Connecting the Dots: Learning Communities for Village Teachers in Rural Indonesia
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Dyah is a teacher of 4- and 5-year-olds in a small, remote village in Indonesia. Early childhood services are beginning to be requested by families, mostly farmers and shopkeepers. In response to families’ recent awareness of the importance of early childhood programs, for the last few years Dyah and another young woman from the village have run a village “kindergarten.” They lack formal training and their approach is informed only by their experiences with their own children and memories of their schooling. Parents, mainly farmers and shopkeepers, pay a small fee and help collect simple learning materials for the classroom, like cardboard boxes and empty water bottles. Recently, a pilot project provided a week of basic professional development for teachers in the area. Dyah loved the training and would like to put what she learned into practice, but it’s difficult to do without any follow-up support.
Dyah is not alone in needing ongoing, practical professional development. International research is clear: one-time training experiences are insufficient to allow teachers to consistently implement quality practices in their local environments. In several comprehensive literature reviews (e.g., Darling-Hammond & Richardson 2009; US Department of Education 2010), a clear theme emerges: one-time, or “drive-by,” professional development is not likely to help teachers implement new approaches in their local environments. The research does show that more sustained professional development can help teachers apply new knowledge and reflect on it in collaboration with others. Effective strategies include observing other teachers’ classes (Darling-Hammond & Richardson 2009; Flom 2014) and offering practice-based coaching—a process that connects teachers with coaches or mentors to think about and improve practice (Office of Head Start 2015).
In this article, we describe our team’s challenges and early successes in piloting new ways to connect teachers with one another in poor, rural areas of Indonesia through a World Bank–supported project that aims to help the government of Indonesia improve access to, and quality of, early childhood services. Besides describing the Indonesian experience, we also identify some insights that may be applicable to teachers in the United States and other countries who struggle with similar issues.
Challenging conditions for teacher development
Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. It has the world’s largest Muslim population and is the world’s third largest democracy (USINDO 2017). Although Indonesia has experienced some economic growth in recent years, the benefits have not yet reached the country’s most vulnerable young children and families (Hyson 2015):
- Indonesian children rank near the bottom on most international comparisons of academic achievement, with the poorest children having the worst outcomes.
- Many poor children experience stunted growth, caused by poor maternal nutrition and inadequate early feeding; stunting limits children’s physical and intellectual development, often for life.
- Families with low incomes have fewer resources to stimulate children’s early development and learning.
- Most low-income families do not have access to affordable early childhood services.
Responding to these challenges, Indonesia has increased access to early learning and development services, particularly in rural areas. Yet these are still insufficient:
- The quality of services remains a concern, particularly the development of teachers’ competencies to deliver quality programming.
- Coordination is challenging, with various ministries overseeing different aspects of services, often with minimal communication. Links between national efforts and implementation at regional and local levels are often weak.
- Teacher training is not widely available, with an inadequate supply of professional development providers and difficulties connecting with teachers in rural, often remote parts of the country.
- Most of the government-supported professional development has been brief, one-time basic training focused on transmitting theories and information through didactic methods.
- Teachers report great difficulty in applying what they have learned, and observations of practices in typical settings show a focus on whole-class teaching, with an absence of relevant, playful learning activities.
To address these challenges, the government of Indonesia has implemented Early Childhood Frontline, a two-year (2015–2017) pilot program that aims to increase the availability of high-quality, affordable, and locally relevant professional development for early childhood educators across the country. Frontline targets teachers in poor, rural villages, building local capacity to deliver teacher training and increasing community participation in the delivery of services. This approach is being implemented in 2,500 villages across 25 districts (local government entities), increasing the capacity of 15,000 community early education teachers over the two-year program period. Key elements include:
- Using local facilitators to engage villages in identifying their needs and linking them with professional development providers who can help
- Moving toward a local, district-based system for providing teacher professional development, with more practical, skills-focused training of trainers
- Enhancing the existing five-day basic training with more practice-focused materials and more interactive methods that engage participants with one another and with trainers
- Identifying and improving other follow-up professional development opportunities that build on existing community institutions
Creating connections among village teachers
Even though Frontline made the five-day basic training much more locally relevant and practical, isolated training tends not to make a lasting difference (Gulamhussein 2013). To strengthen teachers’ ability to implement what they learn, Frontline has added four follow-up opportunities, building each on existing community institutions or frequently used media. Teachers receive support to (1) visit nearby programs; (2) attend meetings of teacher cluster groups; (3) become members of a peer group in WhatsApp, a popular social media application in Indonesia; and (4) receive some on-site coaching if they live in one of several districts.
1. Observing and discussing other teachers’ practices
Dyah had gotten to know some teachers in other villages, but due to travel costs and logistics, she had never had the opportunity to see what they do with the children. Now, thanks to Frontline, she has spent several days in other programs, observing and, after the children leave, discussing issues with the staff. Dyah says that it’s encouraging to see that others have similar challenges. She is also trying to adapt some practices and activities for her classroom that she has seen other teachers do.
Professional development researchers (e.g., Darling-Hammond & Richardson 2009; Flom 2014) have noted the value of giving teachers a chance to see what other teachers are doing in their classrooms and then engaging in reflective discussions—what has been called collaborative professional development (Flom 2014). The classrooms do not have to be models of excellence as long as the teachers are focused on learning from one another.
In the past, Indonesia’s government has tried to identify so-called model centers that can host visits and weeklong internships. These centers are often located far from the rural areas where most early childhood teachers work, and the materials and physical environment in the model centers are much different from the realities of small village preschools. Frontline provides support for teachers to travel to local schools, where they spend a morning observing in peers’ classrooms and then, after the children have left, engage in focused discussions with the staff of the partner schools.
Teachers usually say that they enjoy and gain much from these visits, but several challenges were apparent during Frontline’s first year, and they are now being addressed. For example, more guidance and facilitation were needed to help the visitors and the host teachers understand how to get the most out of these opportunities. Many teachers simply copied whatever they saw in their visit without making adaptations to their own context. In response, more user-friendly materials have been designed and distributed, and some on-site coaching is being offered (described later in this article).
2. Enhancing the value of teacher meetings
Before participating in Frontline, Putri had taught for a year but had never attended meetings of the teachers in her area. She was not sure why it was important to be at the meetings, and travel was difficult. Now, with project support, Putri looks forward to more frequent involvement, when she can tell other teachers about what she’s doing in her own classroom—both successes and challenges. In these meetings, she also has a chance to learn what others are doing and get other information that affects her work in the village.
Teacher cluster groups—or Gugus, in Indonesia’s official language—began many years ago, as primary and secondary teachers would come together to learn new information and share their experiences. In more recent years, the concept was widely adopted for early childhood teachers, with monthly meetings of those from the same locality. Although the content of the meetings was often didactic and administrative, Gugus offered a promising foundation for developing professional learning communities.
In Frontline’s first year, teachers who had completed basic training began receiving travel funds to attend the established Gugus meetings and to contribute to them by sharing what they had learned. Many teachers say Gugus meetings are useful because teachers are thirsty for professional development. They also see the meetings as important venues for gaining information about future early childhood events, government regulations, and funding issues.
As with Frontline’s other initiatives, the first year unearthed some challenges. Although teachers had been given modest travel funds, in remote areas it was not always easy to travel to a central meeting point to attend Gugus. Furthermore, the content of many Gugus meetings had remained less practical and less interactive than was expected. As with the classroom visits, more specific guidance was needed about how to move from monthly lectures to a model of shared peer learning, with connections back to the practices being emphasized by the government and by Frontline. For the second year, Gugus leaders received a booklet full of ideas for interactive sessions that help all teachers—not just those participating in the pilot—learn about and apply positive early childhood methods and activities (see “Examples of Ideas for Interactive, Practice-Focused Gugus Meetings”).
Examples of Ideas for Interactive, Practice-Focused Gugus Meetings
- Teachers demonstrate learning materials they have previously created using local resources (e.g., bottle caps, seashells, leaves, etc.), and then they work together to brainstorm and develop additional materials.
- In small groups, teachers volunteer to share information about a child in their class with a disability or other special need. Group members consider how to adapt activities to help the child participate.
- A member demonstrates a simple learning activity; other members brainstorm all the different ways this kind of activity can support children’s development, and they discuss other activities that may have similar benefits.
- Members participate in a work session on how to begin implementing “corners,” or “learning centers.” Members who use centers share examples. Gugus leaders encourage members to try out ideas and report back at the next meeting.
- Members discuss a case study of a frequently encountered ethical issue; for example, what is the right thing to do if a family member may be mistreating a child?
- Members share ways they are engaging families and discuss how to address low participation.
3. Using WhatsApp to connect from a distance
As a young person in a remote area, Syifa has often relied on social media—WhatsApp is her favorite—to keep in touch with friends and relatives. Now she has another reason to use WhatsApp: it allows her to connect easily with other early childhood teachers. A few times she has posted photos of activities she uses, both activities learned in training and those she saw others use when she visited their classrooms. She’s also getting ideas from others in her WhatsApp group.
WhatsApp Messenger, a free social media application, is widely used in Indonesia. Seeing an opportunity to connect teachers, Frontline asked those who provided the five-day basic training to create WhatsApp groups for each cohort of participants. Use of the groups has varied, but participants often share photos or other examples of what they are implementing in their classrooms.
Focus groups showed that both trainers and teachers used and valued the WhatsApp groups. Teachers connected with others who had been in their basic training, and trainers connected frequently with one another and with the teachers with whom they had worked. These WhatsApp groups are especially valuable in connecting those living in more remote areas, as well as bridging the gaps between in-person connections with other early childhood educators (either teachers or trainers).
The potential for this type of social media connection is evident, but in practice it needed enhancement. Little support was provided to teachers or trainers for using WhatsApp for professional development. Some groups of participants used the platform primarily for communications unrelated to early childhood education. Trainers did not have specific guidance on how to communicate simple reminders about positive practices—but research in public health, education, and family engagement shows that such reminders are beneficial when delivered through social media or texting (e.g., Hurwitz et al. 2016; Jukes et al. 2016). Frontline trainers can disseminate messages to encourage recently trained teachers to implement specific practices and to share their experiences through WhatsApp. Now, during Frontline’s second year, a detailed set of examples is being given to trainers, with discussion of the use and adaptation of these messages during training of trainers workshops (see “Examples of Weekly Reminders for WhatsApp Groups”).
Examples of Weekly Reminders for WhatsApp Groups
- Have friendly, personal conversations with a child you don’t know very well.
- Ask open-ended questions (that do not have right or wrong answers) often.
- Encourage good behavior by suggesting to children what to do, instead of just telling them what they should not do.
- Have some time every day for children to choose their own activities. Show them what the choices are, and limit the number of children in each area.
- Organize your classroom so that there are several activity centers where small groups of children can learn by playing. Some can be outdoors.
- Remember to read a book with the children every day. Discuss the story!
- Teach math skills using everyday objects—even simple things like seeds or small sticks.
- Greet the children’s families at the beginning and end of the day. Tell parents something positive about their child.
4. Making coaching possible
Visiting other programs, attending Gugus meetings, and exchanging messages with her teacher friends have been helpful, but when asked, Dyah says she would really love to have a coach—a more experienced teacher who could help her improve. Dyah doesn’t live in one of the areas where Frontline is trying out a new coaching initiative, but other teachers, like Tari, are more fortunate.
Tari, a teacher in a small preschool, lives in one of the “coach pilot” areas. She has recently completed her five-day basic training. Now, she wants to improve her ability to come up with playful activities connected to the assigned theme for each week. Before receiving training, Tari used to make presentations to the children about the theme; now she sees the need to engage the children in a different way. But Tari is confused about where to start, despite seeing a few other teachers’ ideas. In her district, there are coaches to give that extra support.
Tari’s coach helps her think about what resources might already be available. Tari realizes that the book Theme Webbing has been in her center’s resource room, which she never used. In addition to answering her questions, the coach has empowered Tari to identify local resources that will continue to help her plan theme-related daily activities.
Even in the United States, it is difficult to implement one-on-one work site coaching, despite evidence for its benefits (e.g., Rush & Shelden 2011; Gupta & Daniels 2012). In countries like Indonesia, contending with greater poverty, more remote locations, and fewer qualified early childhood staff, implementing individualized coaching is even more challenging. Frontline is exploring various ways to make coaching possible, beginning in just a few areas. The first step has been to develop and pilot resources to train coaches, using group training sessions followed by required hours of practice and an observational assessment of coaching skills. Those trained to be coaches come from various backgrounds: principals, government staff responsible for supervising local centers, and senior teachers. To create the possibility of a sustainable system, those who successfully go through this initial process are then prepared to train others as coaches.
So far, the training and early implementation have been well received. Those trained as coaches want this to continue after the pilot, as their early coaching experiences have shown that it is very helpful for village teachers. Not only that, some principals and governmental staff who have received the training have said that the skills are also useful in conducting their other, primary responsibilities. Ani, a principal, said that since practicing coaching, she has felt a change in herself—she has become more patient and understanding when listening to teachers’ problems and is more able to manage her emotions and to appreciate the teachers’ point of view. Because results like these have been fairly typical, and because sustainability is a major concern, the second year of Frontline is focusing on preparing early childhood directors and principals as coaches.
Another challenge has been that, given limited resources, in remote locations one-on-one coaching is sometimes not feasible or occurs so seldom that its effects are limited. Small group coaching is an alternative Frontline is exploring. In this case, a coach meets with a small group of teachers who work in the same location or live near one another. Both common and unique challenges can be collaboratively discussed during these sessions.
From Indonesia to the United States: Shared challenges and lessons learned
The contexts might differ, but Frontline’s ongoing work may hold insights for educators, professional development providers, and others in the United States.
- Success depends on continuous improvement. The examples shared in this article show how lessons learned in the early stages of a pilot program can improve later implementation, if everyone remains open to that learning. Just in the last year, Frontline has made changes to materials and procedures—changes that hold promise for further development of this intervention.
- Strategically using and partnering with existing institutions and programs supports expansion and sustainability. At every point, Frontline has tried to build on what already exists and is accepted within communities. Village preschools as observation sites, popular social media applications, existing teacher cluster groups—these and other venues create opportunities in the short run and the longer run. Frontline has also become a laboratory for innovation that various government programs may draw upon. For example, the Frontline evaluation is using a classroom quality observation tool, MELE (ECDMeasure 2017), that may eventually be adapted to assist with the government’s new accreditation system.
- Coordination and integration of professional development opportunities is needed to avoid fragmentation and to strengthen impact. Frontline has made progress in drawing on a common set of teacher competencies to frame each of the four follow-up activities described here, as well as to link them back to the initial group training.
- Intensity and dosage matter. Because of constraints of time and budget, Frontline has been able to support each teachers’ participation in only a few visits and a few Gugus meetings—probably too few to make a large impact. The hope is that in the future, local governments will see the value of teachers learning from each other and provide support for continuing professional development; there is already some evidence of this occurring in districts.
- One size does not fit all. If simple tools to connect teachers are provided, and if these are closely linked to existing, well-accepted institutions and systems, then different communities might pick up and combine the pieces in different ways. Early childhood educators will construct various combinations of this “menu of options” according to their culture, characteristics, and needs. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation will help document these patterns and their effects on practice, as well as support continuous improvement.
Frontline continues to tweak the tools and supports for teacher learning communities, implementing improvements during the project’s second year and possibly beyond. Even at the midpoint, the project’s process evaluation activities—including classroom observations, interviews, and focus group discussions—suggest that we are on a promising path. Interest shown by the government’s early childhood directorates, as well as the participating local government districts, indicates that a number of these innovations may be sustainable.
Ultimately, Frontline is trying to create a culture of connection for all teachers, wherever they are and whatever their level of education and professional preparation. Such connections are important for all early childhood professionals, within and far beyond Indonesia.
From Global to Local Practices: Consider Trying Some of These Ideas
Organizing opportunities for teachers to have “exchange visits” with colleagues’ classrooms
- Building in time at AEYC or other meetings for teachers to share their successes and challenges in an informal setting
- Extending the learning that happens in training sessions with well-planned follow-up activities
- Experimenting with social media to connect teachers or administrators who are seldom able to get together in person
- Using social media to send concise, encouraging key messages about specific practices or priorities
- What other ideas come to mind?
—Marilou Hyson, Guest Editor
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Marilou Hyson, PhD, is an early childhood consultant, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Internationally, Marilou has consulted with the World Bank and Save the Children on standards, curriculum, and professional development in numerous countries, including Indonesia. Marilou.Hyson@gmail.com
Rosfita Roesli, MA, is a senior education specialist with The World Bank Office Jakarta. She has been the Task Team leader for a number of programs in early childhood education and development, specializing in rural and poor communities.