Many developing countries have made substantial progress towards improving education attainment (the level of education attained by students) over the last two decades. At the same time, the instruction provided by teachers to students often remains of limited quality. This results in less than stellar education achievement (how much students actually learn). While students may do well enough on portions of examinations that rely for the most part on memorization, they tend to do less well when asked to think creatively or solve complex problems. This post, which is part of a series on partnerships, innovation, and evaluation in Rotary, tells the story of an innovative teacher training program in Nepal that has the potential of improving student learning substantially.
Importance of Teacher Training
Outstanding in-service teacher training programs can make a major difference in how teachers teach, how much students learn, and how much they learn, especially among disadvantaged groups. Many factors influence student achievement, including factors that are beyond the control of schools such as a student’s socio-economic context. But teachers are the most important factor under the control of education systems to improve learning. Teachers also account for the bulk of public spending for education in developed and developing countries alike. For these reasons, there is increasing interest in finding ways to attract, retain, develop, and motivate great teachers.
The tasks of attracting, retaining, and motivating teachers fall squarely within the scope of the mission of Ministries of Education. Developing teachers is also a key responsibility and priority for the Ministries, but in this area there is also scope for nonprofits and organizations such as Rotary to play a role by helping to create great in-service training programs for teachers. The importance of in-service training and professional development to improve instruction is recognized by practitioners and policy makers. Three lessons emerge from the literature.
First, opportunities for teacher training and professional development should be made available. But not all programs achieve the same results. When in-service programs focus on changing pedagogy, the evidence suggests that they can improve teaching and as a result student achievement. By contrast, programs that merely provide additional teaching materials for teachers do not generate substantial gains.
Second, the contents of training programs aiming to change pedagogy matter as well. In-service training programs that expose teachers to best practices in instruction and actually show teachers how to implement these practices are more likely to generate positive change. Promoting collaboration between teachers, among others through teacher networks where teachers can exchange ideas is useful. Mentoring programs whereby junior teachers benefit from the guidance of experience teachers also tend to be effective. Other approaches tend to be less successful.
Third, it is important that in-service training and professional development programs target in priority the teachers who need help the most. Teachers who are struggling may benefit more than already great teachers from various programs. Similarly, students from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in poor areas also tend to benefit more from a higher quality instruction than better off students who have more help from their family at home. Identifying priority pockets of needs is most beneficial when implementing and teacher training programs.
Innovative Program in Nepal
Traditional instruction in Nepal relies on lecturing by teachers and memorization by students. Together with the Nepali NGO PHASE, NTTI (Nepal Teacher Training Innovations) has implemented innovative teacher training programs in Nepal for several years. NTTI aims to train public schools teachers to make the classroom more interactive by coaching them on how to lead classroom discussions, facilitate group work, and ask questions to students to encourage individual thought. Instead of relying on punishment and at times shaming in the classroom to control student behavior, teachers are trained to use dynamic inquiry-based instruction methods and provide positive encouragement to motivate the students to learn. As the classroom becomes more participatory, students engage in their own learning.
The PHASE-NTTI model does not rely on one-off training. Instead it involves a cumulative cycle of trainings and intensive follow-up support to individual teachers. The aim is to help teachers move from an awareness of effective teaching practices to actual implementation of the practices in their own classrooms. The training model includes a series of teacher development courses: Introduction to Best Teaching Practices; Girls’ Sensitivity Training; and a Training of Trainers for those selected as Mentor Teachers.
The model includes pre- and post-training classroom observations, individual feedback received by teachers from Master Trainers, and follow up individual teacher support by Mentor Overall, the program is implemented over a two-year period in each school.
While no impact evaluation is yet available to measure the impact of the program, quantitative data obtained through pre- and post-training classroom observation are encouraging. In contrast to teacher-driven and student-silent classrooms, classrooms with trained teachers seem to be closer to functioning as hubs of learning.
Instead of only lecturing trained teachers lead classroom discussions, facilitate group work, and ask questions to encourage individual thought. Students learn how to make their own novel connections and think critically about what they hear and read. Qualitative data suggest that the program is appreciated by teachers and students.
Remaining Challenges and Conclusion
There have been challenges to which the program has had to adapt. The program did not work as well in secondary schools, so it now focuses on primary schools. Support from principals for teachers changing their pedagogical approach is needed, but not guaranteed. Distances to schools in rural areas make it hard to maintain regular contact after initial trainings. Lack of time for teachers to prepare lessons as advocated by the program is also a constraint. The structure of classroom time may limit creativity and inquiry-based teaching. The persistence of traditions harmful to girls in parts of the country is a major challenge to keep girls in school.
The PHASE-NTTI program does not have all the answers to these challenges, but it does have the key features that tend to be associated with successful in-service training programs. The program is also a great example of partnership (with the Ministry of Education and public schools), innovation (in teacher training), and evaluation (at least through monitoring of teacher pedagogy). A Rotary global grant proposal has been submitted to help develop the PHASE-NTTI program further and implement it in additional areas.