Review: Transforming Teaching and Learning in Asia and the Pacific

Monday, June 22, 2015
Chris Henderson

This is the first of three articles reviewing current research and developments in public education globally. This article looks at transformations in teaching and learning in the Asia-Pacific region with a particular focus on developing country contexts. Next I’ll be discussing the recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, and finally I’ll share current thinking on the education focused post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

“Transforming Teaching and Learning in Asia and the Pacific”

UNESCO has released a new book titled “Transforming Teaching and Learning in Asia and the Pacific”. Gwang-Jo Kim, the Director of UNESCO’s regional headquarters in Bangkok, introduces this new publication by identifying that education is now characterised by a global culture of change and interdependence. The contemporary education system, born out of industrialism’s aspiration to achieve broad uniformity in citizens’ skills and character, has defined the way in which a majority of the world’s people have been educated over the past century. However, the evolving nature of our lives and economies demands more responsive, locally and contextually relevant, and future focused curricula that prepare today’s learners both cognitively and non-cognitively for the diversity of challenges that the 21st century presents. As such, this book looks less at what today’s students are learning, and more at how they’re being educated. It investigates how teachers need to develop the competencies and dispositions young people need to not only manage challenge and change, but to innovatively lead themselves, their communities, and countries towards the opportunities available in a more interconnected and complex global economy.

Opportunity and Challenge:

Editors Hau-Fai Law and Ushio Miura introduce the big challenges in transforming teacher practice in line with the demands of increasingly globalised communities. It is stated that teachers need to shift from pedagogical uniformity to an approach that is learner centred; they need to embrace diversity and respond to multiple learning styles and needs; and they need to move from an examination orientated development model to a model that develops the whole child.

In the Asia-Pacific’s developing country contexts that this book investigates (i.e. Fiji, Nepal, Vietnam, and Indonesia) it is shown that policy is often up-to-date or at least beginning to grapple with the above mentioned pedagogical challenges. By and large, across the region education policy is research and global-best-practice informed. However, progress in achieving system wide shifts in pedagogical practice at a teacher level is proving to be a slow moving and often hesitant venture; despite the broad consensus from teachers and school leaders alike that these shifts are timely and needed. The book’s contributing researchers do well to illuminate the factors – including resource constraints, capacity gaps, and a lack of shared understanding among core stakeholders – that hinder the implementation of progressive policies.

Meeting 21st Century needs:

Law and Miura describe current education approaches as being far from suitable for the needs of 21st Century learners. What’s needed is curricula and pedagogies that develops learners who are critical thinkers, innovative and entrepreneurial, compassionate citizens, adaptive to change, and collaborative. They state that the 21st century approaches that lead to the development of these competencies and dispositions place learners squarely at the centre of the learning process. In this sense, learners are seen as producers of knowledge, reflecting the fact that knowledge is not something static or fixed, or something to be transmitted from one person to another. Instead, knowledge is now understood as the accumulation of reflective experiences that take place through a learner’s interactions with the real world around them. The cases presented in this book describe education policies that aim to develop learners who are autonomous individuals with strong social awareness and a genuine sense of responsibility towards their communities.

This research highlights that teachers in the Asia-Pacific’s developing country contexts have an emerging repertoire of pedagogical activities that can be considered ‘21st Century’ or learner centred. But as the observational data in this book illustrates, much of this repertoire is more confidently theorised by teachers than put into effective practice. In all of the developing country contexts covered researchers show that even among teachers who have been trained in learner centred pedagogies, the dominant form of classroom teaching is still the lecture style and rote learning vestiges of the industrial era. But unlike much trans-nationally conducted research on teachers’ performance, contributing researchers for the most part resist from deficit theorising or laying blame on the teachers themselves. Instead, the case studies presented here seek to understand why - despite an ability to describe learner-centred practices - teachers continue to demonstrate less effective methods of teaching and learning in their schools.

Respecting realities:

This research is particularly relevant for professionals engaging with the countries and respective policies introduced. It lets us gain important insights into the experienced realities of teachers’ working lives and understand the pragmatics of achieving system wide pedagogical change. The case studies acknowledge the great potential for improved educational outcomes in the Asia-Pacific’s developing country contexts. But they are also realistic and justifiably critical in their presentation of the political complexities and human resource constraints that prevent embedded pedagogical transformation across the region’s schools. Especially for those of us working in developing country projects where the deficits tend to dominate development research and discourse, the home-grown initiatives that are discussed serve to encourage a more strengths based, innovative, locally led, and collaborative approach to our own work with education leaders and stakeholders.

It is clear that UNESCO and the editors of this book seek to stimulate policy makers, educators, parents, and communities to reflect on and critically engage with the opportunities emerging educational developments present. In doing this, the book strongly encourages further advocacy, action, and investment around the embedding of transformational pedagogies in the region’s public schools.

Research highlights:

Fiji

Opportunities:

• The Pacific Island Forum is focused on achieving universal and equitable education participation and achievement, and to improve the quality of educational outcomes;
• The Pacific Education and Development Framework (2009 – 2015) seeks to enable each Pacific learner to develop all his/her talents and creativities to their fullest potential. Thereby enabling each person to take responsibility for his or her own life and make a meaningful contribution to the social, cultural and economic development of Pacific society;
• The National Curriculum Framework emphasises the importance of culturally and socially responsive classrooms for cognitive and non-cognitive development;
• Teachers have a strong desire to be innovative in their pedagogical practice and focus on non-cognitive skills in the classroom.

Challenges:

• There is a top-down approach to curriculum development and implementation which prevents teacher-led innovation;
• There is a deeply entrenched certification/examination mentality;
• Teachers’ pedagogical intentions are not reflected in their practice;
• Too many teachers feel pressured to deliver the content of the curriculum on time, and therefore resort to lecture style lessons;
• Despite Fiji’s cultural diversity, many teachers do not recognise the importance of cultural responsiveness or contexts as important to pedagogical success;
• Teachers rarely talk about professional development or pedagogical practice at school;
• Teachers are overly mindful that their performance assessment is based on student scores and percentage pass rates. They’re therefore reluctant to facilitate more innovative learner-centred pedagogies.

Nepal

Opportunities:

• Strong Buddhist and Hindu education traditions;
• Teachers hold high status as a source of knowledge and have a fair measure of autonomy in their selection of learning materials and the pacing of pedagogy;
• The Ministry of Education is encouraging a de-emphasis on rote learning and a move away from treating students as homogenous learners;
• An increasing number of teachers are taking on a more student-centred or active teaching style;
• Innovative methods of teaching are developing non-cognitive skills as well as better quality content learning;
• Teacher training has been reformed to include training in pedagogies for life-skills education and problem identification;
• There is an understanding that teacher preparation programmes must focus on modelling the desired pedagogical reforms rather than endlessly theorizing them.

Challenges:

• Classroom based curriculum translation and the transfer of skills is weak;
• Students devote a huge amount of their lives to studies without actually understanding the contexts or meaning of what they’re learning about;
• Classrooms have a heavy emphasis on rote learning, paraphrasing drills and teacher dominated and textbook based whole class lessons;
• Teachers struggle to understand how non-cognitive learning can be built through subject focused teaching and learning;
• When innovative learner-centred pilot projects have been mainstreamed the impact on student learning has been consistently low.

Vietnam

Opportunities:

• The Vietnamese government considers the reform of pedagogy as being vital for the improved quality of public education in the country;
• Active pedagogies are widely encouraged across Vietnam’s public schools;
• Most teachers grasp the importance of pedagogical reform as a means to promote quality student learning engagement and outcomes;
• Teachers want to actively use ICT for lesson planning and teaching;
• It is recognised that the most effective way for teachers to reform their pedagogical practice is to create mechanisms for critical self-reflection;
• Teachers are learning by observing their own teaching practice and receiving constructive feedback from colleagues;
• It is increasingly recognised that school leaders need to engage parents and communities for their cultural knowledge, and support teachers to deliver more culturally responsive classrooms.

Challenges:

• Students are conditioned to passively receive and memorise new knowledge;
• The prevailing teaching methods are still chalk and talk;
• A majority of students have poor critical thinking and problem solving skills as a result of poor pedagogy;
• There is a persistent use of teacher centred methods which are seen to be the reason for the ineffective implementation of reforms;
• Innovative pedagogy is narrowly understood to be the use of ICT in a classroom;
• Very limited time is given to students to reflect on the knowledge gained in classrooms;
• Teachers say they have insufficient teaching and learning materials to support the implementation of more innovative pedagogies;
• There is a lack of transformative professional development programmes focused on pedagogy.
• There is an absence of structural support and expertise available post pre-service and in-service training.

Indonesia

Opportunities:

• Research highlights and celebrates two locally grown pedagogical innovations;
• The 2013 curriculum was developed by central ministry and based on a constructivist approach;
• Parents and communities have high expectations for the quality of their children’s’ experiences at school;
• It is Indonesian educators who are leading new movements in pedagogical reform;
• Two examples are of locally led innovations are PAIKEM (active, innovative, creative, and effective learning) and GASING (easy, fun, and enjoyable learning) which are being implemented nation-wide;
• PAIKEM has developed more cooperative learning that connects students’ new experiences in learning with their prior knowledge;
• Research has shown that PAIKEM and GASING have made learning more meaningful and have accelerated the acquisition of new learning concepts.

Challenges:

• The researcher acknowledges the comparatively low quality of human resources in the education sector, and the impact this has on transforming teaching practice;
• In 2012 Indonesia ranked 64th out of 65 PISA assessed countries;
• Teachers were broadly unprepared for the implementation of the 2013 curriculum;
• In 2014 implementation of the 2013 curriculum was suspended, only pilot schools continued to use it. Indonesia now has two curriculums within their education system;
• Classrooms are dominated by rote learning and memorisation;
• Most teachers treat students as passive individuals who come to school to listen and take notes only;
• The old ways of teaching are deeply entrenched, innovative teachers are quickly outcast;
• Students are often the first to resist more student centred pedagogies;
• Teachers need support to make a massive paradigm shift if they are to build skills and improve outcomes for Indonesia’s young people;
• Many teachers are not qualified to teach their subject, let alone able to use improved pedagogy to improve educational outcomes.

UNESCO's book "Transforming Teaching and Learning in Asia and the Pacific" can be downloaded for free here: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002329/232909E.pdf