My German is a little bit, erm, gramatically challenged – but unfortunately, having a German husband is not equivalent to a live-in German-teacher. The problem is that German is so natural to him that he has forgotten how he learnt it and he finds it difficult to respond to my questions about why you have to say something a certain way.
The assumption that someone who knows something will know how to teach someone else it, crops up all the time in the field of international development. People recognise that there is a gap in capacity and then they identify someone who has that capacity. And then they organise for that person to go and “pass on” their capacity. I think there is an assumption that it will work a little bit like this….
The problem of course is that people WITH capacity (knowledge, skills, attitudes in whatever area) might be really rubbish at supporting others to develop that capacity.
For example, I often hear of training programmes for academic researchers in developing countries which make use of senior academics, usually from the north, as trainers. In my experience, one major challenge for junior researchers is critical thinking skills; some people are very adept at learning new facts and theories but really struggle to synthesise information, to draw out meaning from it and to critically engage with it. These are skills which many of us who have grown up in a highly questioning environment have acquired without thinking about it. But for those who have gone through an education system that has relied on rote learning and discourages questioning, they can be a big challenge – and this can clearly be a major problem for aspiring academics. Now, I don’t doubt that the senior academics from the north who are brought in as trainers have bags of critical thinking skills – but what I am not so sure about is whether they are always well qualified to pass these skills on to others.
In fact, I think that with many capacity building projects – particularly those which aim to influence behaviours and attitudes – we need to think more carefully about how we can support people to learn. How do you break down an area of capacity, like critical thinking, and facilitate a process that allows someone to develop it? How do you support capacity building in a way that doesn’t bore or patronise people (I love Nathan Chiume’s description of capacity building as “a euphemism for cramming 30 ppl in a room 4 a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work”). And how can you support local actors to act as facilitators of learning – rather than parachuting experts in from the north? These are not simple problems… but they are really important ones.
The good news is, that there are people out there who have been thinking about this kind of thing for a while – they are called… teachers! Well to be more precise, those who train and study teachers – the educational psychologists, pedagogues, instructional scientists and educationalists. There are lots of them out there (I follow some of them on twitter and they seem to be very nice people) and I think it would be great if we in the international development community joined up with them a little more and found out what they could, you know, teach us.
Update: in response to a comment below I give a more specific example from my experience – would be interested to know if others have experienced similar.