Classroom Innovation, Professional Agency and the Conditions needed to Thrive – how Schools2030 and STiR Education are Supporting Teachers to drive the achievement of SDG4 

15 September 2022
By Sarah James

If we are to truly transform education, governments will need to be radical in how they support and elevate teachers and the teaching profession. This week’s Transforming Education Summit (TES) presents an opportunity for policymakers to begin doing so. In this article, Dr Bronwen Magrath from Schools2030 and John Mcintosh from STiR Education offer tested and practical solutions for policymakers to create education systems where teacher agency, innovation and motivation can flourish.

With a global teacher shortage, and worrying levels of attrition and burnout, the teaching profession is in crisis. The demands on teachers are greater than ever: they are at the frontline of addressing a learning crisis deepened by pandemic-enforced school closures and are facing increasing numbers of students in their classrooms, many of whom require social and emotional as well as academic support. We are pleased to see the Transforming Education Summit (TES) Thematic Action Track 3 focuses on teachers, teaching and the teaching profession and lays out a clear set of recommendations and action points to put teachers at the centre of educational transformation. 

We agree with the authors of the accompanying pre-summit discussion paper that ‘the role of teachers has also expanded from knowledge providers to knowledge producers and sense-makers of complex realities’. If we are to both equip teachers to successfully fulfil this role and sufficiently motivate them to remain in classrooms, we must support them to design practical and scalable ideas that will improve their environments and outcomes. We will offer such ideas under three key themes from the paper: 

  • Innovation in classrooms  
  • Agency in professional development  
  • Conditions for teachers to thrive  

Teacher Wande Mkonyi demonstrates his classroom innovation, the T-Learning Model – a playful way he now teaches emergent literacy and numeracy at his school – at the Schools2030 Global Forum

Innovation in classrooms  

The TES Action Track 3 discussion paper emphasises that “Education systems should reward experimentation, innovation, teacher agency and autonomy and document and promote transformative results” 

It is widely recognised that young people need to develop a range of skills and competencies, including social-emotional or “21st century skills”, in order to establish positive livelihoods and career paths. Yet around the world, our education systems are not set up to encourage the development of these skills. Pandemic-related school closures have only served to underscore the need for more responsive, flexible and innovative approaches to learning. Teachers urgently need professional support, tools, resources and models that can allow them to respond to the learning needs of their students. They also need the time, space and autonomy to experiment with transformative education methods that can deliver real results for learners.   

The Schools2030 Three Step Model (Assess, Innovate, Showcase) provides a tested model for teacher-driven experimentation and innovation. Through Schools2030’s suite of contextualised, free, open-source tools and resources, teachers can assess the academic and social-emotional learning needs and gaps of their students; co-design targeted innovations and practices to raise and transform learning outcomes; and document and share these innovations through showcasing opportunities and events that connect classroom level innovation to wider education systems change.   

Although the Schools2030 model has only been implemented at classroom level for one year, we are already seeing signs of transformation across schools in all ten programme countries. For example, teachers in Lamu, Kenya co-created “Peace Clubs” that use sports to ease tensions between students of different ethnic groups. They are already reporting significant change in the social cohesion as well as student engagement and attendance. In Osh, Kyrgyzstan, where many parents need to migrate overseas for work, one preschool teacher has created a “migrant parent storytelling” practice so that parents can join their children’s classes via video link and join in storytelling and other activities. One grandmother notes that the opportunity for parent-child engagement has made noticeable positive changes in her grandchildren’s learning and wellbeing.  But perhaps the greatest change is in the teachers themselves, who report a new sense of autonomy and motivation as they are given the time, space, support and trust to drive innovation in teaching and learning. 

Teachers in the Kyrgyz Republic are walked through the Human-Centred Design process by Aga Khan Foundation facilitators.

Agency in professional development  

The active participation of teaching personnel and their representative organizations in the development of short, medium-term, and long-run strategies to support educational transformation is crucial to ensure that their expert perspective and professional needs are considered

The participation of teachers in such activities is critical for two important reasons. The first is technical. It is self-evident that teachers understand the opportunities and challenges faced in the classroom. If policy is to be sufficiently informed to meet these, the input of teachers is not a ‘nice to have’, but core to its success. The second is motivational. We all need to believe that we matter. In our professional lives, that means a secure belief that our voices are heard and meaningfully responded to by those in power. Governments therefore need to ensure that fora are in place to meet these technical and motivational needs. 

In Uganda, STiR has collaborated with the Ministry of Education and Sports to establish a co-design team, which curates content for teacher professional development at primary and secondary level. This co-design team is comprised of policy makers, union officials, teacher trainers, school leaders and teachers themselves. The group meets on a quarterly basis to assess training needs and draft content. This content is then taken to a variety of schools for testing and feedback from teachers and tweaked accordingly. This process not only gives teachers a meaningful voice in the development of national policy initiatives, but also provides a forum for direct dialogue between teachers and policymakers. This builds crucial mutual understanding, ensuring that policymakers have a clear and accurate grasp of the challenges teachers face on the ground. As one teacher commented, teachers ‘now build our own autonomy to find solutions to the challenges we face, rather than having solutions imposed upon us’.  

Teachers and Aga Khan Foundation staff pictured on a visit to schools in Dar Es Salaam on a day of cultural exchange and peer-to-peer learning

Creating conditions for teachers to thrive  

Accelerating progress toward SDG 4 and transforming education is only possible when all education personnel are professionalized, trained, motivated, and supported.  

Teachers do not exist in a professional vacuum. The conditions in which they work are shaped by a complex web of factors, not least of which are the beliefs, competencies and values of other education professionals in the system. These include school leaders, as well as local, regional and national officials. If we want teachers to thrive, we need to ensure the same for these stakeholders.  

To address this, STiR has worked with the Delhi government to develop a government-led cell called the Lifelong Learning Unit (LLU). This LLU seeks to ensure that teachers, professional development co-ordinators, and other key officials are motivated across the whole education system. The LLU is responsible for ensuring that training for all education personnel is underpinned by the core pillars of intrinsic motivation: autonomy (that their choices and actions matter); mastery (that they experience getting better) and purpose (they feel deep connection to both their peers and the children in the system). This approach not only helps foster a united sense of purpose across the system, but also opens up important conversations about focus and resource allocation. Officials, for example, are invited to reflect upon the extent to which their actions either facilitate or impede effective teaching and learning.  One state official aptly summarised the close relationships across the system: ‘They are like my family members; I feel like we are a family… the 1127 TDCs [professional development co-ordinators] feel like a part of our family so as a guardian of the family, I am always ready to listen to the family members. I’m here with them and if any support is needed… the state level is ready to support’.    

For Schools2030, creating an enabling environment for teachers’ professional development means recognising that teachers have always been knowledge producers not simply providers.  Schools2030 believes that all teachers are designers and action researchers – they continually observe their students learning and iterate their lessons accordingly. Schools2030 aims to formalise this process and create an environment that allows for experimentation, that supports their autonomy and recognises their expertise, and ultimately allows them to flourish in the job they do – supporting young people on the path to fulfilling their potential.  

What next?  

Dialogue at TES a good start. We applaud the TES organisers for their recognition and amplification of the teaching profession. In the global education sector we talk a lot about the need for education system change. For STiR and Schools2030 teachers are the drivers of this change. But we cannot leave them to this work alone – we must build enabling environments in our schools, communities and organisations where the leadership and status of teachers is amplified.  Policy-makers, civil society and education support personnel all have critical roles to play.  

STiR Education will hold its annual Partnership and Strategy Group forum in November 2022, bringing together a range of stakeholders to reflect further on how we can support teachers to thrive. At the next Schools2030 Global Forum in Porto in June 2023, we will come together once again with representatives of schools, education systems and civil society. Both events are an opportunity to check in on the progress towards meeting the commitments and recommendations that will come out of the Transforming Education Summit and to chart our continued path forward to 2030 and the achievement of quality, equitable learning for all. 

Dr Bronwen Magrath is the Schools2030 Global Programme Manager at the Aga Khan Foundation and John Mcintosh is the Director of Learning and Impact at STiR Education.

Schools2030 is a ten-year participatory learning improvement programme based in 1,000 government schools across ten countries. Schools2030 supports teachers and students to design and implement education micro-innovations. These low-cost and scaleable innovations will inform and transform education systems to improve holistic learning outcomes for the most marginalised learners worldwide. Join the movement on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.