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Teacher Collaboration and Training: Critical Ingredients for Teachers to Grow and Students to Learn

Ellen Whitesides Kalisz's picture
In many ways, Ethiopia’s teacher Continuous Professional Development program is an education specialist’s dream: teachers regularly collaborate with peers, they are mandated to complete 60 hours of professional learning every year, and in some regions, they receive promotions based on performance in the classroom. The structure mirrors many aspects of international best practice and yet the system falters, primarily because it is missing a key ingredient: content.

In visits to nine schools across Ethio Somali Region, Benishangul-Gumuz Region and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, my colleagues and I consistently saw a solid program that was implemented faithfully by teachers who were dedicated to student learning. Together with principals, parents and local communities, schools worked in teams to identify strengths and weaknesses, which they then focused on as part of their professional development plan. These plans are well-intentioned, and throughout the process teachers track their progress towards the mandated 60 hours.  

But despite the strong structure, the program lacks sufficient content and without experts who can guide the conversation, references to draw from, and a conducive school atmosphere, teachers have been left frustrated and unmotivated. As many teachers noted, what is the point of spending 60 hours talking to other teachers who also don’t know the answer to the critical questions that are being raised? Indeed, many teachers fill out endless reports in their portfolios describing activities they undertake during the 60 hours, but with no external guidance, access to experts, or additional knowledge entering the system, the process feels futile. Teachers associate Continuous Professional Development, as the system is known, with endless paperwork rather than improved teaching.

Earlier this year, I observed a 10th grade mathematics class where the teacher was trying to encourage discussion and self-discovery among her students. Her intentions were good, and though she came prepared, the classroom discussion quickly stalled. The students were enthusiastic about the opportunity to discuss their lessons, but didn’t know how, and when the teacher’s prompts failed, the students struggled to understand what to do next. Without external guidance—new material or additional content help— the students were left flailing. Learning requires a delicate balance between new information, on one hand, and our own internal connection on the other, in order to solidify new ideas. With only one of these, we struggle to learn new concepts.

If there had been a student in that 10th grade class who had additional mathematical knowledge, the self-discovery and discussion lesson might have gone very differently because she or he could have shared that information with peers. But in a fairly homogenous group, particularly where prior knowledge is low, collaboration can be less fruitful because discussions lack the influx of new and different ideas.

If I wanted to become a better artist, for example, and was put together with others in a collaborative group, my success would hinge on the experience of others in the group. Collaboration in and of itself wouldn’t bring strong results if others in my group were as unskilled at painting or drawing as I am. But if we were given a resource, either a book about sketching or access to a painting expert, that additional content and experience would give us something to engage with and learn from. The same is true in any classroom. If we ask teachers or students to do things differently, they need examples, materials, leaders, and support to guide and inspire them.

This is critical to understanding ways to improve the Continuous Professional Development program in Ethiopia. Collaboration is critical and needs to continue, but in Ethiopia and elsewhere, content matters. Without a source of new knowledge, a homogeneous group of learners cannot flourish to its full potential, even with the best intentions for collaboration and carefully planned 60 hours of training per year.

With this in mind, the World Bank is working with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education ---through the General Education Quality Improvement Program for Equity -- in its efforts to create a balance of collaboration, structure and content to help Ethiopian teachers grow and its students to thrive. The program will provide content on classroom assessment as part of the training program, so that teachers have new material to guide and facilitate their collaboration. The program’s focus on teacher collaboration will be retained, but with additional training materials, tools, and added expertise to make it effective. Our objective is to help transform a structurally strong program into a system that equips teachers across Ethiopia with the tools to make learning a reality.

For more information on the Ethiopia General Education Quality Improvement Program, click here to read more. 
 
GEQIP-E Technical Mission Field Visit, World Bank and Ministry of Education staff visit with Regional Education Bureau representatives, Cluster Supervisor, School Director, and Teachers of Ethiopia, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR)

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