Beyond trainings: teacher professional development

About a month ago, the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) reported that as many as 80% of teachers in Uganda lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. The results come from assessments conducted in the country’s Primary Teacher Colleges (PTCs), and indicate a decline in performance from previous years. In the newspapers and online, people expressed their surprise and concern and engaged in debate about the causes of this issue.

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It is likely that the 80% statistic is a bit exaggerated, and I will maintain some skepticism until UNEB releases a full report on their methodology and findings. Institutions like UNEB tend to be a bit alarmist with such announcements.

However, teaching quality in Uganda, among other countries, is not a situation to be taken lightly. A limited supply of trained teachers remains a significant challenge to education systems in the global south. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in one third of all countries, only 75% of teachers are trained according to their national standards.

Governments like Uganda and Kenya, which both introduced universal primary education in the early 2000s, continue to face the immense challenge of keeping up with increased enrolment. It is estimated that to provide every child with primary education by 2030 (one of the UN’s lofty sustainable development goals), the world will need to recruit 25.8 million teachers. Communities in remote and/or conflict-affected areas, where the majority of out of school children reside, face an even greater difficulty with recruiting and training teachers.

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Many international organisations have responded to the issue of education quality. But which of their approaches are the most effective? How can the international community best support countries to develop a strong supply of teachers?

When it comes to teacher professional development, most international agencies rely on the obvious solution to the problem of teacher quality: more training for teachers. Often, these donor-supported activities take place outside of existing teacher education institutions (like Uganda’s PTCs).

Anyone who has worked in international development, or any civil society or government organization anywhere, can picture what one of these trainings look like. Participants spend the day sitting at a table in a bare room. A facilitator, armed with chart paper and markers, leads some activities. After an hour or two, participants’ attention is focused more on the tea and coffee on the back table than the content of the training. At the end of the day, participants sign an attendance sheet and, if the facilitator is keen, a survey to monitor their learning outcomes. The facilitator and NGO staff leave hoping the training content will stick with the participants.

And sadly, too often, the effort ends there. No matter how engaging or relevant the material presented to the participants, true professional development for teachers cannot end with a 9-5 training.

Effective monitoring of teacher professional development at the school and district levels is crucial. Donor agencies should support school administrations to develop strategies for teacher support in their schools. This includes regular observation and assessment, open classrooms, and educational of practice. Effective school-based monitoring is also key to improving teacher motivation. Weak renumeration schemes are not the only barriers to retaining teachers in schools (although they certainly help: in Uganda, teacher attrition dropped by 24% between 2005 and 2006 after a 33% pay rise). Teacher motivation is also improved when teachers are actively supported by their head teacher, other teachers, and their district education offices. They are also more likely to stay when they are involved in decision-making and school development plans.

Donors should also consider ways to build the capacity of local governments to monitor teacher quality, and track teacher attrition and movement between schools. This could also involve supporting governments to develop their own locally relevant professional development programs for teachers in their districts or counties, in partnership with institutions like Uganda’s PTCs.

School administrations are also beginning to consider approaches that blend online coursework or videos with in-person instruction. Videos may be used to prepare teachers for in-person trainings, or as supplements during or after the trainings. Research has shown that a blended approach to professional development is more effective than single-mode trainings. It may also reduce the costs associated with scheduling multiple trainings with a consultant when information can instead be disseminated electronically.

Finally, we need to improve our understanding of teacher professional development globally. This includes improving our data on teacher qualifications in general – a messy endeavor given the range of different national standards across and within countries. It also means supporting research institutions to investigate issues affecting teachers in their respective regions, and thus developing a stronger base of evidence on the most effective professional development strategies in different contexts.

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Donor-funded professional development programs, and their many trainings, will continue to be part of how organizations seek to improve education quality in the global south. And they are certainly an important place for sharing knowledge and best practices in teaching and learning. But they must be considered one part of a more systemic approach to education quality, that includes school-based support, communities of practice, and district-level monitoring.

The availability of well-trained, motivated, and supported teachers is key to positive learning outcomes among students. We frequently hear stories of how a single teacher can change the lives of his or her students, so just imagine how powerful an effective teaching force and transform a community or country.

City, Camp, Village

Back and forth from Kakuma to Nairobi, the past few weeks have been good to me.

Outside of work, I spent my October in Nairobi exploring new parts of the city and spending quality time with friends. I enjoyed escaping the traffic-filled streets by exploring some of Nairobi’s green space, including Uhuru Park and Karura Forest. (Both of those locations, by the way, were sites of controversial urban development projects planned during Daniel Arap Moi’s presidency, and a history of environmentalist and anti-capital protest led by Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai). My visit to the main campus of the University of Nairobi made me miss campus at home, and a good friend has been gracious enough to take books out from their library for me. I also had the pleasant surprise of meeting up with one of my professors, who was in Nairobi for the launch of a new global research initiative called OCSDnet.

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A rugby match at Impala field, Nairobi

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The Institute of African Studies at the University of Nairobi

Uhuru Park, Nairobi

Uhuru Park, Nairobi

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Karura Forest, Nairobi

I’m back in Kakuma here and am staying for the month of November. My main objective for this visit is to conduct interviews and focus groups for my research, which have been going swimmingly. I’m researching how education in host communities (the hosts of refugees) has been impacted over the years by the presence of refugees in Turkana West (the sub-county in which Kakuma is located). I’ve been speaking with teachers, Turkana elders, and other community members who have been sharing their thoughts about infrastructure, conflict and security, culture, pastoralism, NGOs, and government. My main source of data is the stories and experiences of my interviewees, the oldest of whom have seen their communities change considerably since the establishment of the refugee camp in 1992. Where necessary, my co-workers have translated Turkana for me. The interviews have taken place in classrooms, under trees, in ekol (a hut), and an Ethiopian restaurant in the camp called Franco’s. This week I’m travelling to Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County, to meet with a government official. Needless to say, I’ve been learning a lot.

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A research interview location

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Turkana village

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Beautiful landscape of Turkana West

After work, I’ve been going on walks into the camp to explore and buy snacks like samosas and fruit. I’ve only been able to explore part of it by foot because the whole place is very large. But I’ve visited schools in all parts of the camp. It’s very cosmopolitan, with people of similar nationality congregating in certain areas. In many ways, the camp is like a small city. In other ways it’s not, as there are regulations that restrict the movement and activities of its residents that wouldn’t happen elsewhere (if you can access them, I’d suggest the works of Rose Jaji, Barbara Harrell-Bond, and Jennifer Hyndman on this topic).

On Saturday, the UN announced that starting Sunday, food rations in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps would be reduced by 50% until the end of January 2015. This is a drastic reduction of an already modest diet. The local economy, which relies on the trade and resale of grains and pulses received as ration, will take a big hit. The purported reason for the cuts is that the international food aid supply is overstretched by the humanitarian crises that have happened this year. I am not convinced by this explanation. Surely, measures should have taken to more moderately manage the flow of food supply in the camps. A 50% reduction all at once is unacceptable. The camp residents themselves were give 24 hours notice. Sorry, that last part was a bummer but I think it’s important to share.

On a completely different note, earlier today I booked a flight to Ethiopia. While I’m away, I’ll visit the museums, markets, and restaurants of Addis Ababa; I’ll see Fasil Ghebbi in Gondar, which has been called ‘Africa’s Camelot’, and explore the famous rock-carved churches in Lalibela. By the time I get back it’ll be Christmas! I’m planning to spend Christmas with my roommate’s family in Kericho, Kenya. I’m sure I’ll especially miss home at that time, but at least I won’t be alone over the holidays. Stay tuned!

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

Travel and Trainings

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I’ve posted here, and that my placement is almost halfway done. I’ve been learning a lot (often the hard way) and I feel really lucky that I get to live and work in two different environments. I’ve been back and forth between Nairobi and Kakuma a few times, each offering a different type of experience. When I’m at the Kakuma office, I get to visit schools and learn more about the ins and outs of implementation from our experienced field staff. When I’m in Nairobi, I can observe how decisions are made while managing expectations from both the field and our donor. Both are valuable, but things are a little easier in Nairobi, where there is high speed internet and hot water and grocery stores. Here are some highlights (and lowlights) from the past little while:

In mid-August, we held a conference for girls on KEEP scholarships. The conference included sessions on goal-setting, health, and an evening hike. My favourite part was when the students had small group discussions on their experience with the program, and then made presentations to the larger group. The first few presenters were shy but slowly they became more candid, being silly and making each other laugh as they shared their insight. There was lots of dancing during the lunch hours, and everyone freaked out when I joined in. I don’t think I’ve ever made so many people laugh at once.

A few days later, I saw it rain in Kakuma for the first time. When it rains there, it raaaaaains. It only happens a few times a year, so the ground has little ability to absorb water, meaning that a completely dry stretch of land can become dangerously flooded within a few hours.

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That week I helped distribute some materials to the schools in the camp. In the camp, the flooding had damaged people’s homes and businesses. Our vehicle got stuck in Kakuma 3 for two hours, and so a co-worker and I walked around in the mud while the driver fixed the situation. The local kids were delighted to see a barefoot mzungu ankle-deep in mud.

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That week, I attended a teachers’ training on gender responsive pedagogy. It was held in Lokichoggio, a town about 30km from the border with South Sudan. I wasn’t there to be trained, but I enjoyed attending discussions on gender stereotypes, barriers to girls’ education, safe schools, how boys and girls tend to learn differently, and creating gender-responsive lesson plans. The teachers enjoyed the training, but some of the refugee school teachers were concerned that the strategies would be too difficult to implement in their classrooms, many of which are crowded with upwards of 50 students. And some of the teachers have not been formally trained. Several had never seen a lesson plan, let alone one that considers gender dynamics in the classroom. But introducing any discussion about gender in education is a step in the right direction.

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With one of KEEP’s education officers at the training in Lokichoggio

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Back in Nairobi, I finally wrote my research proposal for thesis, which is very exciting. Before coming to Kenya, I was almost sure that I would explore something to do with schools in the refugee camp. However, I’ve become more interested in the host community outside the camp. I’m curious about education among the Turkana, a marginalized community in Kenya and whose education services remain minimal despite the presence of NGOs in the region making large investments in refugee education. There are several studies on tensions between refugees and their hosts, especially about resources and land. But there is nothing in the literature about education services in a refugee-host context. The KEEP project is the only NGO initiative in Kakuma delivering support to both refugee and host schools, and I’m wondering how KEEP’s work can inspire thought about an integrated approach for education in such a context.

Hope you didn’t fall asleep there. I celebrated finishing my research proposal with a day trip to Naivasha, a lovely town about 1.5 hours drive away from Nairobi. Actually, I tagged along with co-workers who were going there to preview a potential venue for a conference we are holding in December. While there, we took the opportunity to visit the beautiful Hell’s Gate National Park. It’s called Hell’s Gate because of a geothermal activity underground from nearby volcano Mount Longonot, creating hot springs (“Devil’s shower”) in and around a spectacular gorge (“Devil’s bedroom”) that visitors can walk through. We rode our bikes to the gorge from the park entrance, a 7.5km trek. Along the way we saw dozens of zebra, as well as some gazelle, buffalo, monkeys, baboons, and secretary birds.

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When I got back to Hell’s Gate, I went to a concert with my friends at a club in Nairobi. The famous Kenyan group Sauti Sol was performing. I had recently heard some of their music, and I’ve always wanted to attend a Kenyan concert. Here’s one of their recent hits, Sura Yako: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEJw64Zl28U. I can’t believe that in the same day, I rode my bike up close to beautiful wildlife, and had a night out at a concert in the city.

And then back to Kakuma on October 1st, this time only for 6 days. We held a two-day field-level planning session with all our remedial teachers and community mobilizers. On Saturday, our clubs development consultant coordinated a networking day with teachers and students participating in clubs activities in our schools. I was given the task of facilitating some focus groups and activities. I really enjoy practicing my facilitation skills, and I seize the opportunity to do so whenever I can, especially because my role as monitoring and evaluation assistant keeps me at a computer most of the time. I learned a lot about clubs activities that day and some of the gendered implications of extra-curriculars. We hope that through trainings for teachers and networking days, we’ll start to see both boys and girls become more engaged in sports, the arts, environmental stewardship, and most importantly, FUN.

At a KEEP field-level planning session in Kakuma

At a KEEP field-level planning session in Kakuma

So now I’m back in Nairobi, and things are quiet in the office while many of our staff our in Dadaab. I’ve spent the hanging out with friends, cooking, and catching up on some much-needed alone time. Thanks for reading this long post! Hopefully it won’t be long before you hear from me again.

In conclusion, here is a picture of me kissing a giraffe.

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The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

Welcome to my blog

This week I am saying goodbye to family and friends as I prepare to live in Nairobi, Kenya for 8 months. Like many people who choose to leave home for an extended period of time, I’m learning how difficult it can be to summarize what I expect from my experience in a single conversation. I’m fairly introverted, and so I usually wait for people to ask me about my future plans, only to be disappointed at the end of the exchange because I didn’t get to express what I wanted. So it’s a good thing I’m starting a blog. I express myself best in writing, and for the next 8 months, I think I’ll have lots to say.

My name is Marc Lombardo and I am a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough. I study International Development and Socio-Cultural Anthropology. I’m thrilled to say that in one week, I will be arriving in Nairobi, Kenya to begin an 8-month internship with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) a Canadian NGO that partners with an organization called Windle Trust Kenya (WTK) to provide education for refugees.

I will have the privilege of working as a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Assistant with the Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP), a three-year initiative that WUSC and WTK are implementing under the UK’s Girl’s Education Challenge. (Sorry for the acronym overload…but welcome to the world of international development). While there, I will be supporting efforts to collect, organize, and analyze information on KEEP’s progress and provide project feedback. To get a sense of what all this entails, I’ll list here a few questions that I’ll be asking myself while on the job: How can we use qualitative and quantitative data to represent an organization’s impact on a group of people? What research methods are most appropriate for understanding a person’s lived experiences in relation to a development intervention, and how can these methods be employed ethically? And then, how can we take all this information and relay it to different audiences?

Before leaving Canada, I am doing my best to read about refugee life in East Africa and keep up with current events in Kenya. As I prepare, I realize more how little I understand as a Canadian entering a foreign context. My goal is to be humble and maintain an open mind as best as I can. This certainly will be a rewarding learning experience as I live, work, travel, and meet new people in this beautiful country, and so I’m delighted to be starting this new chapter of my life.

I’ll post an update after I arrive in Nairobi next week. Hopefully my writing style doesn’t prevent you from returning to read another post (I’m best at writing essays, not blogs!).

Until then,

Marc

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The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.