Adapting the cascade approach to teacher professional development

Megan Kinsey considers the effectiveness of the cascade model and looks at some alternative approaches.

The most important aspect of any teacher professional development programme is that teachers learn, and they apply what they learn.

The cascade model is widely used in teacher professional development interventions around the world. It typically involves taking a few selected teachers out of their school environment to a centralised location, which often is not a school. The selected teachers are trained together in a ‘training of trainers’, and then return back to their own schools. The trained teachers then conduct training with the remaining teachers in their schools. The cascade model is often used as it offers a way of reaching many teachers with standardised continuous professional development (CPD) within a short space of time, and is cost effective. However, it also has several flaws, with one of the biggest being the risk of dilution of quality.

The model works on the assumption that the participants already have a foundational level of teaching competency on which to build; in many contexts, this is not the case. Often, the strongest teacher or a ‘favourite’ teacher is selected to attend the training of trainers, rather than the teachers who need the most support. The quality of instruction is inverse in proportion to need. It provides little ongoing support, and coaching and mentoring have shown to be more effective at creating lasting behavioural change and practice. This focus on inputs and outputs, rather than outcomes, often doesn’t lead to sustainable improvements in teaching quality. Improvements can be seen when adaptations are made, and the focus is shifted to quality outcomes.

The most important aspect of any teacher professional development programme is that teachers learn, and they apply what they learn. Different training models have their own strengths and weaknesses. Factors that can affect the impact of training models include: dependency on the master trainer, the need to travel (either master trainer of teachers), lack of consistency, lack of coaching and follow-up, and whether all teachers are included or not. The difficulty arises in how we decide which factors are worth trading off and which are not.

What alternatives are there?

Several Cambridge Education projects implement teacher professional development components, which have been adapted for different contexts:

Transforming Teacher Education and Learning, (T-TEL) in Ghana, works with all 46 public Colleges of Education to support the delivery pre-service teacher training. Political engagement and partnerships have been key to ensuring the success of the programme. The programme works closely with the principals of the teacher training colleges, and each college receives funds to implement innovative solutions to meet their specific challenges.

In Northern Nigeria, the Teacher Development Programme (TDP) works with 12 colleges of education, supporting the colleges to review the curriculum to fit the new government policy. Methods include reforming pre-service training and building the capacity of teachers in terms of active learning. Student teachers receive ongoing supervision from School Support Officers both in and outside the classroom.

In Sierra Leone, Leh Wi Lan (Let Us Learn), also provides teachers with ongoing supervision and support. This is through the use of 14 District Support Offices (DSOs) and 125 School Support Officers (SSOs), who work with clusters of schools across the country. SSOs also collect data in schools, which is then compiled by the DSOs and analysed by Leh Wi Lan’s District Strengthening Output Lead, and used by the Ministry of Education to inform their decision-making.

The Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) programme implements a teacher professional development (TPD) component which was developed specifically for the needs of the resource-constrained context of South Sudanese classrooms, using a school-based approach. All teachers are brought together, whether formally trained or untrained, learning from and supporting each other. Building on the peer-to-peer support, teachers receive ongoing support and supervision from a national Education Specialist, who works closely with clusters of schools.

In Tanzania, the Education Quality Improvement Programme (EQUIP-Tanzania) works across nine regions with a core component focusing on in-service teacher training. The cascade model is being used as an initial level of training, at national, regional and district levels. This is supported by school-based training twice a month, followed by cluster reflections supervised by experts from the regional level. Communities of learning have been established between schools and teachers in clusters at the local level.

The above examples all have three things in common: they have been adapted for their operational context; improvements in teaching practice are at the centre of their design; and teachers receive ongoing support.

Megan is an Education and Gender Adviser for Girls' Education South Sudan. Follow her on Twitter @meganxkinsey

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