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.


Fred's Blog

What is a Super Learner?

In an interview with Eric Davidove of Super Learner Magazine, I was asked the following:  How do you notice the presence of superlearners within the respective communities that you serve? What is their effect on other community members?

First, perhaps, a definition of superlearner is in order. For us at Teachers Without Borders (an international non-governmental organization devoted to local teacher development – on a global scale), our definition of superlearner is observational, rather than empirical, but consistent.

Superlearners (a) remove barriers to all forms of learning so that they can seek, find, discover, and create information (b) use street smarts to apply and advance advanced concepts to problems (c) superlearners remain so (rather than learn in bursts, then implode) because they are making progress, even if the goal of understanding something continues to elude them. In short, they pursue knowledge with a kind of manic zeal, they can think on their feet, and they climb the stairs of their accomplishments

In what ways might superlearners become frustrated at the existing learning and collaboration structure of their workplace? What can learning executives do to meet the needs of superlearners and to harness their energy?

The hip answer to the issue of superlearner frustration is the following: they have to function within a stultifying, cubicle-based, command-and-control environment in which their voice is not heard or their accomplishments not acknowledged. While we may agree that learning takes place best in a non-intimidating and engaging environment (recent research in cognitive science provide pretty compelling evidence for this), our experience is much more nuanced than that. Kids are soaking up TED talks (lectures, really) and iPads are passive, consumer devices. But TED talks are really good and, more than an “i-fad,” mobile devices do remove barriers to access.

A workplace that jumps to the other extreme – unlimited freedom, unfettered creativity, unbridled enthusiasm for every idea, no matter what its value, is just, well, bad teaching. Superlearners find (and contribute to) the sweet spot of independence and obligation; creativity and grunt work; enthusiasm and skepticism. They have to feel, most of all, that they have contributed to the structure itself (2 days in the office, 3 days out; a structure of feedback and discipline that creates a sense of duty and play, for example). Executives would be well served, then, to come out and ask the question to their staff: “How do you learn best?” Stay away from questions having to do with productivity. Let sales go through the roof because people multiply your executive brain.

Finally, collaboration is not necessarily the answer to every issue – communication is. Sometimes we cannot possibly learn when there are others around, or even (God forbid) when we have to share everything. Though I believe our products must be shared, collaboration for super learning has its place. For me, it is at the initial brainstorm stage and then – when it matters. But don’t turn it into a mantra.

What types of social or informal learning opportunities do you have in place that you feel can potentially meet the needs of superlearners?

I am not a fan of “team-building” exercises. The Geico commercial says it all (A trust exercise involving the clueless executive falling backward, expecting the hapless gecko to catch him). But I have also learned the hard way that superlearning is falls apart when we, as an organization take ourselves too seriously, when we consider teaching and learning so hallowed, so revered that we may lose the human dimension. We know this well – that we can become superlearners when we’re having fun or when we blow off the next session at the conference and go out to lunch with someone we’ve just met who, it ends up, can really, really teach us. After all, we go to museums to find a muse. Superlearning often happens when no one is looking…or even trying.

Fred's Blog

Inquiry Science Teaching in China

I see it all the time in kindergartens through graduate school. You enter a room and settle automatically and unconsciously into your pre-assigned seat in order to be taught by a single voice coming from the front of the room.

It is quite another thing to enter that same lecture hall (seats bolted down in tiered rows),  but where the podium and the area around it is replaced by desks pushed together in pods of four, covered in newspaper.  Resting curiously in the center of each pod of tables sits a small cube. Two multiple choice questions:

1.  What is going on here?
a)  You have walked into the wrong room
b)  You have walked into the right room but something has changed
c)  You have a substitute teacher
d)  We’re all having a party
e)  All of the above

ANSWER:  (e) All of the above

(a)  Many rooms do not match the subject, but rather the efficiency of delivery
(b)  Any space can be transformed, provided creativity is valued
(c)  Same teacher, but students have also become substitute teachers
(d)  It is, indeed, a party with a  purpose, for joy is central to learning
(e)  All of these answers work together

2.  Where are we?
a)  United States
b)  Finland
c)  Singapore
d)  China

ANSWER:  (d)  China

(a)   U.S. has great science inquiry programs, but they’re not the only ones
(b)   Finland is a great education model, but is it a fair comparison?
(c)   Great resources and test performance, but at what price?
(d)   Yes, you heard that right:  China

China’s education system has been universally stereotyped and dismissed as regimented and relentlessly focused on rote-learning for the ultimate test, theGaokao (college entrance exam).

Yet anyone who attended these four days of workshops in science inquiry would be surprised at what they witnessed.  In partnership with the Qing Yang Institute of Education Science and the Biological Science Curriculum Service, Teachers Without Borders engaged 38 teachers, 20 influential advisers, and colleagues from Shanghai to Seattle.  Newspapers on desks, team-created posters on walls, the room was transformed.

And so were the people — older teachers playing games, teams arguing and laughing, individuals sketching new approaches to traditional lessons, groups holding brainstorm sessions. I imagined a sign on the front door:  “Enter at your own risk of discovery: learning taking place here!”

So what was that cube all about? Teams were instructed to gather evidence, create a and test theories, and explain their reasoning behind what they believed was at the bottom of the cube, yet they were not allowed to lift or touch it.  How frustrating!  How wonderful!  In short, they had to arrive at, and construct, the answer, rather than mimic it. The lesson?  Scientific method transformed into science-inquiry teaching methodology.

So goes the simplified label of Chinese education as designed to mimic answers, rather than ask good questions.  So, China is all about drill and kill?  A cookie-cutter education?  Chalk talk?  A nation of robots?  Stifled curiosity?  On the contrary, this room was alive and noisy.  One could also not help but notice that when teachers and advisers gathered as one assembled audience, they did so as active thinkers. The quiet was…quieter because they were rapt.

The issues Chinese teachers face are daunting: (1) large classrooms (2) limited resources (3) little or no professional support (4) almost no time for experimentation, (4) the Gaokao exam (5) international measurements and comparative rankings.

Though these issues were discussed at length, nothing damped their enthusiasm or reduced their resolve to take big steps forward.  Besides, teachers and advisers identified research by Chinese business leaders claiming that up to 44% of Chinese graduates are not fit to function successfully in a competitive global environment.  Some teachers alluded to brain research and drew conclusions about how science inquiry methodologies are consistent with optimal conditions for learning.  One teacher stated, “The key distinction here is that, if you know the subject well enough, you can truly teach each student, not just teach each subject to students.”  Well aware that they cannot use science inquiry all the time or even use all the elements of science inquiry for each lesson, these teachers forged ahead anyway.

Does science inquiry take more time?  Absolutely.  Might the students falter along the way?  Initially, they might.  What about all those other obstacles to change? They’re all valid.  There is no excuse for not paying teachers more, lowering class size, providing time to plan, or ensuring that classrooms are well stocked with the resources teachers need.  These are burning issues worth fighting for.

This was not a “down with the old, in with the new” workshop.  No one dismissed the concerns or the role of lecture and the assessment system of tests which are going to go away anytime soon, nor should they.  Teachers also addressed the criticism of science inquiry that (a) it values process over product and questions over answers (b) students and teachers spend too much timediscovering or constructing the answer, rather than simply knowing it (c) experimenting with this methodology can result in the loss of a generation of students.

Local materials became props creating musical instruments that can be played and can demonstrate principles of physics.  Ideas sprouted everywhere, shaped lovingly by colleagues.  Teachers demonstrated that science inquiry is neither unsubstantial or process-centric alone, but rather a sound teaching method that matches the nature of science scholarship itself.

For the teachers gathered here, results do matter; no one would agree to undergoing surgery by an amateur who just feels good about playing with knives, nor would one buy a plane ticket knowing that the pilot has discovered the joy of learning how to pilot a Boeing 767.  These teachers want to educate generations of surgeons who know how the medicine so well that they can focus on addressing problems that may arise in surgery and pilots so well-versed in their craft that, during a sudden storm or mechanical issue can guide the aircraft to safety.

They know they cannot change that which is out of their control.  But rather than whine, they took control of curriculum and collaborated in order to achieve more. They have large classes to teach the next day, but they’ll do so in a waythat reaches more students.  They may not have time, but they’re making time.  On occasion, some will fall off the bicycle along the way, but they’ll get right back on because they know that they will enable their students to travel that much farther.

These teachers proved the fundamental distinction between training (“I do this, now you do it, now I’ll find out if you do what I told you to do”) and professional development (“Here’s an idea we can explore and develop together”).  It was the difference between receiving yet another top-down lecture about teaching and expanding a toolset inside of teachers. 38 teachers, 20 advisers, 35 schools.  That’s enough to change the lives of thousands of children.

It could not help but notice that, as we conducted the workshops, a Chinese citizen arrived in Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was not being recognized for his ability to have memorized the components of the classic five-paragraph essay, but hailed as one for whom the rules of writing were the scaffold around which he was able to create transcendent, insightful works of literature with universal appeal.

The conditions in China are ripe for change. Both brains and creativity are a powerful chemistry to produce a future Chinese Nobel Prize winner in the sciences who could very well be inspired by a teacher in these workshops.  It seems fitting.  After all,  contemporary science inquiry teaching methods merely taps into a deeply rooted theme throughout Chinese cultural history:  “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”  Most educators around the world have heard this popular phrase, yet many may not know that it came from China.

Confucius would, indeed, be pleased to hear that his beautiful statement is alive and well – in the very country where he wrote it.