Supporting teachers so they can teach

21 December 2018

By Freda Wolfenden, Professor of Education and International Development, the Open University


‘Number one, she makes me listen. And two, you know her being there gives me more space and helps me to prepare… Let’s say if I talk children might not understand and she is able to give them more feedback. The children are not just hearing one voice. I give priority to the subjects that I am more conversant with, but she helps to give a balance…’ 

–Francis, a primary school teacher in rural Sierra Leone, explains the benefits of working with a learning assistant in his class.

Learning assistants
are young women participating in a community-based programme to become qualified teachers. As Francis described how the learning assistant adeptly undertook a range of tasks – rearranging children so everyone could see, taking attendance, and distributing materials – I was reminded of the isolation, complexity, and demands of teaching. Too rarely do we engage in creative, holistic thinking about how educator roles could be redesigned to reflect evolving conceptions of professional practice, as well as how the practice can be taught in today’s schools.

A recent research assignment for the Education Commission’s Education Workforce Initiative (EWI) was an exceptional opportunity for our team at the Open University to explore such new thinking. Our brief was to understand the opportunities and challenges for education workforce redesign and identify promising education workforce innovations from across the world. However, finding such innovations was much more difficult than anticipated. We scoured numerous databases, but almost all examples were small-scale, highly experimental, and had yet to be fully evaluated. Outside high-income contexts, there is an absence of system-level workforce redesign, and no parallel exists to the redesign undertaken in the global health workforce, which has helped create well-established roles to support medical professionals.

School classrooms have remained remarkably consistent over time and geographical space: the teacher works relatively autonomously in an enclosed space with a group of students. The need to challenge this entrenched model of the school classroom is crucial when population, education systems, and budget projections are considered. Merely expanding current systems will not be adequate to meet increasing demand. In some sub-Saharan African countries, for example, more than half of all graduates would need to become teachers to fulfill demand, according to the Learning Generation report.

We highlighted interventions involving modified or new workforce roles in different contexts. Unsurprisingly, almost all of these exploit the increasing availability and affordability of digital technologies – particularly mobiles and visual media, either directly with students or to support professional learning and development of teachers. One powerful set of examples involves students interacting remotely with specialist teachers (or other experts). Use of this approach to teach science in far-flung secondary schools in the Amazon has been much discussed, but there is also sustained use in Africa  (Ghana – MGCubed) and Asia (Bangladesh – JAAGO). Initial evaluations are promising, and there is exciting potential to combine this approach with independent or peer-supported study of materials (as in a flipped classroom approach), and online interactive science labs to enrich students’ learning experiences.

Other interesting innovations involve support from beyond the immediate education community, responding to local needs with local resources. Examples include business leaders mentoring school leaders in South Africa, community volunteers supporting school readiness in Tanzania, and female high school graduates acting as role models for students in lower secondary school classes.

Synthesising learning from across these initiatives, we are struck that many conceptualize teaching as a collective endeavor undertaken by teachers and other practitioners collaborating in teams and that digital technologies provide tools, which are mediated and leveraged by good teaching but do not replace teachers. Of course, in many systems support roles already exist and are taken for granted, which is perhaps why there is so little analysis of them. But there is a case for configuring these roles to more effectively meet the demands of contemporary education goals and utilize new ideas on the collective nature of professional practice and the availability of technological tools.

The next stage of the EWI research will be an empirical look at the roles associated with schools in the EWI focus countries. We will examine not only the vision for these roles in the system but also how these roles –  teachers, school leaders, district officials, and teaching support staff – are enacted and experienced. Equipped with this analysis, policy-makers, educators, and their communities can visualize new ways of organizing learning appropriate to the context. This is critical for teachers to have the space to develop the technical sophistication and wisdom required to be effective, and ensure every child learns the skills and knowledge they need to live fulfilled, healthy, and productive lives.

This piece has been adapted from the original blog:

Questions for our readers:

1. Do you know of any promising education workforce innovations from around the world that you think could be replicated at scale?
2. What are the greatest opportunities for education workforce redesign in your country?
Please send your answers and/or comments to: