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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

TPD in Crisis Series, Week 12: Participation and creativity

Creative Approaches to Teacher Professional Development – Reality or Myth?

Catherine Gladwell, Director, Refugee Support Network

“I have never been to a workshop like this before, where I have laughed and learnt by doing things, not by being told things – I can use all these tricks in the classroom with the children.”

When I read this comment at the end of a recent week long teacher training workshop, my initial response was a simple sense of happiness that a participant had felt the training had been of use. Yet, the comment niggled. I knew that this particular teacher had attended several workshops that year, all organised by international organisations or UN agencies, and that participatory, interactive training—learning by doing—is supposed to be the norm.

In theory, the need for contextualised, participatory, creative teacher training is widely recognised (UNESCO IIEP 2010, INEE 2010), as is the need to use approaches that, whilst addressing critical issues such as corporal punishment and the like, build on the strengths of local pedagogies (Barrett, 2007; Tao, 201; Vavrus, 2009).  This should be perfectly feasible, even in an emergency or fragile context. Workshops can be run creatively, modelling participatory techniques and addressing key issues, whilst being rooted in the local context and giving space for teachers to support each other to develop and hone their skills.  And yet, this comment on a feedback form suggested that the reality experienced by teacher participants in some training workshops may be somewhat removed from the rhetoric.

To ascertain whether or not this teacher’s experience was an isolated one, I interviewed, in person, over Skype and by email, 30 teachers from Kenya (10), Sudan (7), South Sudan (8) and Afghanistan (5) about their experiences of attending training and capacity building workshops run by international NGOs and UN agencies. Whilst some told of workshops that had proved invaluable to teaching practice, the majority (about 60%) told a different story.  One Sudanese teacher, noted :

“They always use these words—participation and active learning—and tell us we should do this and why don’t we, but these are words they say, not things they do.”

Other teachers confirmed that whilst these concepts were discussed in workshops, they were rarely modelled – and in fact, many workshops appear to mirror the very didactic, teacher or facilitator-centred approach they are encouraging participants to move away from!  Others emphasized that when creative, participatory approaches are modelled, they often aren’t tailored for use in large, multi-age, multi-level classes with scarce resources.

In emergency and post-conflict contexts, teachers need to be equipped to help learners develop the skills that they, in their settings, have reason to value.  Unless time is invested, before workshops take place, analysing the specific contexts teachers are working in, and consulting with them about the real needs of the children in their communities, this is unlikely to happen. Instead, our workshops risk perpetuating a situation where teachers, like the ones I interviewed, say they feel constrained by needing to teach for (at times externally imported) exams, rather than teaching for life, increasing short-term knowledge through information download, but not long term capabilities.

One teacher, from the Kakuma camp in Kenya, concluded: 

“I want workshops that happen in my camp, not in the capital, so that I know everything is relevant for my location, and where we learn from the experience of other teachers teaching in camps and the struggles, ideas and skills they have. I am happy when people from outside come to support these trainings, but I want them not to just come and talk with long Power-Point presentations, I want them to show the things they talk about with how they facilitate the training, not just with words. I want to know they understand where I am working and what it is really like.”



  • Barrett, A. 2007. ‘Beyond the polarisation of pedagogy: models of classroom practise’.  Comparative Education 43, 273 – 294.
  • INEE. 2010. Guidance Notes on Teaching and Learning. INEE, New York.
  • UNESCO IIEP. 2010. Guidebook for planning education in emergencies or reconstruction. UNESCO, Paris.
  • Tao, S. 2012. Who is the third world teacher? A critical analysis of texts on teacher quality in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Vavrus, F. 2009. ‘The cultural politics of constructionist pedagogies: Teacher education reform in the United Republic of Tanzania.’ International Journal of Educational Development, 29, 303-311


Catherine Gladwell is the director of Refugee Support Network, a charity providing education support to young refugees and asylum seekers. She is also a refugee and emergency education consultant at Jigsaw Consult, and has worked in the field of refugee and emergency education for the last nine years and in a variety of programmes and policy roles both in the UK and internationally.


Click to read more about the Teacher Professional Development in Crisis series.