Should we reconsider the faces of research in teaching? Retelling a teacher’s story in Senegal

Copyright: FAWE - Nancy Wong

"What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation?" Asks Marcus Cicero in praise of teachers. The Economist magazine recently acclaimed the contribution of teachers in not just educating children and nurturing the future, but even in shaping the economy. The argument is clearly raised, that many factors shape a child’s success, but in schools nothing matters as much as the quality of teaching. While the profession is noble, it takes a good teacher to deliver the desired change.

Teachers neglected?

For over 20 years, Stanford University academic Eric Hanushek has researched widely on the contribution made by teachers. In a recent publication, he concludes that in the US, during an academic year, pupils taught by teachers at the 90th percentile for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material. Those taught by teachers at the 10th percentile learn half a year’s worth. He sums up that no other attribute of schools comes close to having this much influence on student achievement.

In his analysis of data from around 65,000 studies, John Hattie concludes that in improving learning, it takes 50 percent of the learner’s own contribution and inputs, 30 per cent the teacher’s contribution, and the remaining 20 percent is shared among all other possibilities of inputs, including learning environments and parental support. Despite all this, the economist regrets that until now, the job of the teacher has been comparatively neglected, with all the focus on structural changes.

How are good teachers created, and what and how do they teach?

On June 16, the Day of the African Child, I was up early to observe teaching and learning in a Junior Secondary School in Saly, Senegal during the planning meeting for the Inter-Country Quality Node (ICQN) on Teaching and Learning and the Network for African Learning Assessment (NALA) coordinated by ADEA. We arrived at the school and entered the Form Three class in the usual style, six experts from four countries - Burkina Faso, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia. The young ladies and men looked at us suspiciously, not sure whether their teacher would face trouble from the esteemed government inspectors. The life sciences (biology) lesson was already in its 50th minute, so we performed the usual ritual of quickly waving hands, seeking acknowledgement and settling at the back, notebooks open and pens in the hand.

Though hardly understanding French, I could clearly tell that Mr Ba was teaching about the reproductive system. A neat drawing was on the chalkboard, he must have taken time to do this. For the next 50 minutes, the teacher talked, wrote clumsily on the board, glanced briefly on the tablet that he had on his desk, and on several occasions dictated things to students to write down.

Before we left the class, we had a quick round of introductions, and one bold girl raised her hand and asked us a question. "You say you are here in Senegal through ADEA to learn about the challenges to education. So, what have you found as Senegal’s leading challenges to education? We were baffled and looked at each other, and pointed to the only lady in the team to react to the question. Then we asked them a question: If you were the minister of education in Senegal, what is the one thing that you would change to improve education? The same bold girl started off: "I would ensure that learners are comfortable. Look at the kind of desks we are seating on. Then quickly went a boy: "I would improve teachers’ salaries to ensure that they are comfortable". This proposal won a loud acclamation from the class, as we walked off.

Meet Mr Ba

In our round of feedback to Mr Ba, we started by first voicing the positive attributes we had observed on the teacher. Good animation, focus on the topic and clarity of delivery. We then moved to observe the limitation in his delivery of instruction. He overused the chalk and talk traditional frontal method. He failed to draw the adolescents’ own encounters with the changes to their bodies, thus missing a golden opportunity of deciphering widely held cultural myths about reproductive health. He stayed at the front of all 49 students, failing to exploit the prospects of group teaching and learning. Learners lost concentration by around 9.30 am, and he did not notice nor react to this. No single student had a biology textbook, and the material that was supposed to supplement learning came in more than an hour into the lesson. He asked no questions and offered no assessment… we went on an on.

At one point, Mr Ba was invited to react to our inputs and he quickly took the chance:

I wish to thank you, really thank you very much. I started teaching in the year 2005, now 11 years, and this is the second time that anyone has observed how I teach and gave comments. The first and only other time was in 2010 during a teaching practice assessment, and that was it. I feel privileged thus, to have received such useful comments from such experienced and esteemed teachers like you.

The teacher informed us that there was severe shortage of rooms at the school - the school was even running double shifts to teach the 909 students it has. There was not a single laboratory at the school as all rooms were being used as classrooms. To reduce the high rates of textbook loss at the school, books are kept by the librarian, and only released for use during the day. Sadly, on the morning of our visit, the librarian was late and he could not access the textbooks for his biology lesson. The supplementary printouts that he was using are stored by the school’s principal and he usually gets them early enough in the morning to hand out to the students at the beginning of the lesson. “But this morning, the principal was late because he had come to meet you at the road to show you way to our school.I was only able to access the materials after he had settled you down.”

I was intrigued by Mr Ba, so I lingered for a chat with him. He consented to answer to a few private questions, and also encouraged me to publish his story. He is a 36-year old married man with four children. His pre-tax monthly salary is around $460. He started teaching as an untrained teacher, then was registered for the Postgraduate Diploma in education course four years into his teaching career. Like many other teachers, he faces many struggles. A few years ago, he took a bank loan to build a house for his family. To repay the loan and pay school fees for his children, he offers private tuition each Wednesday afternoon at the school, as well as evenings and weekends at some homes in the village. He enjoys teaching, and wants to build his career and make more impact as a teacher.

I left Mr Ba with some burning questions in my own mind. Should we reframe our inquiry into teaching? How can we be such ardent advocates of individual attention to learners to improve learning outcomes, yet, so blind to individual attention to teachers in to improve teaching? Should we revisit Clark’s early (1979) description of the five faces of research in teaching?

Contemporary research in teaching incorporates quantitative observation on the extent to which teachers apply certain tools and techniques in delivering instruction, or the extent to which they differentiate learners by pace and ability, and apply innovation to carry every learner along.

Rare indeed is research that connects the teacher’s personal characteristics and individual life realities to the delivery of instruction. Yet, perhaps, this is the missing link in connecting to the teaching passion and removing the myriad of inhibitions to good effective teaching that face every teacher. In our research, teachers are often treated as one homogenous category, or as interchangeable parts of an assembly line.

As the article in the Economist concludes, great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill. But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born. Our research of teachers and quality assurance of teaching can certainly contribute to increasing the global count of good teachers. Much can be achieved through the attention to the individual, and possibilities of developing the individual through careful pre-service qualification, in-service upgrading, peer support and close monitoring and learning.


John Mugo is the Director of Data and Voice at Twaweza East Africa. The reported visit was in the realm of an ADEA-facilitated strategic planning for the Inter-Country Quality Node on Teaching and Learning & the Network for African Learning Assessments. For feedback: