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Teacher innovation is key for resilient education systems: Lessons from the 2021 Policy Dialogue Forum

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By Carlos Vargas Tamez, Head of the Secretariat of the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 and Chief of UNESCO’s Section for Teacher Development & Anna Conover, Consultant.

This blog has been originally published by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) on April 22, 2022.


Unforeseen crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and violent conflict remind us that teachers and education systems need to be able to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances to meet the learning needs of children and youth. Capacity for innovation is one of the keys to building resilient education systems. Capitalizing on the many education innovations prompted by the pandemic, the Teacher Task Force chose “Innovation in teacher policy and practice for educational recovery” as the theme of its 13th Policy Dialogue Forum, which took place in Kigali, Rwanda, and online, 2-3 December 2021.

Some of the main insights documented during the Forum are presented below, including those related to innovations in teaching and learning, teacher education and policy. These have been compiled in the Forum’s Final Report, released recently.

Teacher autonomy is essential for meaningful innovation in teaching and learning

Teachers are best placed to assess the conditions of their own classrooms. Based on these, they innovate and adapt their practice, but their innovations often go unrecognized. The Forum highlighted the need to promote teacher autonomy and agency – that is, the capacity to act in an autonomous manner – to generate meaningful pedagogical innovation. However, they need training, sufficient resources, good working conditions, and support to develop the autonomy and agency needed to initiate, implement and evaluate new ways to teach that will improve student learning and wellbeing.

Emphasizing how teaching and learning are based on relationships, Forum participants shared innovative examples of how teachers collaborated with peers and parents during the pandemic. For instance, in response to school closures, Kenya’s Teachers’ Service Commission provided educators with guidance on how to support other teachers and offer psychosocial support to families and learners. By providing teachers with opportunities to discuss their teaching practices and exchange resources with each other and with students’ families, key lessons learned now inform Kenya’s policies to support online learning and teacher professional development.

Innovations involving digital technologies must be adapted to each context

The role of digital technologies in innovation was also explored during the Forum, emphasizing tailored and context-sensitive use of technologies rather than one-size-fits-all solutions. While the pandemic hastened the need for technology-assisted innovations, mechanisms to assess, scale up, and refine are also necessary to ensure these innovations meet the needs for equitable, quality, and inclusive education. However, it is important that digital technologies do not reproduce top-down, rote learning resulting in excessive standardization, but rather are designed and implemented using a range of approaches to help foster student-centered pedagogies and facilitate education transformation.

Teacher education must be part of purposeful career paths

Teacher professional development should be embedded in teacher career paths and be aligned to teacher standards and accountability systems. Forum participants explored how countries need to avoid innovating in a fragmented fashion that does not follow commonly agreed principles. This requires alignment across levels of education and between initial teacher education and continuing professional development. It also requires better alignment between existing curricula, teacher professional development and student assessment to strengthen student outcomes.

Based on lessons learned during the pandemic, teacher education should also include peer learning and mentoring programmes. In particular, teacher education needs to integrate inquiry and research skills which prepare teachers to be lifelong-learners, able to adapt their practice to changing conditions and meet their students’ evolving needs. Teacher training and educational research institutions have an important role to support this kind of continuous exchange, particularly to address challenges brought on by rapid transformations.

Innovation in policy making must be inclusive and collaborative

Teachers need to be part of decision- and policy-making processes. One example presented was the development of the Comprehensive National Teacher Policy (CNTP) in Ghana. This process was coordinated by the Ghana Teacher Task Force (GTTF) with contributions from the Ghana Education Service, development partners, and other actors. This collaborative process established a framework for social dialogue with teachers and their representatives at the local, district, and national levels.

Policy also needs to be informed by data which reflect realities on the ground. Grassroot-level innovation can be enhanced by teacher participation in data collection and analysis. With proper training, teachers and school leaders can use data to assess their own practices and address challenges in their own schools. An example of innovation in data use came from The Gambia, where schools develop their own indicators and targets through a process of consultation that involves teachers, parents, students, and their communities.

Policies must balance clear frameworks with flexibility to respond to local conditions

Innovations in teacher policy presented during the Forum included establishing new forms of partnerships with civil society organizations and funding agencies. For instance, an innovative workshop organized by UNESCO and the TTF brought together policymakers from various countries to inform the development of St Kitts and Nevis’ National Teaching Council. Rather than imposing a ‘one size fits all’ approach, this process allowed policymakers to explore different types of national structures and the roles played amongst a number of high- and low-income countries before establishing their own National Teachers’ Council.

Teachers are essential to the innovation necessary to ‘build back better’ in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, their professionalism needs to be recognized and supported, and experimentation and adaptation must take place within clear policy frameworks. Governments, teacher training institutions, and other actors must balance structure and flexibility to foster both bottom-up (grassroots) and top-down (system-wide) innovations, so that they can contribute to ensure equitable, inclusive, and quality education for all.

Download the Final Report from the Policy Dialogue Forum on Innovation in teacher policy and practice in education recovery.

Photo credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme