Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Participatory Learning Overview

A friend of mine works with an alternative school that offers an accelerated primary education for children that are too old to attend a regular primary school. She recently asked me if I had any resources about training teachers in participatory learning techniques- so I spent a few days buried in books and articles. Swimming in educational jargon was a nice break from Swahili and French- spending a few hours each day working, thinking, reading and writing in English!  I thought it might be interesting to share my findings.  Also, if you know anyone working in some of these programs, I’d love to learn more.

Desired Result: A curriculum guide for training teachers in Goma about participatory learning.

Background: The information below has been compiled from resources supported by:

1. Project Zero, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a research group dedicated to understanding and enhancing learning, thinking and creativity. (Weinbaum, 7) This group’s resources are valuable because they are widely considered on the cutting edge of research based educational reform.

2. Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) is a network through which teachers, NGOs, etc. can collaborate about how to repair and rebuild education systems in order to offer high quality education during and after emergencies.  They have a database of research articles which are particularly valuable because they are aimed specifically at education in environments similar to DR Congo.

Focus Questions:

1. What is participatory learning?
2. How can teachers be trained to use participatory learning techniques?
3. How do participatory learning techniques effect student learning?

I. What is participatory learning?

Participatory learning is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of teaching strategies that focus on increased student participation.  Like any profession, teaching has it’s jargon- and different sources will use different terminology.   Many popular terms can be placed on a spectrum of instructional approaches ranging from teacher centered to student centered.

Teacher Centered………………….…..I……………………..…..Student Centered

Traditional Methodology Alternative Methodology
Direct Instruction, Didactic Approach Participatory Learning, Collaborative Approach
Teacher Lectures, Rote Learning Interactive Pedagogy, Child Friendly
Teacher is the main disseminator of knowledge. Students interact and learn from each other.
Teaching as telling and learning as memorizing Teachers have a willingess and ability to learn from students: to see in the way that students see and to appreciate how students make sense of their world.
Learning is the acquisition of new information Learning is the construction of new information
Assessments of knowledge reproduction Assessments of knowledge construction

In considering new types of techniques, it is critical to acknowledge that both teacher centered and student centered learning are necessary and valuable. One side of the spectrum is not meant to replace the other, but rather to compliment one another.

II. How can teachers be trained to use participatory learning techniques?

Key Point: When training of teachers occurs, it is absolutely critical that the training program USE the methodology and pedagogy that they promote. The learners should learn by doing, resulting in more effective implimentation. (Baxter, 97)

Examples: Below is an overview of three already existing approaches to training teachers in participatory learning. The first two excerpts, UNICEF’s child-friendly schools program and the IRC’s healing classrooms initiative are from a compilation of Alternative Education Case Studies by the International Institute for Educational Planning. Both of those programs are being implemented in a number of countries around the world. (Baxter, 100) The third approach, Teaching as Inquiry, is from a set of case studies compiled collaboratively by the Academy for Educational Development (AED), the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) and Project Zero.

Teaching as Inquiry

What is collaborative inquiry? In its simplest terms, collaborative inquiry is the process by which colleagues gather in groups to pursue, over time, the questions about teaching and learning that the group members identify as important. Groups develop their understanding of an issue through framing a question, identifying artifacts or “evidence” that help respond to it, sharing perspectives on the evidence, reflecting on the partial or provisional answers that emerge, and revising the question in light of experiences and discussion. Through collaborative inquiry, teachers make sense of their experiences in the classroom, learn from those experiences, and draw upon the perspectives of colleagues to enhance their teaching and their students’ learning.” (Weinbaum, 3)

Part of why this approach could be so valuable in the developing world is because of the all too often disconnect between the experiences and perspectives of outside teacher trainers and the teachers themselves.  This approach embodies the belief that, “teachers are professionals who have developed expertise born of their experience in the classroom and other proessional development opportunities. Teachers, like all professionals, can further develop their expertise through focused discussion and analysis with colleagues and interested outsiders as they reflect on and improve their practice. When provided with time and support, teachers can identify the key problems and issues that need to be addressed in order to help improve teaching and learning in their classrooms and schools.” (Weibaum, 4)

Collaborative inquiry could be used as a framework for teachers to explore participatory learning. This approach would allow teachers to experience participatory learning themselves, as well as reflect and work through how it is being implemented in their classrooms and schools.

III. How do participatory learning techniques affect student learning?

This is a really broad question and in order to gather the most relevant research possible, it is important to first answer the question of- why does a particular school or teacher want to explore more participatory learning techniques? What end result are they hoping for?  (For example, are there national standards that students struggle to meet, so they want to try something new? Are they attempting to create more opportunities for critical thinking?) Once it is understood why the school wants to explore participatory learning techniques, it will be easier to narrow down the research to ensure that it connects with the desired outcome of the school.

Moving Forward: Overall, I recommend that the following steps be taken in order to create the most relevant and effective teacher training curriculum as possible:

1. Compile the reasons why the various stakeholders of a school want to explore participatory learning techniques.

2. Gather research that is relevant to the specific desires of that school.

3. Further research UNICEF’s child friendly programme and the IRC’s healing classrooms initiative. Where are they being implimented? What resources do they have available?

4. Combine the approaches from UNICEF and IRC with the concept of collaborative inquiry to create a brilliantly relevant and effective approach to training Goma’s teachers in participatory learning.


Baxter, Pamela and Bethke, Lynne. (2009) Alternative Education: Filling the Gap in Emergency and Post Conflict Situations

Weinbaum, Alexandra… (2004) Teaching as Inquiry: Asking Hard Questions to Improve Practice and Student Achievement

­Wilson, Daniel Gray (2007) Organizational Inquiry: Supporting School and Individual Development

Wilson, Daniel and Perkins, David (2005) Learning at Work: Research Lessons on Leading Learning in the Workplace


3 comments on “Participatory Learning Overview

  1. Mom
    December 20, 2010

    Great article Sara, good work.

  2. Lonnie Rich
    December 20, 2010

    One of your sources, Weinbaum, “Asking Hard Questions . . .” reminds me of a game (by the same name) that Marcia and I have played for years.

    Also, I was glad to see that you noted that both teacher centered and student centered approaches are not exclusive, but complementary. Students cannot just learn from each other; and while most modern educators seem to hate “rote” learning and just love “creative thinking,” I do not think you have any creative thinking until your have some knowlege (learned rote or otherwise) on which to build creative thinking. If there is nothing in the head, there isn’t much about which to be creative.

    Another huge benefit of teacher-taught facts is that for community, there must be some common base of knowledge (language, history, art etc). Everyone can have their own opinions, but not their own facts. The latter would be chaos.


  3. Robert Rich
    December 27, 2010


    I would be interested in knowing if there already exists any type of organized “system” of educational instruction in Goma or the DRC in general. In other words, what already is in place….if anything. It seems to me that you have to start with what is already available before you can introduce any new concepts or approaches to learning. Also, what is it they want to learn? Language, math, science, trade skills, gardening, history (world and local), other ?
    I found your recent blog quite interesting.

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This entry was posted on December 20, 2010 by in teaching.
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