Global efforts to change teachers’ behavior in low and middle-income countries have a patchy record. How can we improve the design of new instructional activities such that teachers are more likely to adopt them? One way is to get teachers themselves to do the design.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Tusome Pamoja (a 5-year early grade reading program) tried this approach out in 16 schools in Iringa Municipality in March 2020 – just before the COVID lockdown. A week-long co-creation workshop was carried out in the belief that countless barriers exist – social norms, teacher confidence, logistical problems, to name only some – that prevent teachers from adopting new activities. And that these barriers can be addressed if only teachers are given the chance to voice them and design their own approaches to solving them. The workshop focused on designing activities that promote positive, safe, and engaging classrooms as a way of enhancing students’ learning outcomes and strengthening their social and emotional competencies.
The school-based field testing of the co-created activities had just begun when schools were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though teachers had to discontinue testing the new activities in their classrooms, they were eager to learn more and continue their work with each other and the Tusome Pamoja team during the school closures. Tusome Pamoja extended the teachers’ co-creation experience with a Co-creation Virtual Support Activity, using mobile technologies such as WhatsApp and Cell-Ed. As a result, teachers continue developing ways to transform their classrooms into safe, positive, and interactive places learn – in essence, to transform them into social classrooms.
Teachers and administrators are normally called on to collaborate in designing new curriculum or adaptations of promising practices - with known benefits of professional development and successful implementation of curriculum changes (Voogt, J, et al., 2016). However, co-creation is used less often for the purpose of helping teachers to problem-solve day-to-day challenges or to co-create learning conditions aside from subject-matter instruction, such as a positive instructional culture.
During the Tusome Pamoja co-creation workshop, teachers worked together to problem-solve some of the challenges they face in promoting student participation and to co-create a variety of classroom activities that foster participation, positive inter-personal relationships, and cooperation in learning through group and pair work. Importantly, the process provided a platform for teachers, head teachers, education officers, and district administrators in Iringa Municipality to reflect on and discuss the nature of a positive, safe, and engaging or “social” classroom.
What is a Social Classroom?
In a social classroom, pupils are encouraged and given opportunities to express their ideas, ask questions, and work cooperatively with their classmates. In a social classroom positive interpersonal interactions and relationships abound. Pupils feel cared about and supported by their peers and teachers; they develop a sense of safety and connection, which enhances subject matter learning outcomes, psychosocial well-being, and social and emotional learning. (See The Center for Disease Control, 2009; Schindler, J, et al, 2016; and Barara-Osirui, H, et al, 2020). The term “social classroom” also reflects the reality that teaching is a naturally social process. Tusome Pamoja research (Jukes, MCH & Yasmin Sitabkhan, 2020) found that some teachers are reluctant to adopt new teaching practices out of a concern for the social and emotional well-being of students. For example, they saw group work as potentially undermining class unity and posing a risk for isolating weaker students.
Co-Creating a Social Classroom
Part of co-creation involves invoking the imagination. Teachers, supervisors, and administrators closed their eyes and imagined what a loving, supportive, and welcoming school would be like. In their imagined schools, children were happy and actively involved in learning; they were confident, freely expressed their ideas, developed friendships, and cooperated with others. This visualization experience helped participants make the connections between a classroom’s nature, learning outcomes, psychosocial well-being, and social and emotional learning.
Our strategy for co-creation of groupwork activities first asked teachers to reflect on the potential benefits of this approach. Teachers used “mind maps” to represent the connection between benefits, such as increased verbal expression and learning outcomes. They then worked together in small groups to identify and resolve barriers in using group work. This process resulted in teachers designing their own group work activities that focused on specific learning goals and involved realistic approaches to tackling barriers.
Some of the co-creation process involved encouraging teachers to improvise around new activities they were exposed to in the workshop. Building on the Journeys methodology, teachers also experienced and co-created fun classroom activities that promote positive inter-personal interactions and relationships, such as Tanzania’s own “Simba Game”.
Classrooms are not always safe places for children to learn and the reality of violence in schools is often a taboo subject. A first step in co-creation is to give voice to barriers and concerns. To bring these realities into the light, teachers co-created images-of- violence posters and reflected on and shared with each other their own experiences of violence in primary schools. Some tears were shed, and empathy and compassion abounded, along with commitments to make their classrooms safe and friendly. Through discussion and a bit of debate, teachers began to realize a broader meaning of feeling safe in the classroom, to include not only being free from the fear of bullying or harsh forms of punishment, but also being free to express ideas or make mistakes without fear of humiliation.
After the week-long co-creation workshop, teachers returned to their schools ready to begin a 4-week period to try out the activities in their classrooms. After the first week of field testing, the COVID-19 entered Tanzania and schools were shut down. But the story doesn’t stop there.
Virtual Support during the COVID Lockdown
With characteristic commitment, the Iringa Municipality teachers and Ward Education Officers hit the ground running with the Co-creation Virtual Support Activity. Response rates were 100%.
The Virtual Support Activity began with creative use of WhatsApp messaging. It quickly transitioned to use a commercial mobile platform, Cell-Ed, which allowed the team to strategically reduce the day-to-day burden on teachers in their homes by delivering targeted nuggets of information and ensuring no more than 15 minutes of teacher engagement in any one day. The Cell-Ed technology enhances the effectiveness, quality, and diversity of content delivery, including SMS messaging, WhatsApp communications, and audio- and video-taped recordings.
The content and tasks given to teachers are spaced across four days in a week. Teachers receive new content at the beginning of each week for reflection, complete a 15-minute individual task, and participate in weekly breakout group discussions. Teachers submit responses to lesson queries using their mobile phones. Tusome Pamoja reviews and provides written feedback and then shares this information with the participants in a WhatsApp conference call. The Cell-Ed management system allows for real-time monitoring of teacher responses; quick turnaround of feedback; and a user and response management system with automatic reports on uptake, lesson responses, and group feedback. SMS messages summarize the lesson and inspire further reflection. Examples of the weekly support program are shown in Table 1.Table 1. Examples of the weekly Virtual Support Program
This is only the beginning. The Tusome Pamoja Virtual Support Activity is evolving every day, introducing new content based on user demands and a virtual platform to enable reflection, dialogue, and co-creation of ideas that will help teachers establish safer and more social classrooms when schools re-open. The approach is adaptable to a wide variety of virtual learning, with its core strength being simplicity of content and content delivery, opportunities for individual reflection and engagement with content, and most important, the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas through small—virtual—group discussions supported by mobile technologies.
Special appreciation to Juma Mwenga, Meshack Petro, John Shindika and Kenneth Komba for their enormous and ongoing contribution to supporting the Iringa Municipality teachers and WEOs co-create safe and social classrooms!
This blog was co-authored by Elizabeth Randolph, Julianne Norman, Jovina Tibenda and Matthew Jukes.