A key goal of international development in education
One of the most important challenges faced by international development agencies, NGOs and government stakeholders in education today concerns the question of how to improve quality in education in low-income countries of the global South (e.g., UNESCO, 2017). While student enrolment has increased steadily in most developing countries, the challenge of quality in the classroom, as prioritized in Sustainable Development Goal 4, has become an important, yet elusive target. Significant sums of money are invested every year in initiatives which typically involve the introduction of methodologies and practices that originate in higher-income national educational contexts, such as developing more learner-centred classrooms or introducing new approaches to teaching initial literacy and numeracy. Unfortunately, as a result, primarily of three factors: a lack of feasibility, appropriacy and/or sustainability, these attempts achieve disappointingly little (e.g., Karavas-Doukas, 1998; UNICEF, 2015). Many peter out gradually once funding dries up, and others fail to register any impact on target outcomes, such as student learning, social-emotional development or well-being in the classroom.
Having lived and worked in over 30 countries worldwide, many in the Global South, I’ve observed and participated in a number of such ill-fated interventions. The assumption behind them always seems to be that, because the system as a whole is underperforming, we need to introduce something new from systems where performance is higher, an assumption that I seek to challenge.
A different way to achieve this goal
In my new book for the Cambridge Education Research series: Teacher expertise in the Global South: Theory, research and evidence (Anderson, 2023) I argue — with supporting evidence — that there is another, important, nearly always overlooked source for improving quality in any low-income educational system: the expertise already present in the system itself. In the book I make two claims:
Neither of these claims should be surprising, yet the fact is that organisations have systematically overlooked such teachers in their attempts to improve educational quality in the Global South for the last 50 or so years. Despite the fact that, for example, three of the seven winners of the Global Teacher Prize to date are practitioners working in the Global South (see: https://globalteacherprize.org/), and despite the fact that teacher expertise research has long been recognised as a useful means to understand and disseminate appropriate good practice in education (e.g., Berliner, 2004; Hattie, 2003), of over 100 expert teacher studies conducted around the world, it is remarkable that, prior to my research, only one had been conducted in a low- or lower-middle income country (see Anderson & Taner, 2023).
Building on my argument for the need to identify practices that are feasible (e.g., logistically), appropriate (e.g., culturally) and sustainable (e.g., in terms of teacher workload), I argue that improvements emerging from the study of endogenous expertise — that which originates within an educational system — are much more likely to succeed than those that come from outside.
My own aims in writing the book
Given my own background as a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer for teacher education, I did not want to write another one of those academic texts offering theory about what should change, what might work, or how we might go about finding out. This book presents detailed, empirically collected data on what is working today in classrooms in one specific context in the global South: Indian secondary education.
Because my aim is to engage readers from all sectors of educational research, policy and teacher education, I present findings that I hope will speak to all of these stakeholders, which means offering insights from across the qualitative-quantitative continuum (I don’t see this as a dichotomy) from the micro to the macro scale. Thus, the data presented begins with a detailed, ethnographic portrait of the classrooms of one expert Indian teacher of English, Nurjahan Naik Kwaja, contextualising her expert practice, beliefs and knowledge as intricately as possible in her own community. This is followed by a comparative case analysis of the similarities and differences between eight expert teachers from across India, looking at how and why their practices were frequently similar, but sometimes different – the latter is as important as the former in understanding where quality does and doesn’t lie in education. Then the book offers systematic comparison of these findings to those of the wider literatures of relevance: both research on effective teaching in low-income contexts and prior studies of teacher expertise, as documented in the largest ever systematic review of this body of evidence (see Anderson & Taner, 2023). Based on these earlier chapters, the book is able to offer a practically useful, albeit provisional, ‘differentiated framework of teacher expertise’, allowing stakeholders to understand how expertise itself might vary depending on the influence of multiple factors, many of which originate in issues of investment and poverty, both in the education system itself, and in the lives of its key stakeholders – learners and their families. For it is these issues that frequently lie just beneath the surface of many (but not all) challenges in education across the varied contexts of the global South.
The need for a reflexive, participatory approach
My personal background was a strong influence, not only on the content of the research, but also on how I conducted the study. As I have spent much of my career working in classrooms in the global South, I was very much aware that my own background, as a white, male, British teacher educator and researcher, would influence both how I interpreted what I experienced while collecting data, and also how others responded, or reacted to my presence. As a result, I chose to develop a participatory approach to the study, not only in how I recruited participants – all of whom met multiple criteria for participation in a teacher expertise study (following Palmer et al., 2005) – but also in how we (the participating teachers and I) planned the study and formulated the research questions as a team. In this sense, the project became collaborative, facilitating the production of a number of outputs, such as a co-authored book, written by the eight teachers as a guide to support less experienced colleagues, and numerous webinars that we delivered together. The data presented underwent two stages of participant validation, ensuring that the teachers were fully informed, not only of how I had characterised their practices, but also of how I compared them to each other, before they unanimously chose not to be anonymised in the study, but to be identified and celebrated as a sample of India’s many expert teachers. A chapter in the book is devoted to the topic of studying teacher expertise in the global South to support others interested in conducting comparable studies.
Valuing and building on local expertise
As well as emphasising the need for education systems to identify and learn from endogenous expertise, I also argue that such expertise can constitute a key component in the development of local research databases of effective practice. In the penultimate chapter I offer a proposal for how this may happen; a framework for how various research activities (e.g., teacher research, teacher expertise research and larger-scale experimental studies and meta-analyses) can interact coherently to provide a reliable map of what practices work appropriately and sustainably to improve learning and well-being.
I am very much aware that this book, and the project behind it, is highly ambitious in its goals. I am also very much aware of its shortcomings, such as the limited sample size involved in my primary data, and the ever-present dangers of anthropocentrism and essentialisation of the global South. Yet I make no apologies for setting these goals. One thing I learnt from working with expert teachers is that through striving towards such goals we can create opportunities for learning, both from our successes and from our challenges. As such, I encourage and welcome feedback from others who also believe in valuing and building on local expertise in education – particularly in the global South.
Anderson, J. (2023). Teacher expertise in the global South: Theory, research and evidence. Cambridge University Press.
Anderson, J., & Taner, G. (2023). Building the expert teacher prototype: A metasummary of teacher expertise studies in primary and secondary education. Educational Research Review, 38, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2022.100485
Berliner, D. C. (2004). Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24(3), 200–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0270467604265535
Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Australian Council for Educational Research.
Karavas-Doukas, K. (1998). Evaluating the implementation of educational innovations: Lessons from the past. In P. Rea-Dickins & K. P. Germaine (Eds.), Managing evaluation and innovation in language teaching: Building bridges (pp. 25–50). Routledge.
Palmer, D. J., Burdenski, T. K., Jr., & Gonzales, M. (2005). Identifying teacher expertise: An examination of researchers’ decision making. Educational Psychologist, 40(1), 13–25. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4001_2
UNESCO. (2017). Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments. Global education monitoring report 2017/8. UNESCO Publishing. https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/report/2017/accountability-education
UNICEF. (2015). Evaluation of activity based learning as a means of child-friendly education: Final report. UNICEF/Educational Initiatives. www.ei-india.com/newEIWebsite/eiasset/pdf/evaluation-of-abl-as-a-means-of-child-friendly-education-%20final-report.pdf