'Nobel prize for teaching' shines spotlight on innovative methods

 Andria Zafirakou (left) is awarded the Global Teacher Prize. Photo by: Global Education & Skills Forum

DUBAI — A British teacher has won a $1 million prize to recognize the crucial yet often undervalued role of teachers — something that experts warn developing countries in particular need to embrace in order to address the global “learning crisis.”

Now in its fourth year, the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize — sometimes described as the “Nobel prize” for teachers — was awarded to Andria Zafirakou at a glitzy ceremony at the end of the two-day Global Education & Skills Forum, a Davos-style event to raise the status of global education.

The forum saw some 3,000 education advocates, edtech developers, politicians, and celebrities gather in Dubai over the weekend for discussions, panels, and presentations on the theme of “how to prepare young people for the world of 2030 and beyond” and address the broader reality that not only are global education goals off track, but public financing for schools is also declining.

The prize has seen a growing number of entries from developing countries, many experimenting with innovative methods to help improve learning outcomes among their students.

Zafirakou, who teaches at an inner-city school in London, was praised for her work to reach marginalized pupils, often those from ethnic minorities, and ensure they feel included in school life. This has included helping launch a Somali school choir and forming a girls-only cricket team that is acceptable to more conservative parents.  

The arts teacher was presented with her teaching trophy during a star-studded event led by South African TV host Trevor Noah, which also featured racing car driver Lewis Hamilton and music from Jennifer Hudson. The British Prime Minister Theresa May congratulated the winner by video.

Research shows that recruiting and retaining more and better teachers is the best way of improving learning outcomes for pupils, especially in poor settings. With an estimated 260 million children and young people currently out of school, and a further 330 million in school but learning little, developing countries are facing a “learning crisis,” according to the World Bank. Furthermore, this is happening at a time of rapid population growth, especially in Africa, combined with technological advances that could make a large swathe of existing jobs redundant.

But while absent or poorly trained teachers are often blamed for low learning levels in schools, research shows that nearly half of teachers’ time is spent outside the classroom for a variety of reasons, many of which are out of their control, according to a recent report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which found that teachers, especially in developing countries, tend to be “underqualified, unsupported and underpaid.”

Speaking after receiving her award, Zafirakou defended the “power of art to move barriers and remove labels … to challenge misperceptions … [and] to unleash potential,” and so “provide a place where [pupils] can safely express themselves and connect with their identity.” She went on to call on “anyone in positions of power to join me in a campaign to protect and celebrate the arts.”

The prize has previously been won by three women — from the United States, Canada, and Palestine — and this year, more than half of the top entries were from developing countries. Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation, said he launched the award in order to “inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and shine a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do all over the world every day.”

Devex spoke to some of the finalists from the last two years operating in low- and middle-income countries to find out more about their models.

Culture-based teaching

Jesus Insilada, who started off as a high-school English teacher in the Philippines and now runs the school, was nominated for his culture-based teaching methods which seek to integrate aspects of traditional indigenous culture into lessons in order to bridge the “gap between what is taught in the classroom and the realities of the student.” Lessons that are taught purely from textbooks and are not “anchored to our culture” became “irrelevant,” he said.

Ninety-five percent of Insilada’s students are from indigenous communities, and the teacher is himself from the Panay Bukidnon community. He was the first person from his farming family to go to college.

Insilada started teaching in 2000 and soon realized that a lot of the lessons failed to touch on his students’ cultural heritage, which he said is fast being forgotten due to modernization and stigmas surrounding indigenous traditions.

His solution was to draw on the successes of culture-based teaching, pioneered by social scientists in the 1990s. That can involve anything from teaching poetry using traditional conventions to incorporating traditional dance. It has made lessons more “relevant” to students, he said, and is helping to “bring back our very rich culture.”

Culture-based teaching is now applied across the rest of the school curriculum and test scores indicate that 87 percent of Insilada’s pupils achieve their age-expected grades in part due to these methods. School enrolment rates have also increased across the community.

Literacy quiz

Marjorie Brown, a former human rights activist, earned her place on the shortlist thanks to her work to introduce and popularize “Kids’ Lit Quiz” in South Africa. Originally developed in New Zealand, the quiz is an international competition, which South Africa has now won three times in the past 13 years despite being the poorest country to participate.

Seeing the value of the prize as a motivational tool, Brown sought to translate it for poorer schools where the books she sends are often the only ones the school has. Known as the “Phendulani Quiz” in South Africa, over the past five years the number of teams participating has doubled and teachers have become coaches and reading champions, Brown said. The government is now using the quiz model as a pilot project in 45 reading clubs.

Brown said she worked by twinning better funded schools with their underprivileged counterparts, “so that children at the other end of the [school] spectrum could also access books and have the incentive of a quiz … and that has raised literacy levels in those schools.”

Using Skype to teach refugees in Kenya

Another finalist, Belgian teacher Koen Timmers, has been working to virtually connect classrooms in the “global north” with students living in a refugee camp in Kenya via Skype. It started in 2015 when Timmers fundraised $5,000 to deliver 20 laptops, along with solar panels and internet infrastructure, to the Kakuma camp. This was used to start offering free online classes to the camp’s children who were struggling to learn with so few resources and teachers. From there, the project has grown and Timmers now links up approximately 175 teachers and their classes with the Kakuma camp for twice-weekly lessons.

“When we talk about education, everyone focuses on knowledge … but it’s as important that we instill compassion and empathy in classrooms.”

— Koen Timmers, finalist for the Global Teacher Prize

These livestreamed lessons are designed to meet the Kenyan curriculum, but they offer more than education and are also a way of creating empathy in the classroom, Timmers told Devex.

“When we talk about education, everyone focuses on knowledge … but it’s as important that we instill compassion and empathy in classrooms,” he said. For children in the “global north” who are “fed up and tired of reading about refugees in the newspaper,” it offers the opportunity to connect to the refugee children and to have fun with them as well as learn, he said.

Improving education and social skills in slum schools through ballet

One of last year’s finalists for the prestigious prize has been using ballet as a tool to mentor children living in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, and teach them “soft skills.” The boost to their confidence has in turn helped them advance in their academic pursuits.

Talking to Devex on the sidelines of this year’s GESF, Michael Wamaya said that since being shortlisted last year he has started his own social enterprise which offers after-school dance classes in both private schools and slum schools. The classes are free for poorer students.  

What is unique about Wamaya’s approach is how he combines teaching dance steps with other skills and positions himself as a coach and mentor to his pupils. He believes the Kenyan education system is too focused on exams, which means “many children are left out and children are not learning how to be long-term learners or to have empathy,” he said. As a result, many pupils drop out, and those who remain spend their time cramming for exams rather than gaining employable skills.

“Dancing is like a tool to me to get the children excited and looking forward to school,” he said. “I hope my dancing changes the mindset of kids.”

Wamaya also seeks to inspire confidence in his students through dance, explaining that “we do a lot of miming and acting through dances,” so that the kids can broaden their aspirations. One girl now wants to be a neurosurgeon, he said.

The dance teacher has even started teaching coding through dancing, explaining: “You can show children how to jump and how to step and then translate that onto the keys on the computer.”

Wamaya said he hopes to scale up his program into more schools and use his unique approach to change the school system in his city, and to raise the perception of teachers in his country.

About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.