In Tajikistan, we are focusing on addressing the cornerstones of thriving communities in a Global Development Alliance with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) entitled Economic and Social Connections: A Multi-Input Area Development Financing Facility for Tajikistan (ESCoMIAD). Our first series on that partnership traced the impact of dynamic communities and local governance structures on the foundation of flourishing economies. This series looks at another set of those building blocks: innovative institutions. This means building capacity at local health facilities in isolated communities. Enhancing the skills of teachers who ensure schools are dynamic places that stimulate children’s minds. And strengthening systems for delivering energy to homes, businesses, and public facilities. Together these tell the story of how the Alliance is improving the quality of life for communities in Tajikistan.

Schools for Growing Skills and Innovative Students

In recent years, education professionals in Tajikistan and elsewhere have recognized that children gain the skills they need for life through an approach that stimulates them and emphasizes their skills and competencies. This is very different from the methods of the past that relied on memorizing facts and information.

With the Government of Tajikistan, Aga Khan Foundation has worked to make schools that stimulate children’s thinking so that they can assess things for themselves, learn how to work in groups, and think innovatively.

Strengthening the education system has helped to do this in primary and secondary schools across Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and eastern Khatlon province. With a combination of curriculum adapted to relevance (also called “relevance pedagogy”) and support for communities of practice among teachers, these efforts are paying off.

In 96 schools ESCoMIAD has already supported these changes, rolling out support in 24 schools a year since 2015.

A Curriculum for Well-rounded Students

Relevance pedagogy addresses a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive competencies with an approach to class management that uses interactive methods.

Elements include integrating different subjects in lessons, guest experts in the classroom, field trips and independent study or mini-research projects, working in pairs and groups, and allowing teachers to customize the classroom experience.

We’re still learning from this shift. Through structured assessments, including in-depth classroom observation with teachers within one year of implementation, researchers found that more experienced teachers warmed to the new approach – they found it easier to make the changes than less-experienced teachers who did not yet have a base for improvising and responding in the moment of the classroom.

An example of subject integration came in a visit to Tavdem school #4 in Roshtkala district. In a Grade 1 class, sharing desks in groups of four and five, children gathered around baskets of fruits and vegetables and drawings of fruits and vegetables. Teachers first asked the students to identify the produce by name, then to spell out the names. After that, an art session with those students explored drawing the baskets of vegetables: capturing the textures, colors and composition. The teachers then shifted to science, asking, “Where do you find these plants in our community?” “How do they grow?” The children learned about the foods’ nutritional values and the links to health.

Children at Tavdem school #4 in Roshtkala district in Tajikistan gathered around baskets of fruits and vegetables and drawings of fruits and vegetables.

Finally, the children got to celebrate what they had learned by creating salads together from the food in front of them.

Supporting Teachers

In 80 schools in GBAO and 16 in eastern Khatlon, teachers are receiving training by way of key teachers in each school. In that model, the key teachers in math, science and language in turn provide training for their colleagues.

The program is also reinforced by curriculum leaders (known as heads of Methodological Cabinets) who look at curriculum delivery, how to interpret curricula provided from the central office, and how to bring in locally appropriate innovations. They review the overall coverage of required topics for primary and secondary levels alongside interactive strategies.

Any change in educational approach needs the embrace of school leadership. At the level of school director and deputy directors, AKF has helped to show how this new approach can grow communities of practice. Experienced teachers quickly saw the benefits of more interactive methods for dynamic learning; they in turn helped newer teachers to adapt the lessons of the new approach.

“This approach helps to motivate teachers, who are typically underpaid in Tajikistan,” said Nafisa Gulshaeva, AKF Program Officer for Education. “This bolsters their morale and sense of accomplishment with the students.”

Creating Communities of Practice

These exchanges among teachers for making a more interactive classroom are reinforced during Methodological Training Days, which are like teacher development days that occur on a regular basis. ESCoMIAD’s involvement helped to revitalize that internal process.

“We were seeing they weren’t occurring regularly or sometimes they lacked core objectives,” noted Garibsho Garbshoev, Director of the Institute for Professional Development in GBAO (IPD). “That changed.” Increasingly, teachers traded lesson plans, adapting them for different grades and assessing their effectiveness.

Mentoring less experienced teachers started as lead teachers began sitting in on other classes to observe how lessons came across. This allowed the key teachers to coach others on specific issues and share their experience so newer teachers could adapt to the more dynamic style of learning.

Relevance pedagogy is not yet taught in teachers’ colleges, and it became clear that younger teachers needed more support to incorporate its methods. “When IPD noticed through their mentoring work that younger teachers needed more support, we saw an opportunity,” says Gulshaeva. ESCoMIAD has helped institute the key teachers model.

The Key Teachers Forum, a gathering held at the district level twice a year, allowed more comprehensive reinforcement. Teachers and administrators, alike, have benefited from facilitated experience sharing and direction from IPD on these new approaches, as well as connectivity with efforts targeting basic reading and comprehension skills and extracurricular activities that continue to cultivate a passion for learning in and outside of the classroom.

Through these programs, ESCoMIAD has also strengthened IPD for educational innovation beyond the program lifecycle. It has built on the Curriculum Enrichment Frameworks and Reading for Children programs of the past, and in turn helped the Tajikistan government strengthen teacher training across the country.

In 2009, the collaboration between AKF and the government piloted a new approach to early child development (ECD), adopted by UNICEF and the government. By 2015, it had resulted in the establishment of 1,700 ECD centers in Tajikistan, serving 45,000 children.

Linking Learning Communities

By creating communities of practice among teachers, and broader links with non-governmental teaching resources, ESCoMIAD is again helping the institutions of Tajikistan respond to the opportunities of a dynamic population and a more engaged model of governance.