A version of this post was published on the Center for Education Innovations blog today.
For 3 years New Education Highway handed out laptops containing a vast wealth of information as though they were pieces of candy to be chewed over and spat away.
The content was impressive -- the laptops were loaded with valuable digital content covering all aspects of a modern K-12 curriculum, plus university level courses on the devices from open access and some generously donated copyright material -- but the problem we encountered was that no-one really knew how to use this material to teach.
Despite the number of new computers installed in free community learning centers, a disconnect between our technology and sustainable student improvement persisted.
To overcome this barrier, we created lesson plans for the local teachers. We ran seminars detailing the particulars of the offline resources. Still though, we found that many of the busy teachers were unable to comprehend the new active learning plans which incorporated both the input of teacher and student.
Often, huge parts of a lesson were skipped in favor of the games or fun activities. The fun activities would be of little value though, because there had not been any scaffolding during the rest of the class; no foundations upon which to build.
Myanmar can have an unfaltering ‘Yes’ culture. Criticism is shied away from, making it hard to get honest assessment about our pedagogical approach. And that was when we could get any feedback at all. For many months we were told that everything was fine; people were happy and lessons were going well. When we returned in person, we found the opposite to be true.
We suffered from the crushing reality that laptops would be handed over after months of disuse, dusty and decrepit. The center would explain how someone finally wanted to use the machine, but there was an error when it started; a green screen depicting a burnt out graphics card, or a series of huge long white error scripts preventing the operating system from ever leaving the bus and arriving on screen.
We decided that we needed a culture change.
No longer should we hand over the goods, such as tablets or laptops, before we assessed and developed methods to ensure that our local teachers could and would use the technology to improve learning.
I started by training a group of 11 teachers in a monastic school. Three months later I returned to find they had forgotten everything I had taught. Not promising. We adapted by focusing our efforts on smaller and smaller groups of teachers; groups of six, then two, then one-on-one individual training.
We shifted our assessment of potential teachers to focus more heavily on their eagerness and quality of the feedback they provided; how adaptable were they willing to be? Our model requires teachers to be be able to thrive independently, and therefore it is crucial to provide the skills that they need to carry on after we leave, and build a genuine bond such that they will report honestly to us when we change to virtual online feedback with intermittent visits.
By making our trainings more direct (1-on-1 as much as possible) and dialogue-driven, we are already seeing more engaged teachers as a result.
One such new teacher is currently training with us from Rakhine State, in a tiny village close to the Bangladesh border. He displays a rare enthusiasm, alongside an attitude to get better and to teach well. By engaging with him more deeply in the beginning of the training process, we’ve learned how his motivation to teach is tied closely to pride for his village. He has a desire to stay and build in the village that is unique among many peers who wish to emigrate as soon as possible, and knowing this has helped us make more informed training-decisions.
In the beginning, we gave him a curriculum from which to teach. He turned out to be planning illiterate; missing out huge chunks of lesson during the 2-hour class. However, we learned from our previous training shortcomings and worked to adapt to his needs.
Instead of trying to force pre-planned training sessions upon him, we started a live feedback system in real classes where I would literally stand up in the class and tell him to try something different when I could see the students disengage. We followed this unorthodox approach with hours of meticulous feedback about why things went wrong, what we could do to fix it next time and how we could move on from this defeat.
Currently I am still living in this village of 250 houses, where it would appear that everyone is the cousin of my student. We have implemented a strict 3-day teaching policy with the off days being ‘free to plan’ as my student succinctly put it.
We face difficulties of course; but on the whole we have seen a great improvement in the quality of planning and teaching. The worst lessons now are far superior to the best lesson we saw before we started our intervention. The trainee wants to make each lesson better and keep repeating the lesson until it is textbook perfect. This shift in perspective is already contributing to significant improvements in our program. As more of our trainees continue to buy-in to our priorities of proactive planning and healthy feedback, I strongly believe these new educators can be the catalysts to changing the learning culture among their students and fellow teachers, and a new era for Myanmar’s education can truly emerge.
Chloe Smith is the Project Coordinator and Teacher Trainer at New Education Highway for Myanmar. She holds a BA and MA in English as well as a CELTA qualification. She has over 7 years teaching and training experience.
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