Capacity development is mostly a racket. The problem is that despite how costly these programs can be, the actual developmental benefits are usually pretty limited. This is particularly the case with training programs and professional development sessions. A great facilitator can make things engaging, participatory and even practical, but at the end of the session, folks return to their jobs and the relevance is immediately eclipsed by other things. Unless we are talking about the really low hanging fruit, not a whole lot actually changes.
Part of the problem is that what these programs set out to deliver is not really what is needed in order to make real changes. Participants tend to be happy when they come out of a session feeling motivated. But motivation is almost never what is holding us back from making changes in our lives. Participants may come out embracing new values, or with reformed attitudes, or new knowledge and awareness.. but these things, similarly, are a long ways from action.
There are some really good programs out there which are participatory and practical enough to support participants in the development of new skills relevant to their jobs. But these tend to be the low hanging fruit I mentioned above. The deficiency here is that all of this is focused on doing the same old things better. And when a new genuinely new approach is introduced, and participants really do come away with new ideas, their efforts to implement those ideas are almost certain to be frustrated. Because it's not just about individuals.. not even groups of individuals.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to work on a little project in Bangladesh which managed to achieve pretty great results. It was a teacher professional development (TPD) project, but the model we used was very nice, and in just a couple of years, we saw meaningful changes all the way down to students' performance on standardized tests--which is a horrible way to measure results, but nonetheless makes bureaucrats pay attention.
Here is a little snippet describing the model:
The CSR:STEMS TPD model was structured around the provision of a segmented training program, with teachers returning to their practice between contact sessions. During these “non-training” periods, teachers were visited regularly by the project’s school support team, who provided follow-up guidance and support to facilitate implementation of what was learned in the training sessions. This alternation of training, practice, and support provided teachers with a safe context in which to practice implementing what was learned, to receive individualized corrective support and suggestions, and to ask questions and receive guidance related to their own specific context. The diagram below outlines the various features of the TPD model over the flow of time, with the purpose of demonstrating the extent of support work, above and beyond the basic provision of training.
The model reflects contemporary best practices in professional development. The provision of "subject-specific training, coherently related to the national curriculum agenda, provided in a participatory manner in several sessions, spread over time, in small groups, with paired foreign and domestic consultants, supported by educational leaders, with direct in-school support immediately following the intervention," reads like a textbook example of effective professional development.
The primary goal of this TPD model was to ensure that in a short period of time, the project would see actual results in terms of changes in classroom practice. And for this, provisions were made to reduce barriers to implementation, to engage teachers, and make it as easy as possible for them to be successful from an early stage. The diagram below shows some of the steps taken to bridge the gap that so often occurs between professional development and actual changes in professional practice—the so-called “implementation gap”. We ended up dubbing this model the “implementation kebab”.
For each concept taught, we began with an initial experience, which provided a practical experience related to the concept, which could then be unpacked and debriefed as we facilitated learning on that concept. We then applied the concept in an application activity, and discussed ways to adjust the activities for classroom use. Next, we involved teachers in micro-teaching practice, where they led peers through classroom activities. As the training ended we provided materials to teachers which they would need to apply these concepts in their own classrooms, and we liaised with head teachers to ensure buy-in and support at the level of school leadership. Then, as teachers were back at their schools implementing what they had learned in their classrooms, our team visited the schools to monitor and support them to ensure quality implementation. We also initiated professional learning communities, providing the rural teachers with a means to continue their professional growth, that would be sustainable after the closure of the project.
In a relatively short period of time, this TPD model proved very effective. Highlighted results of the project after two years of implementing the model in 90 schools were as follow:
- Improvement of 34% on students' end of year exam scores over two years (26% in first year);
- Increase of 30% in student attendance in targeted classrooms;
- Increased usage of student-centered instructional strategies of 149% in targeted classrooms;
- Improved teacher content knowledge (math and English) of 217% from pre-test to post-test.