“To ensure a better future for the next generation, it is imperative that the world’s educators – and the powerful insights from the diverse classrooms that they bring – are placed at the heart of our global and local education reform efforts,” say Nafisa Shekhova and Dr Andrew Cunningham, Global Co-Leads for Education at the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF).
In this interview, Nafisa and Andrew discuss key strategies that AKF and its partners are pursuing to continue supporting teacher leadership, innovation and agency in some of the most challenging learning environments and reflect on how we, as a global education community, can do more to address the global learning crisis together if we work in greater partnership with the world’s educators.
In response to a global crisis in education, the UN Secretary General hosted the Transforming Education Summit (TES) at the UN General Assembly last year. It provided a unique opportunity to elevate education to the top of the global political agenda and to mobilise action, ambition, solidarity and solutions to recover pandemic-related learning losses and sow the seeds to transform education in a rapidly changing world. What was your take on the Summit?
Dr Andrew Cunningham (AC): The Summit was a historic moment for the global education community. We were given the political permission by all UN members to “think outside of the box” about how best to drive innovation in and through education, especially for the most marginalised learners. We were thrilled, therefore, to see that our flagship education programme, Schools2030, was selected by the UN as a globally recognised solution at the TES to advance teacher leadership, innovation and agency.
As we know, most educators remain excluded from education reform efforts. This was different at Schools2030’s TES session, where a Minister of Education and teacher from the same country, alongside other Schools2030 partners, shared the same global stage and outlined key strategies about how best to advance holistic learning outcomes through bottom-up rather than top-down teacher-led innovations. How might we support more moments like this?
We should ask ourselves: How we can ensure that teachers take more of a centre stage in designing the future of education and be the catalysts of change both within and outside of the classroom?
Why do you feel so strongly that teachers should be at the heart of education reform?
Nafisa Shekhova (NS): Many education systems, at local, national and global levels, often overlook teachers as potential innovators or leaders in learning, which is a significant oversight. Although providing teachers with lesson plans and assessment tools can be helpful, rigid curricular standards can limit their autonomy. It is essential to emphasise the flexibility and space that teachers need and deserve, allowing them to experiment, iterate and provide feedback on the effectiveness of these resources. Unfortunately, teachers are frequently instructed to use these materials without being asked for their opinions on what works, what doesn’t and why. The absence of a feedback loop means we can’t take advantage of local and grassroot voices, which are vital for successful education reform. By incorporating these perspectives and feedback, we can better enable education reform efforts to achieve their desired outcomes.
AC: After all, our children spend most of their time each day with their teachers. This is incredibly significant for what we, as a society, see as our collective investment for the future. Educators are not only responsible for their academic development, but they also play a critical role in helping learners develop creativity, empathy, respect for diversity and crucial social skills. In a world that seems to become more divided and uncertain each day, teachers are the members of our society who are tirelessly preparing our next generation to appreciate differences, become engaged citizens and “learn how to learn”, not just now, but throughout their lives.
Teachers have the ultimate high-stakes job in giving the next generation their compass and teaching them how best to navigate uncertainty; that’s a huge responsibility. Only certain people are willing to take it on, and we really should respect and appreciate that a lot more than we do now.
With those closest to the action excluded from the conversation, it’s no surprise that education reform has faced challenges. To create more effective education reform, policymakers and education stakeholders need to facilitate more meaningful and frequent dialogue with and by teachers. Any reform process should prioritise this collaboration as it’s not just about involving teachers in occasional meetings, but rather viewing educators as the co-pilots in transforming more inclusive education systems for all.
If we fail to support teacher leadership, innovation and agency, the downward trend in education will likely continue, making it increasingly difficult to attract and prepare the next generation of educators for our children’s children. We have to do all that we can to be working more closely with educators in rethinking what is possible for future generations.
How is AKF and its partners seeking to elevate the role of teachers?
NS: AKF prioritises teachers’ development and teachers’ agency across its Education Improvement Portfolio. As mentioned earlier, our Schools2030 initiative is one example of this.
Schools2030 is a 10-year participatory learning improvement programme. We’re working in 1,000 government schools and community learning centres across 10 countries.
Schools2030 works to amplify teachers as leaders, innovators and active education agents. We have developed a suite of open-sourced tools, resources and training modules with and for teachers that can support them to assess, innovate and showcase classroom-level education innovations to improve learning. Schools2030 was conceived as an experimental approach which follows the ethos that the best ideas come from classrooms and teachers.
Finally, by placing teachers at the centre of education transformation, what is AKF hoping to achieve?
NS: It has been only three years since schools worldwide experienced shutdowns during COVID-19. The loss of learning and social interaction has deeply impacted the next generation of leaders, and teachers understand this more than anyone. By placing teachers at the centre of reform discussions, we believe that we can more effectively mitigate the effects of future pandemics and major disruptions on education and learning.
AKF works in some of the most challenging learning environments in the world. We have learned that resilient education systems emerge from long-term partnership with communities, learners and teachers themselves.
Furthermore, in an increasingly polarised and uncertain world, we believe that by supporting teachers we can build a future that is more pluralistic and sustainable and ensure our children be in a better place than we are today.
AC: That is why we are thrilled to be co-hosting the second annual Schools2030 Global Forum in Porto, Portugal that is bringing 250 delegates from 30 countries to discuss innovative ways to support educators to promote more inclusive schools, equitable education systems and pluralistic learning societies by 2030. During each day, educators will be showcasing new pedagogical innovations to advance holistic learning outcomes for learners aged 5, 10 and 15 years while engaging in meaningful dialogue with leaders from educational research, policy, finance and practice from around the world.
We invite you to join the conversation and learn from this growing movement by watching the live stream here on 5-7 June 2023. As Dr Bronwen Magrath, Schools2030’s Global Programme Manager, said in a recent interview: “All our voices in separation cannot address the education crisis, but if we come together, we’re stronger together.” We hope to see everyone soon to continue this important conversation.