Fred's Blog

You Can’t Teach an Old Dogma New Tricks

International agencies, NGOs, and corporations have flooded the developing world with a dizzying array of solutions designed to close the education gap.  Many solutions have proven their efficacy as promising pilots, even as education tipping-points.

These promising solutions often devolve into empty promises: ephemeral at best, even destructive, without the key ingredient:  teacher leaders.

Avoid the obsession with killer apps and magic bullets.  Stop thinking that a new curriculum or a “teacher proof” guide or test-performance teacher evaluation will “fix” what ails our education systems.  Don’t work around, instead of, or because of teachers.  Invest in teacher leaders.  Identify talent, and let them do their jobs.

Otherwise, we make the same mistakes over and over again…and we all know that you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.

Read the profiles of nine Teachers Without Borders members from nine countries who have employed technology and local resources to connect, create, and change the communities around them. Most had little money, but managed to make a huge impact.  Some had internet, others had no electricity.  Some had support, while others had to overcome the obstacles of dogma and distrust.  All succeeded.

Feng Ping, an elementary school teacher in Chengdu, China, watched an open-access video of a colleague implementing science inquiry in his classroom. By observing a colleague teach his class 15 time zones away, Ms. Ping reflected upon her teaching methods to better encourage scientific exploration and critical-thinking in her classroom, located in post-earthquake Dujiangyan. She chose to connect inquiry science with safety, localized the curriculum, turned to her colleagues at her school to ask for feedback, documented her progress, and shared her findings.

During one of Pakistan’s devastating floods, Sameena Nazir observed children searching for their homes and their schools, longing for any semblance of normalcy.  She reviewed the literature about post-disaster trauma, psychosocial services, and the vulnerability of children to further catastrophe.  She gathered school supplies from sources within and beyond the flood plain.  She wrote grants, stayed in touch with her new global network, and established her own child-friendly spaces for displaced children. She aggregated and created free resources, localized the curriculum, turned to her colleagues for support, documented her progress, and shared her findings. Here, too, authorities have asked her to train her colleagues.

In Mexico, Gladys García, a high school social studies teacher from Saltillo, enrolled in a free, global teacher development program and published her online portfolio for the Department of Basic Education in the State of Coahuila to review. The program has been added to the database of approved professional development opportunities for local teachers, known as the Quality Schools Program. For Gladys, free open resources have made a substantial difference in her professional development and classroom practice.

In Uganda, Jude Tadeo Walubo conducted Peace Education workshops, integrating teacher professional development, character education, and HIV/AIDS education.  He collected teacher testimonies and lesson-plans for use in a free, online journal.  He is reaching his entire community, and then some.

In Nigeria, Raphael Ogar Oko established a program first with the Millennium Development Goals, then the Sustainable Development Goals, that celebrates the achievement of local teachers who have made a difference in their own communities, along with a Voice of Teachers radio show (syndicated and sustained by advertisement revenue) that has reached 1.8 million listeners a week.

In Kenya, Joseph Muleka and Mathias Osimbo found a local partner, CBO Life Focus Group, to help them adapt a Peace Education program for a region torn asunder by post-election violence.  The materials were free and participants have led their own seminars.  This is sustainability writ large.

In Cyprus, Nikleia Eteokleous-Grigoriou extended her doctoral studies in educational assessment to determine whether a six-nation youth program, MYTecc (Mediterranean Youth Technology Club), was designed to correlate academic achievement and positive attitudes toward school with global connections. “If they can learn from and with each other,” perhaps they’ll stay in school and achieve.”  They did.  Her initiative and use of free online resources has drawn the attention of the European Union.

In Ghana, teachers convened a West Africa Teachers’ Conference to discuss common challenges, research opportunities, and peer-to-peer teacher professional development models, utilizing OER.  Their conversations led to a shared, singular focus on special-needs children and teacher training. Several received scholarships to attend an International Policies and Practices Conference in Accra, organized by the Global Autism project.

In Zambia, teachers concerned about malaria infections, even after wide distribution of medicated bed-nets, observed that many nets were not being used correctly, leaving children exposed.  In collaboration with global colleagues, they designed a competition for children: design the most effective use of a bed-net.  The winner: instructions for building a pup-tent.  The result:  children enjoyed sleeping in their new home-inside-a-home and a decline in malarial infections.

These stories dignify the profession by ensuring that excellent teachers hold their peers accountable. They correlate to higher graduation rates, lower drop-out rates, more consistent classroom integration of new knowledge, and lower costs. They are also powerful enough to shed light on every sector and range of national educational policy reform, from financial and technological allocations and disbursements to university accreditation and teacher recruitment.

The Ingenuity of Local Talent
There is no lack of supply of educational solutions and brilliant ideas, some of which are described below.  Most are inexpensive, contextualized, and sustainable.  All reflect the grit and ingenuity of local talent:

Health programs that provide de-worming and protection from water-borne diseases, hygiene basics, and vitamin supplements have saved millions of lives, accelerated enrolment rates, and have contributed to measurable advances in per-capita income.

Monetary incentives for parents, increased national allocation percentages for education, debt-relief or cancellation, and new school construction or retrofitting initiatives have ensured a stable infrastructure, inspired breakthrough approaches to the “architecture” of schooling, as well as community-oriented, creative use of existing facilities, in off hours, as health clinics, cybercafés, and tutoring or literacy centers.

Textbook dissemination and school uniform subsidies allow children to attend school and have something to study.  Soccer balls and musical instruments inspire cohesion and keep children engaged.  Computers, mobile phones, internet access, and social networks have lowered barriers to affordability, accessibility, and availability of information, spawned a flat world of social enterprise at every level, enhanced emergency services, demystified the maze of government services for the illiterate, and stimulated democracy movements.

Girls’ and women’s education (from early childhood education through graduate school) and a commitment to equity at all levels have dramatically reduced cases of malnutrition and infant mortality and enhanced economic participation, measurable at every level – from the family unit to the GDP.

Each of these transformational efforts succeeds only when planted in fertile soil: teacher communities of practice sustained by local leadership and global support. Unfortunately, policy and practice are not aligned with best practices. As Dorothy Parker once wrote: “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

We have learned this lesson before; the teachers’ voice is missing just when it is needed the most. Top-down, supply-chain efforts evaluated mostly by distribution metrics tell us more about market penetration than educational effectiveness. Having invested millions on duplicate online learning management platforms barely distinguishable from each other, technology companies wonder why the initial sound and fury signifies nothing only months after the launching ceremony.

Inexpensive laptops are manufactured and readied for ubiquitous distribution, their well-intentioned founders convinced that an access-solves-everything mentality will kick-start whole nations of autodidacts.  Diagnostic software platforms have been injected into the educational system, accompanied by marketing campaigns and ad-hoc training seminars that leave out either the student or the teacher in the hope of overcoming the “error” factor.

Expensive pilots, celebrity-driven or one-off charitable efforts, technology blitzes, teacher-proof kits, and elite “thought-leader” forums have never made a lasting difference.  Nevertheless, they persist, like a parent who force-feeds a food to which a child has an allergy, just because it is filled with vitamins.  The child builds both a physical resistance to the medicine used to counteract the allergic reaction, and an emotional resistance to the parent.

Large educational change can scale only by mirroring the qualities of excellent classrooms.  Like an excellent classroom, a good idea must arise from a demand, rather than respond to a supply.  Like excellent classrooms characterized by engaged and motivated students, large-scale educational development efforts must ensure that teachers are central to national education strategy.  Like excellent classrooms that blend autonomy with accountability, educational change must allow room for research that challenges basic assumptions, yet maintains the highest standard of competence.

Like excellent classrooms that value the social construction of vetted knowledge, national reform efforts must structure and guarantee teacher dialogue, facilitate a clearinghouse of best practices, and incentivize sharing.  Like excellent classrooms convened by teachers who remove obstacles so that all children can achieve, national educational development must resist the hubristic attempt to embrace “one-stop solutions, magic bullets, and killer apps.”

Recommendations:  Lowered Costs, Greater Impacts, and a Focus on Leadership

  • Embrace Open Educational Resources so that Schools of Education can eliminate education textbooks and enlist veteran teachers to dovetail OERs to national standards
  • Rate and accredit Schools of Education based upon criteria that include: (1) student evaluations and (2) coursework that reflects relevant issues faced by local teachers and which actively model (rather than lecture about) constructivist pedagogies (3) recruitment practices along the transparent and accountable lines that provide sustained and consistent outreach to rural communities
  • Lower costs and enhance effectiveness by replacing theoretical professional development seminars with a system that relies upon the experience of local teacher leaders. Build and recruit gender-balanced mentor teams incentivized to share content and best practices, as well as take responsibility for the success of new teachers.
  • Invest in early-teacher programs (particularly geared to first-third year teachers) by building a robust support network of mentors and peers that mitigates against professional isolation. Invest in principal leadership programs and enlist international agencies, NGOs, and Schools of Education to recruit a new generation of young, data-driven innovators who have proven success in the classroom
  • Ensure that every teacher has access to vetted subject matter and lessons s/he can implement immediately, adapt for local contexts, and remix for sharing worldwide. Choose a low-cost collaboration platform (many exist) that connects a teachers’ social network to a teacher collaboration space so that a global community of peers can talk with each other and, wherever possible, visit each other’s classrooms.

These recommendations focus almost exclusively on teacher professional development, collaboration, feedback, and support.  One may ask, what happened to those large-scale good ideas?  Once again, these solutions must emerge from need and be supported by teacher communities of practice.  Focus on teacher development; the research that emerges will most certainly point Ministers of Education in the right direction.  Everything else is secondary.


At over 59 million, teachers represent the largest professionally trained group in the world.  They know who is sick, missing, or orphaned by AIDS.  They administer polio drops and protect children, wherever possible, from the scourge of military gangs or human trafficking.  Nevertheless, nearly half of teachers surveyed reported that they were unprepared and socially isolated. Professional development was described as spotty, irrelevant, or missing entirely.

While one must acknowledge that noticeable, even substantial, gains have been made to address the education targets of United Nations inspired goals, sustained change continues to elude us because little emphasis has been placed on the practices that focus on the most powerful of leverage points – the teacher. The complexity of variables (culture, context, capacity) is daunting, indeed. After all, education is both art and science. Nevertheless, this is where we must place our emphasis as a society.

Our education divides and equality gaps are yawning.  At the same time, schools populated by excellent teachers represent stability and a national resource, even amidst natural disasters and civil unrest.  In order to leverage and deepen any achievements to date, I urge all decision makers to solicit teachers to serve as policy makers.

In the hands of a great teacher, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, hope is kindled, and resilience can be restored.  In the end, as it has always been: a society is only as good as its teachers.