping change the mindset around math. There would be some really great partners for this once you get going - two that come to mind is a professor out of Stanford who's mission is to change this mindset (google youcubed) and I'm currently in NYC on business and they have an amazing "Museum of Mathematics" which has so many great curators around having young learners see the math visually in our world around, I would love to see this project supported and be able to leverage all the amazing resources out there to scale this and help you test out lots of concepts. Woman use math everyday and they don't realize it. I love the idea of empowering them with all that they already know, see, and do everyday! Best of luck! - Katie

Photo of andrew

Dear katie,
Thank you for the feedback. Yes indeed, it is fascinating that maths is apart of our everyday lives, and that we do not have to look far to find local ways of sharing these interesting concepts with children who are disadvantaged ... more so rural girls.

Your enthusiasm has greatly encouraged us all here at Rutindo School.
I am going to try and get into with the Stanford professor and explore possibilities on partnership. We look forward to continuing this discussion in-depth with you ...