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

TPD in Crisis Series, Week 14: From crisis to opportunity

From Crisis to Opportunity:  Improving Professional Development in Fragile Contexts

Mary Burns, Education Development Center; James, Lawrie, War Child

Teacher professional development is in crisis—particularly in the world’s poorest and most fragile regions. Over the last 14 weeks this forum’s 19 authors and numerous discussants have shared challenges and successes from teachers, schools, and districts. This community of contributors has collectively addressed the need to reform and improve professional development. In reviewing these articles, we see a number of critical (and inter-connected) threads that identify problems, offer solutions, and demonstrate the urgency of improving teacher professional development in the world’s poorest countries.

1. Invest in high quality teacher trainers

Poor teacher training fails teachers. As Catherine Gladwell and Deborah Haines observe, we must pay attention to the quality of the instruction that teachers receive—and the quality and qualifications of those instructors. High-quality professional instruction needs to be the norm! 

2. Get serious about “Quality” and measure it!

Much teacher professional development in developing countries fails to meet even minimal thresholds of quality. As Heidi Biseth, Carol Taylor and Deborah Haines suggest, we can begin to address these issues of quality by:

  • Coming to consensus on what constitutes quality teaching and implementing standards for quality teaching (such as the INEE Minimum Standards)
  • Designing standards for professional development providers (organizations and individuals) in the competencies associated with quality teaching—subject matter knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, assessment, communication, classroom management, and learning and development
  • Rigorously evaluating professional development, based not on teachers’ enjoyment of a workshop, but on their successful transfer of learning to their classrooms

3. Build on evidence-based practices

Sustained, intensive and quality teacher professional development is related to student achievement gains.  But for professional development to produce strong effects on student learning, it must embody evidence-based best practices. As Karen Edge, Kate Shevland, Catherine Gladwell and Jenni Donahoo note, this means learning opportunities for teachers that (are):

• Long-term (30-100 hours over six months show impact, fewer hours leads to limited impact)
• Cumulative
• Move teachers through a process of change
• Focus on how students learn
• Model the behaviors and competencies teachers are supposed to demonstrate
• Promote and build leadership among teachers

4. Encourage collaborative learning

The most effective professional development models bring teachers together in a process of shared inquiry and collaborative learning and practice. Whether “teacher learning circles” or “professional teaching and learning communities,” as Paul St. John Frisoli, Saouma BouJaoude, and Vicki Dimock inform us, collaboratively based professional development allows teachers to move along a continuum from groups of individuals to communities of interest to communities of practice. It encourages adoption of agreed-upon best practice within the school itself, and sustains the types of changes promoted by teacher training and professional development efforts.

5. Support teachers, keep supporting teachers, and treat them as professionals

In almost every weekly topic, teacher support emerged as THE salient thread in the professional development fabric. As evidenced throughout this discussion series, “support” for teachers assumes a multitude of forms: In some cases, as Phalachandra and Atul Gawande note, support manifests itself as place-based instruction and coaching, respectively. Support for teacher change or learning often involves leadership and the institutional backing of a skilled principal or administrator, as John Morefield suggests. For some teachers, as Bjoern Hassler and Sara Hennessy write, receiving multiple forms of support, including  materials is essential. Or as Hannah Snowden’s vignette about Mr. Tom reminds us—at the very least, teachers need access to the basics—like chalk. For Vicki Dimock, supporting teachers means agreeing “that teachers are professionals—and treat(ing) and pay(ing) them as professionals.”

More often than not, support involves all of these things—all at the same time.

6. Recognize the vital role education plays in economic development

The crisis in professional development doesn’t simply affect a nation’s educational system; it impacts its economic well-being. Educational quality is highly correlated with a nation’s economic growth and prosperity (Hanushek & Woessmann, 2009)—and educational quality and student achievement are positively correlated with sustained and intensive professional development (Blank & de las Alas, 2009; Hattie, 2009). In short, professional development, quality teaching, and economic success are all intertwined.

7. Acknowledge that TPD is indeed in crisis and act with urgency

Articles throughout the series offered stories and experiences which exemplify the challenge of raising educational quality through TPD in fragile and conflict-affected states. Silje Sjøvaag Skeie’s reminds us of the lack of formal preparation that so many teachers face, especially those in refugee and IDP contexts:

Pre-service training, often lasting for 2 -6 weeks, normally gives untrained teachers some basic understanding of teaching, subject matter and planning a lesson…(However) even when combined with monitoring and regular on-the-job training, (this) (does not) sufficiently prepare a teacher for the job.

Fragile nations—beset by conflict, poverty and political instability—have fragile teacher education systems. This forum has identified the need for more understanding, improved models, and an expansion of the research base to begin to strengthen such fragile teacher education systems. We do not yet have all the answers; indeed, we don’t even know all of the questions.  But we do know that there is much work to be done—and we urge and encourage you to keep sharing your TPD experiences.

Thank you everyone for your contributions to the rich discussion over the past 14 weeks!




James Lawrie is the Education Adviser at War Child, an INGO based in the Netherlands and operating in twelve conflict-affected countries. In his current role James is the policy lead and technical adviser for War Child’s basic education and TVET projects, and has  a particular focus on ICT and innovation. He is also a member of the INEE Working Group on Minimum Standards. James is a former high-school teacher (5-years) and has also spent 2-years as an adviser to the Ministry of Education-Cambodia on school leadership and Teacher Professional Development. He has led an investigation into the potential for hand-held video cameras in initial teacher training, and conducted a nation-wide situational analysis of the impact of the Dzud weather system on schools, teachers and children in Mongolia. James holds a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Management.

Mary Burns is a professional development specialist at the Education Development Center (EDC). A former 10-year teacher in three countries, Burns has, since 1997, designed, delivered, researched and evaluated teacher professional development programs across the globe—in the US, Indonesia, Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She has provided professional development to teachers, been a school-based instructional coach, designed national online pilots and programs for teacher professional development , evaluated technology-based professional development programs, and authored numerous policy documents, articles, book chapters and books on technology-based teacher professional development, most recently, Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods.