Research focuses on training needs of African teachers

A group of students in Malawi sit on the floor of their classroom because there are no chairs or desks, an issue many students in African countries face. Credit: Lindsay MarkelzAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the past 20 years, countries in Africa have been dedicated to revamping their public education systems. Yet, despite their efforts, many students continue to be left behind.

“Many of these countries have made remarkable improvements to their educational systems,” said Elizabeth Hughes, assistant professor of special education at Penn State. “More recently, education for students with disabilities has become a high priority.”

To better help teachers reach this underserved population, Hughes and her research partner Morgan Chitiyo, associate professor of education at Duquesne University, are collaborating with professors at African universities. Together, they are working to identify the special education professional development needs of special and general education teachers in the African nations of Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“For us, it is really important that we approach educational change at the teacher level,” Hughes said. “It isn’t a top-down way of thinking, like ‘this is what I think you should do based on what we’ve done in the United States.’ But, really, ‘what are your needs and what do you perceive as needs within special education?’

“We wanted to hear from the teachers because they are invested in the quality of their local educational systems,” she said.

The two-part survey included both quantitative and qualitative elements that asked teachers to identify their special education professional development needs and rate the importance of different variables, including professional development, early childhood education, early intervention, disability-specific needs and inclusion. Preliminary results indicate that professional development, in a variety of topic areas, is considered to be highly important to teachers.

“Overall, teachers rated things high across the board in terms of wanting and needing professional development,” Hughes said. Teachers specifically stated they needed training in the areas of student behavior, assessment, interventions and how to accommodate students’ learning challenges. Results also showed that teachers wanted more resources for students with sensory impairments, such as students who are blind or deaf.

“Responses from the survey had more of an emphasis on disabilities such as epilepsy and blindness or low vision than I expected,” Hughes said, adding that these disabilities appear to be an area of high need highlighted by the teachers.

“In the U.S., we see a lower incidence of these types of disabilities, especially compared to learning disabilities or behavioral challenges,” she said. “But many teachers we surveyed wanted resources to work with students who have visual and/or hearing impairments. At this point, we can only speculate why we see this emphasis in our data and we need to conduct more research to explore these topics in greater detail.”

Although Hughes and Chitiyo are still collecting data in Zambia and running comparison analyses among the different countries, common trends are starting to emerge.

The researchers also have received feedback suggesting support is needed for disabilities that have resulted from environmental elements, such as malnutrition and poverty.

“Most teachers want beneficial inclusive practices, but don’t necessarily have the skills or training to work with students with disabilities,” Hughes said. She noted that teachers reported a lack of resources for students with disabilities. Specifically, students with visual impairments do not have access to learning materials such as Braille.

But the needs of teachers go beyond the typical needs for training and curriculum materials.

“In the open-ended responses, we saw a lot of basic needs,” Hughes said. “Teachers reported the need for clean water, the need for desks, the need for access for students in wheelchairs to have ramps and general access to schools — needs that many of us don’t necessarily think about for schools here in the United States.”

Although their needs vastly differ from those of teachers in developed countries, teachers in countries such as Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe look to countries like the United States for help, Hughes said.

“Formal special education in the United States is still relatively new,” she said, explaining that federal legislation was not passed until 1975. “In the U.S., we have been developing and improving special education for over 40 years. But in the countries with which we are working, their special educational systems may be less than 10 years old. They’re still in those beginning phases and so they look to countries that have more-established special educational systems for guidance.”

“But we can’t retrofit our system to each country,” she said. “Each country has its own needs, its own landscapes, its own challenges. We can’t necessarily take what worked here and make it relevant to others without understanding cultural contexts.”

Due to logistical challenges and time to establish partnerships, it has taken the researchers three years to access African teachers and collect data for their study, which was originally funded through a Duquesne University Loogman Research Grant. Hughes and Chitiyo now are continuing to cultivate these partnerships and are hopeful their research can help African universities train current and future teachers to provide appropriate education to students with exceptional needs.

“I’m hoping these findings will help educational stakeholders and potentially advance special education in these countries, and promote the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities on the African continent,’’ Hughes said.

Last Updated July 28, 2017