Karima Grant

Ashoka Fellow
Senegal
Fellow since 2015
This description of Karima Grant's work was prepared when Karima Grant was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .

Introduction

Karima is changing the educational system in Senegal by using an approach of creativity and self-reliance. She is popularizing the integration of knowledge, turning various subjects into games, especially with math. She makes learning more enjoyable by reinventing it through a sequence of games connected to the local context of the child. In turn, she makes education the personal development of children which empower them to reach their own visions and goals.

The New Idea

Karima Grant’s passion is modifying aspects of a system whose stakeholders are tied to paradigms that cannot support nor promote innovative thinking. She is convinced that creativity will make the future school alumni empowered in the job market and happier in life. Karima believes that with creativity everything can be transformed into games. She proposes another model empowering children to be creative, and finding their own ways to be changemakers. Through creative and educational programs, she is creating learning spaces where children experience themselves as active learners and producers of new, valuable knowledge through playing. She is using hands-on playing and experiential learning to spread her educational approach into fun games and role playing.

Karima's goal is to create a time when every school sets its own curriculum and each teacher defines his/her own working methodology based on play and creativity. Thus with her team she is developing initiatives that inspire teachers to be innovative and to make materials for reinforcing mathematical thinking. For example, she initiated Marche Math Project to strengthen the math skills of primary school students by revision of the spaces and cultural practices through the replica of a Senegalese market. To reach a majority of schools, she launched the strategy through nomads who have access to distance schools through their caravans. She involves children, teachers and other facilitators in these programs. She is also building a cohort of teachers who go on to train more teachers on how to revolutionize the curriculum.

The Problem

As for many African countries, in order to improve the quality of and access to education, Senegal has allocated 25% of the national budget to the education field. After massive changes in the national educational program, 2013 saw the first class of students sit for the end of primary school certification exams. It was a disaster: in Dakar (the capital) only 42% of candidates passed and in some regions outside of Dakar, only 14% of candidates were admitted.

The reasons for the poor test scores were attributed to inadequate teacher training (some reports saying they received only 7 days of training on this broad educational reform) and a lack of resources. The most damning factor is the one which remains largely unconsidered - the unchanged paradigm on the purpose of education. This includes the kinds of learners and students African countries need for development as well as the people who are responsible for providing the education.

There have been many noteworthy attempts to rethink education and society. In 2012, USAID led an initiative that produced a private/public sector partnership. Additionally, to better align themselves with the multi-lingual realities of children, a handful of national actors (including ARED, SIL, and Christian Education) have begun to innovate in their approaches to education through the integration of local languages either wholly or in conjunction with French language instruction. These efforts represent subtle paradigm shifts - powerful entry points for conversations on how children learn best, and what kind of learners we want to produce for the 21st century. These efforts also begin to hint at understanding children as whole, individual beings who are not separate from their culture and society. Furthermore, it is beginning to shift the focus to how both culture and society can and must become vehicles for learning and education.

Current attempts aim at modifying aspects of a system whose stakeholders are tied to paradigms that cannot support nor promote innovative thinking. Education for sustainable development must integrate understandings of how children learn best and what kind of learners the system wants to nurture.

The Strategy

After the release of her book Sofie and the City in 2007, the British Council approached Karima with a proposal to lead an exhibition for children. She replied with a counter proposal to set up a workshop with children on how to produce a book where they talk about their own country. This allows the children to share their world with someone else. Despite the objections from some teachers, Karima had faith that the children were writers and had something to say. For three days, she organized a series of successful writing and illustrating workshops and guided them through the creative process of research, drafting, editing, illustrating and publishing. She enabled 40 young authors (ages 6-9) from the Dakar Fass neighborhood to publish their first book and held an exhibition in central Dakar which hosted 2,000 visitors. The children's self-esteem and new found confidence transformed their relationship with books. This made her realize the need for these types of spaces where children can engage in creative and critical thinking processes - a place where children’s own knowledge could emanate from the basis for discovery. The success of this first attempt motivated her to design a project in which children are involved and lead other children to come and see what has been achieved as well as interact with each other. She realized for the first time that they have to change the process to involve children. This is where the idea to create ImagiNation Afrika came from.

After the registration of her organization ImagiNation Afrika, Karima decided to start a program with a small fractal assembly activity with children from 6 primary schools, with the objective to facilitate their understanding in geometry. Positive feedback from their teachers led Karima to create an exhibition that many people visited. In 2013, Karima implemented the program "Ker Imagination” (House of imagination) to host exhibitions. This was a major source of strengthening the philosophy of discovery and playing. She initiated a project to get children to better understand migration and the contributions of migrants to their host community. It was based on the idea that African children's understanding of immigration was being shaped by biased media coverage that was not looking at migration as a result of complex forces and causes. At the time (2012), Mali was beginning to experience political upheaval. It became clear for Karima that the once vibrant history of Mali would succumb to a narrative of a “failed state” with many people leaving Mali as immigrants. She designed a research project with high school students and boys from a homeless shelter to explore and understand how Malian culture 'migrated' to Senegal, thereby influencing it. The following 7 months consisted of various hands on activities, games centered on discovery and imagination, multimedia training, and powerful conversations about the importance of tolerance and global diversity. This culminated in an exhibition called “Itinerary” with photos and a short film. This became the first exhibition created by and for the children of Senegal. Initially starting in Dakar, the show started with nearly 2000 visitors in a 3 week period. It eventually moved to 4 other regions offering the opportunity to more children, parents, schools and community associations to have a more objective picture of immigration. Teachers expressed positive interest in this innovative way of teaching and Karima offered them training and a toolkit containing the interdisciplinary approach, field visits and participatory research methods.

The exhibition hosted a station called “Market” to show one of the activities developed by Malian immigrants in Senegal. Karima noticed that it was mostly visited by children who ended up simulating bargaining. These observations lead to the Marche Math Project to help children, particularly those from poor communities who had problems with basic math’s functions to develop mathematical thinking as opposed to memorizing mathematical facts. After studying the Senegalese elementary school math’s program, Karima could see the overlaps with the activities of the 'simulated' market. She designed the Math Market with a group of specialists. Four stations were created, and in each of them, children play while reinforcing what they have already seen in the classroom. They come to compare, select, reflect, analyze, experiment, measure, and calculate. For example a station is called "chez les tailleurs" (dress-makers) where the child is given fabrics where some of them play tailors and others play the role of costumers. Another station used cowries as local currencies where the kids go to the market to buy local products. There is also WORI, a traditional game using seeds or stones splitting into holes. Imagination Lab is also one of the programs launched by Karima, an individual and collective exercise which is based on a questioning approach. The process is filmed and shared with students and teachers to inspire them to create labs in their classrooms.

Karima and her team are developing an educational resource with local and traditional games. The idea is to push professors to create games from their immediate environment, to observe the children and to use their everyday actions to convey knowledge more easily. As a result, Imagination Africa offers training to teachers and selects teachers to whom it gives a small capital of $20 and gets them to create games. Karima has also initiated a project with the puppets to promote empathy and be a communication tool for learning. In collaboration with puppeteers from Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, France and Austria, an educational package is being developed and will be offered to schools, especially in the field of literature.

In order for teachers to share their experiences and facilitate the expansion of the approach, Karima launched the Nomadic Learning Program. This is done through caravans who reach both children within Dakar, and other cities and regions of the country. The Market Place stays one week in each school. In 2014, Imagination Africa has worked with over 8,000 children and 22 schools in Senegal. These various results have facilitated the work with the Ministries of Education, Culture, and Values who support Karima to achieve her goal to one day see every school set its own curriculum; each teacher sets his own working methodology based on playing and creativity. She created “community of practice” to share early learning innovations (ideas, conversations, projects, resources) through a newsletter, Facebook platform and physical meetings. This association has around 100 early learning practitioners in Senegal, Kenya and Uganda.

In September 2015, Karima opened Kër ImagiNation, a space for learning and innovation from infants as young as 6 months, to seniors aged 60. This first ludo-educational center of West Africa will be based in the middle of an impoverished community in Dakar in order to be an inclusive place and get parents involved. It will provide a number of education professionals knowledge for teaching the socio-cultural development of the child and its professional future. By 2020, she intends to popularize the model in various regions of Senegal and West Africa across the cultural centers and spaces specifically dedicated to children.

The Person

Karima was born to an American father and a Senegalese mother who moved to the United States in 1969. Her mother worked in the education field using a model called Head Start. This platform became central to her as it gave her the sense of what learning should be. Meanwhile, Karima was particularly affected by the situation of children whose parents were in prison for crimes. This later became one of the reasons why she decided to settle in Senegal in 2003 with her husband.

Having worked with large international organizations, Karima returned to the education field in 2012. This experience gave her a good understanding of cognitive and psychological child development. She ended up working in a bilingual school where the experience allowed her to note the abilities of these children who fluently spoke Wolof and French as well as English, Spanish, and Arabic. She realized these children were well educated, but they lacked confidence and the sense to create their own future. In 2011, she met a Senegalese Fellow, Marguerite Thiaw who created banana flour and made baby food. When she visited Marguerite, she saw 5 year old children in her banana plantation handling sharp tools without a problem. She realized that these children were in their element in this environment but once they enter school, they learn things that are very disconnected from their reality. For Karima, education is all about the personal development of the children. It must be a stepping stone to help them reach their own vision and allow them to say "I have such skills, so I'll follow it to see where it will lead me".
The innovative work and sustainable development potential of ImagineNation Afrika have been recognized and rewarded at an international level by the American prize of Alliance of Museums, Pan African Award for Entrepreneurship in Education of Saville Foundation and “Teach A Man to Fish” by Great Britain.

Karima is a writer and the author of a book on the biography of Nelson Mandela and another children's book, “Sofie and the city”.