In a world where so many of our interactions and experiences occur virtually, whether it’s a workday filled with emails and webinars, or an evening spent exchanging text messages about your favorite TV show, there is something energizing about unplugging and connecting with colleagues face-to-face.
I saw this first-hand at the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) Early Learning Toolkit workshops in East Africa, where a cross-section of educators - teachers, head-teachers, and program implementers – came together to talk about how schools and communities could ensure children learn to read, calculate, and begin to think critically by the end of third grade.
During lunch and the intermittent coffee breaks, there was a palpable energy as participants mingled, exchanged contact information, and made plans to meet up with each other after the workshop.
I’m certain that the same conversations held via Skype, or in an online forum wouldn’t have inspired as much enthusiasm, or – crucially – creative brainstorming, and knowledge sharing.
The Early Learning Toolkit is purposefully designed to be a space where education practitioners and other members of the education community can find actionable tools and knowledge to support implementation of evidence-based strategies for improving learning. It provides users with information about seven strategies to improve learning and program management: mother-tongue instruction, targeted instruction, teacher engagement, parent-child interaction, cost-effectiveness, monitoring and evaluation, and scaling up.
However, we realize that the Toolkit is only effective if educators who are in classrooms and working with communities are able to understand and apply these evidence-based approaches themselves.
Last week’s workshops in East Africa gave practitioners an opportunity to explore the content of the Toolkit, and learn from organizations with significant expertise implementing the featured learning and program management strategies. In Kenya, Peter Mokaya from U-Tena Youth Organization and Samantha Nyabola from Dignitas described their experience implementing teacher training and coaching programs. They spoke about challenges and successes in their work, and invited other participants to react and reflect during a period of open discussion.
A few days later, in Uganda, Lesley Waller presented on the work Africa Educational Trust is doing to improve access and learning outcomes through mother tongue education in Uganda and Kenya. The organization has made strides in supporting children in these countries to study in their local language while also preparing them for fluency in English, and Lesley pulled back the proverbial curtain to share some of the factors behind the organization’s success.
What I found particularly interesting about these expert sessions, was that they weren’t one-directional. Just as the experts shared their considerable knowledge, the ‘non-experts’ responded with astute, insightful feedback.
Similarly, during the problem-solving sessions, workshop participants were able to brainstorm ideas and co-create concrete solutions for shared learning and program management challenges.
Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers. They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning.
As adults, we have fewer opportunities for peer learning, so it’s important to make the most of rare occasions when we can step away from the glare of our screens and troubleshoot/teach/share/learn from our colleagues. In this vein, I am optimistic that the connections forged in East Africa will be fruitful for the workshop participants and the students they serve.
Wambui Munge is the communications lead for R4D’s growing Global Education practice. Before joining R4D, Wambui spent several years with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, where she served as an Associate Information Officer