Transforming teacher education for improved foundational learning

No fundamental change in education can happen without teachers. Shem Bodo, Senior Programme Officer from the Association for Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), a GEM Report partner to the recent Spotlight report on foundational literacy and numeracy in Africa, made this point at this week’s Africa Evidence Forum on Foundational Learning in Nairobi, Kenya, organized by the What Works Hub.

Ambitious national education policies put a tremendous amount of pressure on the teaching workforce in Africa. But it is common sense that teachers without sufficient competencies will be unable to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills effectively.

The Spotlight report reminded us that there are insufficient teachers with even the basic training on the continent: on average, there are 56 primary school pupils for every trained teacher in sub-Saharan Africa.

In some countries the dearth of trained teachers is more extreme. In Madagascar, only 15% of primary school teachers are trained according to national standards, which means there are 240 students per trained teacher. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo , only 13% of pre-primary school teachers are trained according to national standards, which means there are close to 200 students per trained teacher.

Having a basic training qualification may not be enough. Teaching at lower grades is as complex as teaching at higher grades, if not more so. Yet, preparation to teach in early grades is largely absent from initial teacher education programmes. Unsuitable pedagogical methodologies persist such as excessive reliance on repetition and information recall. Inefficient use of classroom time compounds the perennial problem of limited contact hours, which the pandemic exacerbated.

In addition, teachers need clear support structures they can trust and on which they can fall back to solve problems they face during their daily practice. No single method will work, but there are a few approaches explored in the Spotlight report which have been used successfully and from which countries can draw.

Coaching, through external coaches, head teachers or experienced peers. Coaches or pedagogical advisers observe teachers in classes and provide targeted feedback to improve pedagogical practices. Unlike most other forms of professional development, coaching is meant to be individualized, time-intensive, regular and focused on tangible skills. In-class coaching was found to have more than twice the impact of centralized training in South Africa, for example.
Bringing teachers together through professional learning communities. This approach was highlighted as particularly positive in the Spotlight country report on Ghana for instance for helping find new ways of teaching.

Providing teacher guides to structure teaching. Given that even the best initial teacher education reforms take a long time to reach students, teachers need resources to fall back on. Teacher guides are at present inadequate, however. They need to be upgraded to better align with new textbooks, provide a solid basis for lesson planning, steer teachers to assess learning in classrooms, encourage them to develop their own teaching and learning materials, and help them not just follow instructions mechanically but adapt flexibly to diverse classroom circumstances. In Benin, the curriculum was changed at the same time as new decodable textbooks were rolled out and teacher guides were also provided with lesson plans and guidance for teachers to apply instruction techniques in the classroom.
Focusing school leaders on instruction, not just administration. The importance of education leadership, which will be the focus of the 2024/5 GEM Report and for which the concept note, consultation and a call for expressions of interest for background research have recently been launched, has been neglected. School leaders need to be selected on the basis of their commitment to develop all children’s potential and a proven ability to inspire others to do so. They need to be able to coach struggling teachers, create an atmosphere in which teachers can learn from one another, be efficient at managing resource constraints and effectively communicate with the community. They also need to understand changes in curricula, textbooks and assessment methods. Yet, very few receive continuous professional development opportunities.

Teachers face other challenges in their working conditions that prevent them from teaching effectively. Many are denied decent pay and work in challenging conditions, with insufficient infrastructure, teaching and learning materials, and development opportunities. They also need motivation. Rwanda, for instance, increased teacher salaries by between 40% and 88% in July.

We rely upon teachers to bring the change we design on paper to children in the classroom. But we are not giving them enough support, leaving them ill-equipped for their role. Teacher guides are not suitable to make up for gaps in initial teacher education. Head teachers tend to be selected not as instructional leaders but as administrators doing tasks unrelated to ensuring that children learn. Often the most glaringly obvious solutions are the one we fail to see – they end up hiding in plain sight. This is a mistake.

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