By David Hawker,Institute of Education, University of London.
The 2013/4 EFA GMR focuses, appropriately enough, on teaching and learning, given that this is what education is all about. It paints a rather gloomy picture of the current state of the teaching workforce in many countries – there are not enough teachers, they are poorly trained, lack essential teaching skills, sometimes lack basic education themselves, are underpaid, undervalued, often unmotivated, get little effective support from the authorities, are often subject to insensitive and arbitrary policy decisions….
The GMR prescribes a relatively familiar four point strategy for improving teaching: (1)recruit (enough better educated and motivated individuals to become teachers), (2) train (them properly), (3) allocate (them to the schools where they are most needed), (4) retain (them in the system by paying them properly and giving them good career prospects). It analyses these four areas, and gives examples of the often imaginative practical responses which are being made in many places to address specific issues. It lists ten key reforms, based on this four-point strategy, which policy makers should adopt in order to secure equitable learning for all.
So, are the four strategies enough?
Certainly, if the recommendations are all translated into action they will make a big difference. As always, the devil is in the detail, but there are two issues which stand out in particular for me, one which is highlighted in the report, and one which is not mentioned at all.
The first issue is the effectiveness of teacher training. It’s surprising that such a small proportion of the global education aid budget (2%) should be dedicated to such a crucial element, and this is a statistic which should definitely prompt a reappraisal of priorities among governments and donor agencies. For a profession which is all about learning, it’s also surprising how slow the policy world has been to embrace the concept of continuous learning.
Certainly, initial teacher training is a key priority for improvement, because it is often too theoretical, with not enough good practical instruction and not enough time spent in schools actually learning the skills of teaching. There is no doubt that initial training programs need desperately to be reformed so that trainee teachers are better equipped to teach.
But why stop there?
Initial training cannot possibly cover everything, especially where the trainees start with a low base of skills and education themselves. For this, ongoing programs of teacher development are needed. All the evidence from high performing countries where such programs are the norm is that they are particularly effective in the first few years of teaching, and that they foster expectations of long term continuous improvement in the teaching workforce. The challenge for lower performing systems is to develop a continuous professional development (CPD) strategy which builds effectively on the initial training, and which is both practical and affordable. The immediate need, in many cases, will be to consolidate teachers’ own basic subject knowledge and improve their classroom practice. This does not have to involve formal courses; self-managed learning programs tend to be more effective if they are supported by intensive mentoring and guidance – but it does need to be well structured and well focussed, so that the professional development is purposeful and relevant. Governments and donor agencies need to collaborate in developing such strategies, and then back them with their resourcing priorities, for example by doubling the proportion of the overall education aid budget which is spent on teacher training.
My second issue is actually linked to the first, and it concerns teachers’ leadership of their own profession. We desperately need to free ourselves from the somewhat paternalistic mindset which looks at the system from above and treats teachers as the passive recipients of whatever standards, training and accountability regimes are handed down by policy makers. Teachers are people – mostly very intelligent and motivated people – who are likely to know a lot about their own professional learning needs. Moreover there are excellent teachers even in the poorest performing systems who can lead others. This equates to a huge and very powerful resource for improving the profession as a whole, if used effectively.
According to McKinsey and others, it is systems which are moving from good to great, or great to excellent, which are characterised by self-improving professional learning communities. Before that point, the assumption appears to be that teachers should be treated more as children than as adults. But it is of course a fallacy to think that teachers in less well developed systems cannot learn from other teachers within their own system, or that such learning is not a crucial element in the development of the system.
If ongoing professional development really is crucial to improving the quality of teachers, as I argue above, then the role of teacher leadership cannot be ignored. A model in which teachers learn from their more experienced and effective peers is both more respectful and more economical in the longer term. It is crucial to identify the good practitioners, listen to their advice, encourage them to lead others and provide them with the resources to do so effectively. The teacher unions will have a role to play in this, as will local communities. The point is that, if we are looking for a massive improvement in the global teaching force, we must not neglect the leadership capacity which already exists within it.
This blog is based on an article in NORRAG News 50 on ‘The Global Politics of Teaching and Learning: The Real Story of Educational Cultures and Contexts’ – will be available free at www.norrag.org in May 2014.