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.


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.


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.


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.


Learning through play in northern Uganda

While procrasti-reading earlier this week, I came across an interesting article discussing disparities in play-based learning in American early child education. Lower-income public schools are less likely to have the resources and time to dedicate to meaningful play that encourages inquiry and creativity. When there are increased pressures to introduce academic skills early and ‘close the achievement gap’, child-directed play is often replaced with more worksheets, instruction, and testing.

Especially in the pre-school years but also throughout primary education, play is essential to children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. This seems obvious to those of us who had the privilege of learning in environments that were structured and facilitated in ways that encouraged us to learn through play. As a kid at home and at school, materials like counting cubes, paint, and craft supplies were part of my daily routine. I had so much lego I could have moved out of my parents’ at age 8 to live in my own lego house (a goal that I would still like to achieve one day).

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit two schools where play is a central component of a holistic early childhood development model. But I wasn’t in a middle-upper class neighbourhood in North America. I was in Arua and Koboko, two districts in the West Nile region of northern Uganda.


An MECP-supported classroom in Koboko, Uganda.

The schools I visited are part of the renowned Madrasa Early Childhood Program (MECP), an initiative of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). The program was started in 1986 to provide pre-school education to underserved Muslim communities in the coastal region of Kenya. The first MECP curriculum combined contemporary pre-school content with local Swahili culture, language, songs, and stories. The word madrasa comes from the Arabic ‘a place of study’. In the context of this program, however, the word refers to pre-schools.

The MECP is now 30 years old and has established over 200 pre-schools in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and has reached over 70,000 students. Each of the three countries has an early childhood development resource centre used for teacher trainings and outreach. The MECP has trained over 4000 teachers and over 1700 government officials, and the program’s early childhood development institute in Kampala, Uganda is now an accredited teacher training institution. The program is engaged in meaningful research, advocacy, and policy work surrounding issues of education and early childhood in East Africa.

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Display boards in the MECP resource centre in Kampala, Uganda.

As the program grew, schools developed school management committees (SMCs) intended to engage community leaders and parents (including women and mothers) in the school management process. This allows communities to take pride and responsibility of the madrasas in meaningful and locally relevant ways.

The madrasas pay keen attention to local context in their design and implementation. In the schools in Arua, instruction is in the local language Lugbarati, while in Koboko the teacher and students speak Kakwa. During one visit to a madrasa in Arua, the students split into two groups for 30 minutes of religion. One teacher guided Muslim students to a mosque next door for prayers and Quran, while another teacher read a Bible story to the Christian students.

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A daily schedule in a madrasa in Kampala.

One of the most impressive features of the madrasas is that almost all of the learning materials are made from recycled objects or materials from the school’s surrounding environment. The ECD resource centre has developed innovative ways to turn old bottle caps, maize, and plant fibres into math manipulatives and art supplies. The teachers have attended workshops where they create their own storybooks in both English and the local language.


Group work in Koboko, Uganda.

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Locally made literacy materials.


Math with maize!

In a context where classroom models are largely based on teacher-led instruction and rote learning, it is refreshing to see students away from their desks, being active, and learning together. According to a study published in the International Journal of Early Years Education, the program has had significant positive impacts on children’s cognitive development and their school readiness, when compared to students who attended other preschools or remained at home. This is not just because madrasa students begin Primary 1 already having basic numeracy and literacy skills, but also because they have a more positive relationship with learning. Teachers often tell us that students who complete the madrasa program and progress to Primary 1 sometimes come back to the madrasas and wish they could stay. And I don’t blame them – my mornings spent in the madrasas made me wish I could be a student there too.

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An MECP classroom in Kampala, Uganda. The MECP established pre-schools throughout central Uganda before expanding its support to West Nile region, where I currently live and work.

My visits to the madrasas were one of my first activities as an international development management fellow with AKF. During my fellowship, I won’t be working directly with the MECP, but it was wonderful to visit some of the schools being impacted by the program’s work. During my fellowship, I’ll be working in monitoring and evaluation for some of AKF Uganda’s other education projects, which include education system strengthening, community libraries, ICT for teacher professional development, and youth adult literacy. If you’d like to learn about those projects, keep an eye out for my future blog posts.

The views expressed in this post are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Aga Khan Foundation, Aga Khan Development Network, or Global Affairs Canada.


Here I go again

I’m starting this blog up again as I begin a new chapter in my life. It’s been over a year since I’ve last posted here. Since then, I completed my internship with the Kenya Equity in Education Project, wrote my thesis, and graduated from the University of Toronto after a hectic year of juggling studies with part-time work.

My next step is a fellowship in international development management with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC). As part of the fellowship, I will be travelling to Arua, Uganda for 8 months to support the monitoring and evaluation of the foundation’s work in strengthening education systems in the West Nile region of the country.

The activities I have planned for the next 7 days include organizing paperwork, changing my mind 30 times about which pairs of pants to bring, and spending valuable time with friends and family (including my two nephews, 2 year old Jack and 1 week old Sam). I fly out of YYZ on August 4th and will be travelling through London, Nairobi, and Kampala en route to Arua.

I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to grow personally and professionally while living in the beautiful country of Uganda. Stay tuned!

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The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Aga Khan Foundation, Aga Khan Development Network, or Global Affairs Canada.