Lessons Learned Series, Vol. 2: Finding the right balance between evolution and continuity

The CEI Team

The Lessons Learned series highlights practical takeaways from CEI’s Journeys to Scale report, produced in partnership with UNICEF, that tells the story of innovative education interventions as they attempt to scale. To see the first installment of Lessons Learned, click here. To find additional details about any of these innovators’ journeys to scale and more, be sure to check out the Full Report.

The poor quality of kindergarten (KG) leaves many children in rural villages of Ghana without the early stimulation and learning opportunities that they need to thrive. In response, the innovative Lively Minds program equips mothers in the Upper East and Northern regions of Ghana, who have limited formal education, to serve as volunteers to support teachers in administering play-based activities that use locally produced materials during KG classes.

Lively Minds has gradually expanded from eight play schemes in 2009 to 80 in 2015, reaching 9,600 children. An ongoing evaluation with a quasi-experimental design noted that children participating in play programs improved 31 percent on cognitive assessments after three months, compared with a 13 percent improvement for children in communities with no play schemes. Play schemes also have been linked to reduced absenteeism among teachers (2.6 percent absentee rate in communities with play schemes compared with a national average of 23 percent), and volunteer mothers have also noted the program’s positive impact on their own well-being. Through the next phase of scale-up, Lively Minds hopes to reach over 50,000 children with play schemes by 2018.

Continuous testing and experimentation

Lively Minds’ commitment to data collection and learning has served the program well in its efforts to scale. For Lively Minds, monitoring and evaluation have produced the following benefits:

Enhanced buy-in from key partners
By demonstrating the effectiveness of the program, Lively Minds has been successful in generating support from key partners. For example, Ghana Education Service (GES) officials commented on the program’s role in reducing absenteeism, which is particularly notable given the pervasiveness of problems related to teacher accountability. Similarly, this data has been used to spark interest from donor organizations interested in supporting programs which have generated evidence demonstrating their success.  

Improved efficiency
Program staff recently created a data visualization dashboard that tracks the performance of program sites, including the presence of teachers. This data has been used to determine when additional supervisory visits are needed and where additional technical support should be provided. 

Design adjustment
international education development monitoring evaluation ghana early childhood learning lively mindsCommunity members have been engaged by Lively Minds staff in an authentic, open manner, primarily through focus groups. These focus groups, which include teachers and beneficiaries, have produced a rich set of qualitative data that have informed the design of the program. For example, topics for top-up training have been collected through discussions with trainers. The insight that the involvement of mothers in play schemes was not valued by husbands was also garnered through a focus group; as a result, husbands were invited to participate in monthly activities to showcase the value of the program.

Lively Minds has shown a desire to identify the most efficient model that still generates positive outcomes at scale. Staff members are keen to understand the factors contributing to the program’s success in order to identify which of its elements are worth scaling and whether enabling conditions for those elements are present elsewhere in the country. As noted by Boorstin, “Too often, something is missing between the pilot stage and the stage of widespread adoption. What’s needed is a stage in which worthy programs are tested at scale.” Lively Minds has wisely built such “middle evaluation” into its plans.

Securing and sustaining buy-in

The Lively Minds experience has highlighted that buy-in among government officials, must be continually reinforced, including through cooperative activities and transfer of knowledge and ownership. Securing and maintaining buy-in for the program has proven challenging, due to need for behavior change among staff at various levels of GES in order to support program implementation and the disruptive nature of promotions and placements of staff.

This challenge has been made easier in Kumbungu and Bongo Districts, where Lively Minds is achieving a level of saturation with the establishment of play schemes. Buy-in has been cultivated through a number of regular mechanisms, including joint selection of schools where play schemes will be introduced, joint monitoring activities, and sharing of results. Even symbolic gestures support buy-in: Teacher certificates are signed by both Lively Minds and GES.

Moving forward, Lively Minds aspires to transition program ownership to GES, with the hope that the government eventually fully finances project implementation. Ultimately, Lively Minds hopes to have what it calls an “optimized package” of activities, made efficient through the testing undergone during the first two phases and made more sustainable through a gradual hand-over to GES. As GES mainstreams the activities, the role of Lively Minds will necessarily evolve.

Cognizant of this challenge, Lively Minds is exploring how to enhance engagement with circuit supervisors and has started providing regular capacity-building workshops for them, along with other district education officials. In addition, Lively Minds is considering assigning a member of its staff to district offices on a temporary basis to strengthen project and teacher management. At the same time, Lively Minds has attempted to find multiple entry points for gaining buy-in from GES, which include for example, joint selection and joint monitoring of play schemes.

A culture of empowerment

Recent evaluation results have highlighted a reduction in teacher absenteeism with the introduction of the Lively Minds model. Further evaluation will better elucidate the mechanisms leading to this reduction, but anecdotal evidence – and that gathered by the internal midline assessment – suggests that the introduction of play schemes has empowered teachers by creating a leadership role for them in the classroom and by providing them with better resources. These resources include trainings and the assistance of mothers who volunteer in the program. The value of a supportive environment has been identified by Jeevan and Townsend, who note the importance of positive reinforcement in supporting teacher performance across a number of schools in India and Uganda.

In addition to engaging teachers as classroom leaders, Lively Minds has created incentives by allowing high-performing teachers to serve as training facilitators through a “training of trainers” (ToT) model. Aligned with the notion that centralized command is ineffective, Lively Minds’ ToT approach trains teachers to serve as facilitators. This intentional development of an environment in which key implementers – in this case teachers – feel supported, empowered, and a sense of ownership with the program, has been shown to be an important factor in the success of social innovations.

Looking Ahead

Though the potential challenges highlighted represent risks for scaling the model, Lively Minds has shown an ability to work in a diversity of contexts and make continuous program adjustments. This nimbleness and adaptability should aid efforts to grow the program.


Photo Credits: Lively Minds

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