The EFA Global Monitoring Report published in early 2014 reported that around 250 million children do not have basic skills in literacy and numeracy even after four years of school, or don’t even make it to grade 4. The quality issue is serious.
But what is meant by ‘quality of education’? For some it might involve increased community awareness and support, a violence-free environment in the school, or an adequate teacher-student ratio.
Essentially, the quality of education is about children’s learning. If children don’t learn basic literacy and numeracy, can we say that they are receiving a quality education - even if they are in a corporal punishment-free classroom and the school is backed by community members?
Quality education is about pedagogy
What really counts for quality is not only the amount of resources available for a school or a classroom, but the effectiveness with which the resources are used to strengthen teaching and learning.
As some contributors in this blog have been arguing, what really matters for children’s learning is the effectiveness of teacher-student interaction, or pedagogy. The correlation between the quality of teaching and children’s learning is empirically demonstrated.
We have increasing evidence as to what constitutes effective teaching, as Robin Alexander writes: "The daily, minute-by-minute observations and interactions through which effective teachers monitor children’s learning and progress, giving feedback that will build on children’s understanding and probe and remedy their misunderstanding".
How best to support teachers?
How can we promote and encourage teachers to adopt such effective teaching? This question is one to which many education policy makers and practitioners want answers.
While visiting schools and local education offices in southern Nepal, I have been asked by many teachers and education administrators how they could improve children’s learning. They usually seek a quick solution. But there is no magic wand.
I would like to describe how we interacted with teachers in Nepal to encourage them to be more aware of their students’ learning. Although the number of teachers who participated was relatively small, the basic education project in Nepal I have been involved in for the last two years yielded some visible results and many lessons.
Chalk and talk?
When I visited classrooms across the country around the time when the project started, I noticed that chalk and talk were the norm in most classrooms. Teachers often delivered textbook content directly, simply reading aloud, or asking students to do so.
Some teachers might ask questions of their students, but often limiting them to low-demand ‘what’ questions. Most teachers’ day-to-day feedback to their students was limited to checking simply their answers as right or wrong, almost never looking into why particular mistakes were made.
Most teachers also knew which students could answer correctly and which couldn’t, but they rarely supported those struggling students.
A simple math diagnostic test
Our team became conscious that simply asking teachers to become more aware of their students’ learning would not be sufficient. For training purposes, several tools were devised. One of these tools was a basic number skills diagnostic test.
The test was based on Nepal’s current math curriculum for the first three primary grades. It was designed to identify the particular concepts which students find difficult to comprehend and enhance teachers’ awareness of their students’ systematic math errors. Around 300 grade 5 students in ten schools answered the test.
As we looked into students’ results, it became clear that many students had only a partial understanding of basic math concepts. We realized that this was mainly because teachers did not recognize that children had difficulties with number place value and other basic concepts such as carrying and borrowing, and hence did not provide support.
We discussed the results with the teachers of the participating schools. They reacted in different ways and follow-up actions varied widely.
Teachers need to know how to improve their teaching
I was struck by one teacher’s reaction: “We realized that this is a real problem. We realized that we were not teaching in the ways students could understand… Previously, I and other teachers were aware of students’ mistakes. We talked about those mistakes in the staff room, but didn’t think that we needed to take action. We were thinking students make mistakes because they don’t work hard enough or because they have conceptual problems. Now, we realized that feedback is necessary. We can’t always give individual feedback, but students’ mistakes are explained using the chalkboard, children respond and make corrections themselves.”
The teacher has started to feel that the students respond to feedback, resulting in more meaningful teaching and learning.
A simple math diagnostic test has helped to expose some problems in the teacher’s current teaching practice. This case illustrates that once a teacher finds a particular strategy meaningful, they are likely to adopt it.
Pedagogy deeply impacts children’s learning. Helping teachers effectively means regular class observation, and assessing them against qualitative rather than quantitative indicators.
What matters most, particularly for children in resource-limited countries is to be taught by effective teachers, with the skills needed to recognize and develop their learning potential.
Mariko Shiohata works for Save the Children, and is currently conducting a basic education project in Nepal under a joint initiative with the Ministry of Education.
Save the Children is one of the non-governmental partners of the Global Partnership for Education and represents one of three civil society constituencies on the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership. Nepal is one of 59 developing country partners of the Global Partnership and improving teacher effectiveness is one of the Global Partnership’s strategic objectives.
 Somerset, A. (2011) Strengthening educational quality in developing countries: the role of national examinations and international assessment systems, Compare, Vol. 41. No.1
 Alexander, R. (2014) Teaching and learning: the quality imperative revisited. http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Alexander-Oslo-GMR-2014B.pdf
 Alexander, R. (2008) Education for All, the quality imperative and the problem of pedagogy. CREATE Research Monograph No. 20, April. Brighton: University of Sussex.