Bridge International Academy, a private sector company providing education for about $5 a month to children in Kenya, was founded by husband and wife team Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman, and Phil Frei in 2007.

The founders saw a need for education in the community. Few public schools existed around many informal settlements in Kenya. And many of the schools in poor areas were overcrowded, sometimes serving 100 or more students in a single classroom. Bridge offers slightly less than that number with at least 50 students in each class.

But from its onset, the founders envisioned more than just a single school for Bridge. They wanted it to be a massive venture, sprawling across cities, a real game changer in the education world.

For those big intentions, they needed big money.

The money came when an investment firm, Omidyar Network, poured in $1.8 million to get Bridge up and running in 2009. Other investments came from Learn Capital and Pearson, the school tests management company in New York City.

With the influx of big money, Bridge quickly became a fast-growing chain of schools. The company grew so fast that it currently holds the record for the business chain with the most branches in Kenya.

And they’re not done growing yet.

Bridge plans to expand to other countries with the goal of reaching half a million children by 2015.

So far this seems like good business, but the secret to their growth is a standardized curriculum. Sometimes referred to as an “academy in a box” approach.

Bridge employs a scripted curriculum. The teachers in every class receive a script on an E-reader and read verbatim from the script during classes. There are times when students have group exercises or structured interaction with the teacher, but for the most part, the teacher is totally dependent upon the script.

The idea that schools have a core curriculum – that every student in a given subject and level learn the same information at the same time – is far from a novelty. But the notion of this simultaneous education occurring by synchronized E-book readings…

Here, I am wondering: is this a model for success or disaster?

We are used to having scripts. In fact, scripts are constantly inserted into our everyday lives. When you eat at a restaurant and the waiter says: “Can I take your order?” or “How’s that food taste?” or “Have a nice day.” When you call customer service, the phone operator follows a similar standard procedure.

But in learning? Is the classroom really the ideal place for word-for-word scripts?

I think not. And here’s why.

What happens when students have questions outside of the bounds of the E-reader protocol? Normally, when students inquire about a topic, we expect the instructor to be somewhat of an “expert” in the subject.

In the case of Bridge, the teachers are high school graduates who have been trained for five weeks before being placed in the classroom. Their argument is that no one besides these high school graduates would want to teach in the slums and of course since they’re locals they can afford to get paid less.

Though it seems that if you require teachers to follow scripts and nothing more, we would have eliminated the primary point of teaching – that is, to teach. Thinking and communication are removed from the teacher’s role in the classroom when they simply stand in front of every class and read to students from an E-book.

Since when did teaching become so easy a caveman could do it?

If we are going to transform teachers into automatons, we might as well have robots do it. Actually, the implementation of that idea may not be so far away.

I absolutely have no objection to standardized curricula. Students should be taught the same materials from the same textbooks and given the same national assessments. But I can’t wrap my head around the notion of every word spoken from the teacher to the students being prescriptive.

I also can’t escape the thought that these Kenyan children – while receiving some education that may or may not be better than public school in exchange for a fee – are entwined in what sounds like some semblance of exploitation.

Are they simply guinea pigs for Pearson and the West to figure out how a scripted curriculum might work in the future?

The Bridge method can easily be interpreted as an on-going Western experiment in pedagogy at the expense of poor Kenyan families.

Thousands of teachers work on the same lessons, curricula, and assessments each day to students of similar demographic characteristics. With a little random assignment, control and placebo groups, Bridge can manipulate several designs for research and experimentation and constantly mine their data to examine approaches to teaching and the quality of curriculum.

A chain of schools across Kenya and possibly other African nations presents and unprecedented opportunity for Bridge, and hence Pearson, to learn more about teaching – perhaps so it can implement these methods in other contexts for even greater profit.

Would public schools follow their example, if only to cut corners and pay teachers with little qualifications less money than teachers earn now? (Hire anyone who can read a script, pay them minimum wage, and call it education!)

As an advocate for education in general, I can’t help but be somewhat skeptical of this education by E-book concept.

Yet I admit, these deliberations could either speak to a warranted criticism of how we implement technology into the curriculum or a cautious reluctance to adapt to the changing practices of the digital milieu.


  1. What nonsense!

    Teachers following scripts via an E-Reader? Is this a joke? As much as I agree with you on Bridge and Parson’s nasty experiments in Kenyan Education, I have to blame these lame-ass Kenyan leaders.

    How do they even allow these capitalist pigs into Kenyan Education? How can they allow someone else to control the education of their kids? How sad is that?


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