A Waterfall Model for Providing Professional Development for Primary School Teachers: A Pilot Project to Implement a Competency-Based Approach in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Overview

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR) initiative aims to improve the quality of primary teaching and its relevance by adapting the content to the current socio-economic context. This initiative is rooted in an African reform movement that favours the development of competencies, as prescribed by the Basic Education in Africa Programme (UNESCO, 2009). This programme recommends moving ‘from a knowledge-based approach to learning towards a competency-based approach’ (2009, p. 8).

In mathematics education, one of the reasons for a shift to a competency-based approach may be the poor quality of understanding developed by learners. Graven and Coles (2017) conducted a study in South Africa and they highlighted the fact that looking at the answers without focusing on the strategies that learners used might lead to a lack of foundational reasoning.

In its document, UNESCO highlights the African education systems’ numerous difficulties in terms of quality and equity. The report notably mentions the following problems:

  • highly academic nature of formal education and lack of relevance of a large part of its content;
  • prescribed curriculum at the national level designed as ‘content to teach’, leaving little space for placement in context and learning adaptations;
  • continued dominance of traditional teacher-centred pedagogical practices;
  • continued rigidity and closed nature of formal education, with scant attention to practices for learner retention (2009, p. 14).
Aims
What were the main aims of the initiative?

With the intent of reforming the school system, the DRC opted for a novel, transitional approach, rather than initiating in-depth curricular reform, which would have required a complete restructuring of school curricula and pedagogical structures. The MEPS-INC undertook a transitional approach to reform in 2011, beginning with an update of the Primary Teaching Programme (Programme de l’Enseignement Primaire). The new version of the curriculum, like the original one from 2000, proposed objectives to reach instead of competencies to develop. It was enriched with learning situations ultimately aiming to develop competencies.

This situation-based approach adopted by the DRC means that learning situations should be proposed to learners instead of to teachers. A learning situation is a situation proposed to learners to have them mobilise and use various resources – both material and human– knowledge, processes and strategies. Therefore, a learning situation presents some complexity and must be contextualised in order to be rich enough. When a person masters a learning situation by mobilising diverse resources, they have effectively developed one or more competencies. One could therefore say they are competent in this learning situation (Jonnaert, Ettayebi and Defise, 2009; Charland and Cyr, 2013).

The DRC’s primary school programme did not aim to impose learning situations on a prescriptive basis; rather, they were a means to allow learners to develop competencies. Moreover, the curriculum did not describe competencies, but – in contrast to the previous curriculum – proposed essential ingredients for developing these competencies. This refers to learning situations. Therefore, by adopting this strategy, the DRC chose to focus less on rewriting its curricula and more on implementing initiatives aimed at improving teachers’ pedagogical practices. In fact, the programme aimed to be more learner-centred.

Background
Location, Setting, Scope, Key Events etc.

In 2011, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) adopted formal strategies for the development of primary, secondary and professional teaching (2010/2011–2015/2016). The general objectives were to build an inclusive and quality education system that aimed to increase access to primary school, and to improve the quality and relevance of teaching. The expected outcome was to develop competencies in language and mathematics in learners with basic education. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education and Initiation to New Citizenship (Ministère de l’Enseignement Primaire, Secondaire et Initiation à la Nouvelle Citoyenneté – MEPS-INC) revised the primary teaching programmes using a situation-based approach (Approche par les Situations).

Before extending the new programme to the national level, the DRC conducted an experimental pilot project to analyse the impact of the changes proposed by this new version of the curriculum on a sample of primary schools throughout the country. As part of this pilot project, pedagogical materials related to the curriculum were designed. Teachers were trained to use these materials and on the new elements included in the curriculum.

Issues Addressed
What issues/challenges does the case study address?

The DRC initiative aims to improve the quality of primary teaching and its relevance by adapting the content to the current socio-economic context. This initiative is rooted in an African reform movement that favours the development of competencies, as prescribed by the Basic Education in Africa Programme (UNESCO, 2009). This programme recommends moving ‘from a knowledge-based approach to learning towards a competency-based approach’ (2009, p. 8).

In mathematics education, one of the reasons for a shift to a competency-based approach may be the poor quality of understanding developed by learners. Graven and Coles (2017) conducted a study in South Africa and they highlighted the fact that looking at the answers without focusing on the strategies that learners used might lead to a lack of foundational reasoning.

In its document, UNESCO highlights the African education systems’ numerous difficulties in terms of quality and equity. The report notably mentions the following problems:

  • highly academic nature of formal education and lack of relevance of a large part of its content;
  • prescribed curriculum at the national level designed as ‘content to teach’, leaving little space for placement in context and learning adaptations;
  • continued dominance of traditional teacher-centred pedagogical practices;
  • continued rigidity and closed nature of formal education, with scant attention to practices for learner retention (2009, p. 14).
Implementation
How was the initiative implemented?

The DRC, like a number of African countries, opted for a revision of its curriculum in accordance with a competency-based approach (CBA). This approach focuses on developing competencies in school rather than focusing on knowledge. This movement towards a CBA has been observed in Africa for 15 years, as stated by Bernard, Nkengne Nkengne and Robert: ‘The CBA tended to become for a decade a requirement – indeed a standard – in the curricular reforms undertaken in Africa’ (2007, p. 3).

However, no empirical results supported the CBA as the solution to the numerous problems that affect the African education systems. Moreover, the CBA is a curricular orientation that, if not accompanied by concrete actions in the field, cannot in isolation claim to improve the learning conditions of learners in the classrooms. The curriculum’s structure and content have only a minimal effect on pupils’ learning. What matters the most to support pupils’ learning are the material and pedagogical conditions, as well as the effective teaching that learners receive. They are important factors playing a more fundamental role (Bernard et al., 2007; Roegiers, 2008).

Furthermore, even though the CBA proposes a curriculum structure and a curricular vision centred on the development of competencies, it does not prescribe the pedagogical means to attain them. According to Bernard et al. (2007), the CBA suggests a pedagogical change aiming to improve practices. However, it gives teachers the liberty of choice in their pedagogical approaches to suit the expectations of the CBA. Yet, as Dembélé and Sirois (2018) highlight, African teachers’ professional competencies are variable and can sometimes be insufficient to ensure the decentralisation of strategies adopted by the CBA:

Furthermore, the CBA, relying on teachers’ pedagogical talents rather than the tools that they need, leaves African teachers, already weakened by a difficult context, more alone than ever in facing the daily difficulties of their profession (Bernard et al., 2007, p. 24).

This is particularly true in the DRC, where teachers teach large classes and where many of them need a second job to make a living. A recent study, conducted in North Kivu by Okito Pamijeko and Savard (2018), emphasised the need for teachers to learn more about socio-constructivist approaches. The 151 teachers who participated in the study stated that they were more comfortable with a ‘show-and-tell’ approach than a more participative approach. In fact, their needs were so great that it showed that their professional competencies are inadequate (Okito Pamijeko and Savard, 2018). As Pryor et al. point out: ‘Teacher education has been identified as both part of the problem and the solution to the challenge of quality’ (2012, p. 410).

In addition to these challenges, many definitions of competency exist in the literature. While it is possible to find some common points (Jonnaert, 2011), they do not all have the same foundation and structure. This therefore invites different interpretations of the idea of competencies and, consequently, different means to promote its development in learners, as well as its evaluation. Added to this is a lack of precision on different levels, in terms of the curricular structure proposed by the CBA. Even though the CBA suggests structuring the curricula around competencies, it does not provide any information regarding the specific competencies to develop by discipline, nor with regard to the connections that those competencies must have with societal needs (Bernard et al., 2007).

Reports and studies have analysed the impact at different levels of these CBA reforms in Africa and have also analysed the implementation process (Bernard et al., 2007; Cros et al., 2010; Roegiers, 2008). A study (Cros et al., 2010) financed by the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement), the African Development Bank (Banque Africaine de Développement) and the International Organisation of Francophonie (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie) to evaluate the process of curricular reform through the CBA in primary education in several African countries mentions a number of problems associated with this reform. The study reports that, for countries where the reform was sustained until the end, difficulties in implementing the reform and limited impact on teaching practices and on the systems as a whole were observed. Difficulties included brief professional development for teachers, no communication strategies with the communities involved, little or no follow-up with teachers, and implementation of the reform being limited to primary schools only. For other countries, it was difficult to leave the experimental pilot phase and some even stopped its implementation because of the difficulties encountered.

These problems are due to different factors, some of which were previously discussed with regard to the lack of precision surrounding this approach. To this is added the complexity of developing competencies, which leads to a number of practical difficulties for implementation (Bernard et al., 2007, Gauthier, 2013). For instance, the CBA means that learners should have access to different resources, which can be costly, difficult to find or inaccessible. Concerning the different reports on the subject, the CBA requires the combination of innovative pedagogical principles in environments that are often characterised by a scarcity of resources and a lack of teacher training or preparation. In this context, where the approaches are complex and teachers are expected to provide the means to put the approach into practice, teacher training on the CBA becomes increasingly important. However, in the CBA implementation initiatives in Africa, the reports demonstrate a number of major gaps in the teacher training plan associated with the reform.

One of the models for providing professional development consists of a waterfall model, which has different layers: the experts at the top train other people, who then train other people, who train other people. Usually, the last layer is in schools, where teachers train other teachers. This model presents many issues, as Cros et al. explain:

The training provided has a common characteristic: it is training designed from the top down according to a waterfall model that leads to a progressive loss of quality and errors in regulation measures and in control. The duration of the training is a lot longer for the trainers and almost non-existent for the teachers, who, however, are the immediate users of the curriculum (2010, p. 17).

As a result, these gaps, as Bernard et al. (2007) note, bring about a major loss of the principles of the CBA and a symmetrical increase in power of the principals in this process, who sometimes provide the training.

Initiated in 2011, the revised curriculum was a more coherent version in terms of content and organisation. To evaluate this transitional version of the curriculum, the DRC put in place an experimental pilot project supported by different partners, and aimed to widen the protocol to the whole country once the process was analysed and adjusted. This design was supervised by a group of university researchers associated with the Consortium for International Development in Education (Consortium International de Développement en Éducation) in partnership with the DRC’s Administration of School Programmes and Didactic Material (Direction des Programmes scolaires et matériels didactiques – DIPROMAD) and with the financial support of UNICEF. Overall, the researchers’ mandate was to provide technical support to the MEPS-INC’s DIPROMAD to implement the reform to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics and languages in primary schools. We will discuss the experimental design lead in mathematics. Improving education outcomes in mathematics is an important focus of bilateral and multilateral donors (Piper et al., 2016). In fact, improving mathematics in early grades is a worldwide priority (UNESCO, 2014; Ginsburg, Hyson and Woods, 2014) because learners’ early number sense skills are considered the greatest predictors of academic achievement (Duncan et al., 2007).

The aims of the experimental design were to implement the first milestones for establishing a large-scale curricular reform and to evaluate this approach by different means, with the goal of increasing the reform’s efficiency. Efficiency was measured according to Depover and Jonnaert (2014) by the relation between the monetary input (i.e. the expenses devoted to the educational project) and the output (revealed by indicators such as standardised testing scores). In this instance, the money allocated to education was not entirely used for education, due to corruption. The schools received less than they were supposed to get to pay teachers and to provide professional development and resources for teachers to teach better. It thus affected the quality of teaching and impacted on pupils’ learning. Citing data from UNESCO (2011), these authors state that the variables that have the highest efficiency factor (impact versus cost) are the availability of school textbooks and the teachers’ qualification levels.

Therefore, this data highlights the importance of initial and continuous teacher training and the availability of basic pedagogical materials, such as textbooks, to increase an education system’s efficiency. These variables are more important for learner success than others, such as the condition of school buildings and the number of learners per teacher.

The steps taken in this process

  1. Formation of a pool of national experts that act at all levels of the structure of curricular reform
  2. Training of a pool of experts
  3. Drafting of pedagogical material for primary teachers (learning situations)
  4. Drafting of training modules for the school board consultants, principals, inspectors and teachers
  5. Training of regional school board consultants, principals, inspectors and teachers
  6. Testing a sample of developed pedagogical material
  7. Evaluation of different approaches.

Key partnerships established

An approach to curricular reform, whether it is an experimental pilot project or national and global, requires the formation of a team around which the different components of the reform are organised (Bernard et al., 2007). Reforming an education system involves work in different sectors: the curriculum structure, evaluation tools, pedagogical material, initial and continuous teacher training, school administrators, organisation, pedagogical approaches in class, etc. The work of Jonnaert, Ettayebi and Defise (2009) documents the complexity of this dynamic and the diversity of the sectors affected by the curricular reform. Thus, the mandates of such a team are varied and the team’s composition must reflect the variety of the functions that will be carried out.

For the present project, this team’s mandate was to write school textbooks using a situation-based approach, to organise the training of provincial school administrators and to co-ordinate data collection associated with the evaluation process of different approaches, among others, and assessing competencies (CBA). With this vision, it seemed essential to include teachers, inspectors, school board consultants and school principals who understood the classroom context in order to plan the curricular content for writing the school textbooks. A university specialist in education, measurement and evaluation joined this group, as did members of the school’s administrative network.

Furthermore, the success of such a group, from our observations, depends on the recognition of the permanent status of this team. It is difficult to maintain optimal, regular and constant functioning of such a group if recognition of a permanent status, whether short or medium-term, is not established. Too often, the formation of this kind of group is carried out by mandates to temporary teachers in the education system, resulting in a loss of team members and a lack of continuity in the process and in the work product.

Key Outcomes & Impact
What where the key outcomes? What impact/added value did they prove? What were the biggest challenges?

The data collected for this project highlights a positive impact on training teachers in their practice. Furthermore, the teachers seem to have abided by the pedagogical practice imposed by the processing of situations. In addition, this impact was marked by the availability of tested pedagogical materials, namely the mathematical situations distributed to all the teachers. This data conforms to the study of the main factors necessary to improve the pedagogical practices of teachers: teacher training and the availability of pedagogical material (Cros et al., 2010; Depover and Jonnaert, 2014).

Continuous long-term training processes should be implemented at the national level in order to achieve a more extensive and significant effect on improving teacher competencies.

Clearly, the two-week training programme provided to teachers did not solve all the problems, notably the management of pedagogical materials during the processing of situations and the mathematical weakness of many teachers. The results of the mathematical test are extremely problematic. They underline mathematical weaknesses in the tested teachers. This means that teachers who do not have a good understanding of mathematics might have additional challenges in implementing learning situations, where the meaning of mathematics is so important.

Other than this aspect of training, a notable aspect was the difficulty for an educational structure in a country such as the DRC to ensure the smooth functioning of an experimental design containing a large and varied collection of data. For both the observation grid in class and the pre-tests and post-tests, data collection was problematic. The difficulties were more apparent for the pre-tests and post-tests which permitted the evaluation of the efficiency of situation processing in class on pupils’ learning. For example, some teachers administered the pre-test after the situations, while others administered the pre-test and post-test before the situations, thus invalidating the results.

Future Developments / Sustainability
Have any plans been made for future direction of the initiative?

In the DRC, the Quality and Relevance of Secondary and Tertiary Education Project (PEQPESU) project, financed by the World Bank, is extending this initiative to the entire education system through a major reform of the curricula.

Contact information

Annie Savard, Associate Professor

Department of Integrated Studies in Education, Faculty of Education | McGill University

3700 McTavish Street, Room 309 | Montréal, Québec, Canada H3A 1Y2

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A Waterfall Model for Providing Professional Development for Primary School Teachers: A Pilot Project to Implement a Competency-Based Approach in the Democratic Republic of Congo