Improving education through quality teaching: evidence from the African Education Research Database

Samuel Asare is the Research Manager at ESSA and also works as a researcher at the REAL Centre (at the University of Cambridge). In this article he delves into our African Education Research Database, which has over 4,000 pieces of research by scholars in Africa, to find out what researchers say about the quality of teachers and teaching.

This article is part of ESSA's research blog, featuring short reports and articles about education by researchers.

Students at university in Accra, Ghana

Low student learning outcomes has attracted the attention of education stakeholders across the globe. This has increased efforts to invest in education delivery to redress this problem, especially for students in low- and middle-income countries.

Even though many factors contribute to poor learning outcomes, poor quality teaching is identified as pivotal (Salifu et al. 2018). The role of teachers in student learning is acknowledged by African leaders in the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025, a document which sets out twelve strategic objectives to improve education delivery in Africa and has its first objective as ‘Revitalize the teaching profession to ensure quality and relevance at all levels of education’ (p. 8).  To achieve this objective, access to contextually relevant evidence is critical. However, it has been difficult to identify education research by scholars based in sub-Saharan Africa because there is no central location to access this information.

To help address this gap, Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) partnered with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) centre, University of Cambridge to develop the African Education Research Database

This article is based on a comprehensive synthesis produced from the project. Specifically, it sheds light on the theme – teachers and teaching – covering aspects of teacher education, teaching methods and teacher workforce management. Before discussing these topics, key findings and recommendations are presented.

Key findings and recommendations 

  • Personal values of service and selflessness are important for teacher effectiveness. Teacher training institutions should develop admission strategies that go beyond grades of prospective teachers to identify those with these values. 

  • Mentoring and supervision during initial teacher training enhance professional competencies. Students' voices need to be incorporated in designing strategies for mentoring and supervision. 

  • In-service training programmes are more beneficial if teachers are involved in their development and resources are provided for teachers to use the knowledge and skills gained through training. 

  • The implementation of learner-centred pedagogies in sub-Saharan Africa has been largely ineffective primarily because teachers and students share values and beliefs that contradict those pedagogies. Effort should be directed at strengthening the existing teacher-centred pedagogies or a blend of both approaches. 

Teacher education and professional learning 

An important aspect of quality teaching is teacher knowledge and skills. This requires quality teacher education and opportunities for professional learning (Okiror et al. 2017). Teacher education institutions need to strengthen their recruitment processes to better understand what motivates applicants so they can go beyond grades to recruit people with the right attitude for teaching. Research shows that teaching as a career is influenced by several factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic (Mhishi et al. 2012; Moses et al. 2017). Notwithstanding the importance of financial rewards in making a career choice, prospective teachers are required to possess social and personal values of service and selflessness (Rothmann & Hamukang’andu, 2013). This is very important considering that teachers in sub-Saharan Africa are among the lowest paid professionals.

Recruiting people mainly motivated by extrinsic factors can have a dire consequence in the future because they may invest less time and effort in their work, especially when dealing with struggling students, and potentially leave the profession. According to Ong’ondo and Borg (2011), pre-service teachers develop empathetic attitudes when their teachers are empathetic and show interest not only in their academic performance but most importantly in their overall wellbeing (Ong’ondo & Borg, 2011). The benefits derived from supportive teacher-student relationships remain with pre-service teachers and they tend to have positive relationships with their own students when they start work.  

Furthermore, Ong’ondo and Borg (2011) argued that mentoring and supervision during initial teacher training enhance professional competencies among pre-service teachers, but these services are limited and often poorly implemented. Students voices need to be incorporated in designing strategies for mentoring and supervision. While findings vary, studies highlight the importance of teacher professional programmes in relation to teaching practice. For example, Koloi-Keaikitse (2016) found that teachers who attended in-service workshops improved their use of assessment to enhance student learning. In-service training programmes are more beneficial if teachers are involved in their development and resources are provided for teachers to use the knowledge and skills gained through training.            

Teaching methods 

Having the right knowledge and skills is important but without effective pedagogy that takes account of student background and the learning context, not much progress will be made (Tabulawa, 2013). Consistent with global patterns, researchers based in sub-Saharan Africa report increasing implementation of learner-centred pedagogies – active learning strategies that create space for students to interact with peers and teachers (Giwa-Lawal & Ortis, 2017). However, there are increasing concerns over the feasibility of learner-centred pedagogies in sub-Saharan African contexts due to issues such as large class sizes, differences in cultural values and beliefs, and insufficient relevant instructional materials (Mannathoko & Mamvuto, 2018). Since the problem of large class sizes is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, Ndethiu et al. (2016) advised that training teachers to be effective in large class contexts is a higher strategic priority than reducing class size.  

Tabulawa (2013) argued that learner-centred pedagogies are ineffective primarily because students and teachers share values that contradict those pedagogies. For example, teachers perceived transmitting curriculum knowledge to students as their main responsibility, to help students pass public exams. To achieve this, students’ role is to pay attention and be ready to receive instruction. In line with teacher-centred pedagogies which limits student involvement in the form of asking questions and participating in class discussions and debates, meaningful learning happens when students answer questions, write assignments and take notes. 

From personal experience, it seems this view resonates with higher education students. Teachers who show high level of subject knowledge and present lectures with limited discussions are considered most effective and likely to get good evaluation. This situation is problematic because when opportunities are provided for students to share ideas that are challenged in positive and supportive ways by peers and teachers, it helps them to reflect on their views and modify their own grasp of knowledge, leading them to develop broader, deeper understandings and better integration of ideas. 

There is an increasing call from researchers to use indigenous knowledge and pedagogies to enhance learning. For example, folk-story telling has been used to teach cultural values and encourage class participation (Charamba & Mutasa, 2018). Other areas that can benefit from indigenous knowledge are environmental education and peace education. There is evidence that when teachers relate lessons to students’ experiences and socio-cultural backgrounds, by relying on knowledge within the community, students learn better (Kaahwa, 2011).            

Teacher workforce management 

Researchers addressing teacher workforce management identify a range of related challenges impacting the quality of instruction. Alhassan and Adzahlie-Mensah (2010) argued that in most contexts, teacher attendance is shown to be inconsistent, with poor punctuality and high absenteeism both from the school and the classroom impacting student learning and access. This situation is influenced partly by job dissatisfaction and inadequate instructional supervision (Chua & Mosha, 2015). The poor condition of service that teachers receive provides reasons for teachers to seek additional jobs to supplement their income leading to high absenteeism.  

Aside absenteeism, retention is another issue. According to Adusei et al. (2016), stress at work, the desire for professional autonomy, and a lack of alternative career choices all impact retention among teachers. In addition, limited induction and early career support for newly qualified teachers, as well as heavy professional workload, have also been found to relate to low retention rates across the region (Ssempeebwa et al. 2016). Heavy workload resulting from large class size negatively affects teachers’ ability to provide detailed feedback to help students get a clear direction of how to improve their work. For instance, in the lower levels of education, it is common for a teacher to have seventy students or more. This situation is worse in tertiary education, where five-hundred students per teacher is not unusual. In such situations, it is very difficult for teachers to provide individual support which is very important for students learning. Compounding this is a shortage of teaching aids and assistants to help teachers manage workload, particularly in large class settings (Mokibelo, 2016).        

Conclusion  

This article addresses how student learning outcomes can be improved through quality teaching, focusing on teacher education and professional learning, teaching methods, and teacher workforce management. It argues for teacher training institutions to enhance their admission process to recruit trainees with important values for teaching and provide a supportive learning environment to facilitate development of professional competencies. In-service teachers need to be supported with training and mentorship, as well as resources to enhance their performance. These will contribute significantly to the effort towards inclusive learning for all in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

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