TEACHER TRAINING: AN OVERVIEW OF THE CRITICAL ISSUES

"The arrival of a powerful new tool thus does not replace the other necessary element in education reform, the raising of teacher quality. Good teaching is the single biggest variable in educating pupils, bigger than class size, family background, or school funding," says Eric Hanushek, an education expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "And crucial to having better teachers is evaluating them property, hiring, firing and promoting on merit."

     Teachers are, quite simply, the most important link in the educational chain. A strong, motivated, well-trained, and passionate educator can overcome most environmental hurdles and have a positive, educational impact on students' lives; a weak, unmotivated teacher, in the best of situations, will be, at best, non-harmful to students' development.

Thus, the pivotal question: what is the answer, what are the most effective answers, in approaching the riddle of educational provision?

     In the push to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,  there has been a mass push, supported by the elimination of primary school fees, in the developing world. This has resulted in a massive increase in enrollment rates in many nations, seemingly a positive result. However, this has met with disastrous consequences for already over-burdened educational systems and under-trained teachers. In nations such as Malawi, 150 students in single classes is a common sight; this can lead to declines in educational outputs, commonly measured in many nations. In most schools, little learning is taking place, thus resulting in a dangerous situation: educational systems which take children out of poor households, where they commonly help with subsistence agriculture or household chores, and put them into schools which teach them nothing. In my own mind and experience, this results in a worse situation that previous. Not only does this lead to additional disenfranchisement, as students only experiences with formal education provision is that of functional non-capacity, but it represents an enormous waste of financial and human resources for cash-starved states.

Thus, in looking at already overstretched systems, the focus and goal needs to be on teacher training and management, and most critically, aspects of teacher motivation and incentives, one of the most under-studied, yet most critical areas of pedagogy. 

     Incentives start with basic teacher attendance; if teachers do not show up, no learning occurs; and this is more the rule than exception in many nations, such as India and Uganda (I have written about this issue quite extensively in the past, see: (http://www.theschoolsproject.org/2011/09/teacher-attendance-what-works-most.html). Banerjee and Duflo have shown that teachers tend to be more effective, with similarly limited supplies, in privatized school settings; thus, poor teaching is not intrinsic to these individuals; what needs to be addressed is their incentives for work.

     Thus, teacher pay is the obvious target, but there are other, less obvious dynamics at play: such critically overlooked issues such as simplified school curriculum. In many nations, centralized control and nationalized decisions have resulted in extremely complex curriculum which are simply out of the grasp of most teachers, and certainly most students. Talk about a disincentive! If one does not understand the subject matter or teaching objectives, there will be little educational efficiencies taking place in the classroom. Mastery of delivering basic skills to students who are in need of these, and not nationally-designed theory and international concept, is an enormously empowering tool for educators. As was detailed in a report to the Kenyan Government in 2011, "Programs that allow teachers to tailor their lessons to better suit the level of preparation of their students are effective at boosting students' academic performance (Glennerster and Kremer 2011). Simple, yes. Overlooked, often. 

     Prestige and standing in the community is another, often overlooked target. In many nations (the obvious being those of East Asia) where teaching is held in high societal regard, teaching attracts high talent and effective pedagogy is the result. This is also the case in many developing world nations, but in others, is not; if a profession is not valued in the broader society, this will be a huge disadvantage for educational quality. However, this is an issue with a relatively straight-forward answer; make those in power, who are held in esteem (your "Big Men") publicly praise the profession; intrinsic rewards need to be matched with extrinsic rewards in this regard, but they need not be large; tokens of gratitude from community leaders, recognition from local or regional political leaders; media coverage of educational successes, and a national policy which places education and educators at the forefront of national progress are all critical ingredients.  Teacher pay is also another obvious target for reform; linking teacher pay to performance, as judged through standardized testing, has been a feature of Western educational systems for some time; however, there has been mixed results in implementing these programs in the developing world. In India, studies showed that linking pay to student performance was effective (Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2009), but similar studies performed in Kenya had mixed results, showing that teachers were teaching "to the test" and little actual learning was occurring, which is a problem the besets school systems in developed nations as well. There is also a chance that systems like this actually will penalize teachers who have less-prepared students, another problem mirrored in the West (Glennerster and Kremer 2011). This is certainly an area that warrants much more research! 

     In addressing what is actually being delivered to students by teachers, we need to address the critical issue of content and delivery tools.The difference between a good lesson and bad can be as simple as knowledge of a "Do Now" and a solid graphic organizer which challenges critical thinking and creativity for students. Complilations of graphic organizers, open-sourcing of educational content and sample lesson plans, is critical. Computer-based software is already working in this area (see:SugarLabs), yet most teachers lack the technological connectivity required to take advantage of these resources. Thus, how do we motivate MOE's, strongly centralized and resilient to change, to freely disburse more effective lesson plans, and to focus on the basics? One approach, proven over the years, has been in implementing ICT for teacher training. 

     ICT, with its multitude of drawbacks in classroom implementation, can still be an extremely powerful and coherent tool in the training and empowerment of teachers. ICT training needs to be delivered on site, if possible, and in a recurrent and sustainable manner; centralizing "Workshop/Training"sessions are, perhaps, the largest single waste of time, money, and effort in the developing world (as well as elsewhere). Where the West has seen progression in telecommuting and teleconferencing in saving costs in restricted environments, so we should learn for educational training. The keywords are: localized delivery, interactivity, teacher empowerment through technology, increased self-confidence through technology, and one-off-expense costs of initial connectivity being seen in a longer time horizon. Again, this is an issue that deserves much more research, but has huge potentials to meet the gaps in teacher quality and personnel deployment. Finally, how can we promote critical thinking integration into basic lesson planning in poor nations, beset by critical resource needs? Critical thinking promotion is a key element of success that has separated the output quality of Western centers of academic excellence; rote learning has obvious drawbacks. 

     The ability to actually synthesize information, critique, and make determinations based on these critiques is invaluable for human expression, creativity, as well as productivity beyond the factory floor. Some great thinkers in this specific area include Sir Ken Robinson (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U) and, historically, Benjamin Bloom of Bloom's taxonomy pedagogical fame. The tool that Bloom proposed, of systematically categorizing learning domains and lower-to-higher order thinking, provides a powerful tool and model for teachers to implement. Keywords of progression up the "higher order cognition scale" include: recall>understand>apply>analyze>synthesize>evaluate.