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What is Effective Teaching?

New evidence on the value of teacher-directed instruction in Zambia supports similar findings from other contexts
21 Nov 2023
Zambia Blog

By Ryan Shawn Herman, UNICEF Innocenti; Shakazo Mzyece, Examinations Council of Zambia; Lucy Crehan, independent education consultant 

The expansion of education in Zambia has offered an opportunity to consider what effective teaching looks like. 

In 2017, only 2 per cent and 5 per cent of 15-year-olds in Zambia reached proficiency levels in mathematics and reading respectively.1 Furthermore, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, primary school enrollment rates had stagnated since 2014, and had not kept pace with Zambia’s population growth.2 Although the Zambian government has made quality education and skills training a priority in their national education strategy, student learning levels remain low. 

To do their part in combatting the global learning crisis, the Zambian government launched their Free Education Policy in January 2022, which eliminated tuition fees from early childhood education through secondary school. Since the introduction of this policy, enrollment has risen from 3.2 million to 4.3 million at the primary level and from 859,000 to 1.5 million at the secondary level.3  

In response to rising enrollment rates, the Zambian government embarked on the largest teacher recruitment initiative in the country’s history, employing nearly 35,000 new teachers in efforts to combat staffing shortages and reduce high pupil-teacher ratios.4

Education officials in Zambia face an increasing need to consider how best to prepare new teachers and take on an unprecedented influx of both students and educators. 

Since 2021, Zambia’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has partnered with UNICEF’s Data Must Speak research team to identify positive deviant (PD) primary schools (those with top promotion rates and examination scores given the similar availability of resources), and comparison schools. Our teams visited these PD schools in early 2023 to better understand the practices and behaviors that positively influence learning. 

Evidence shows that highly effective schools in Zambia practice more teacher-directed instruction.

Over 300 classroom observations were conducted to understand the pedagogical differences between classroom practices in PD and comparison schools. 

Preliminary evidence found that classes in PD schools are statistically significantly more teacher-directed than other schools. These classes tend to begin with teacher-directed instruction, followed by learning activities that allow students to apply new knowledge through independent or small group practice. This could imply that strong teacher-directed instruction, when tied to and followed by hands-on learning activities, can positively influence student learning -- an important finding to be considered in current global narratives on student-centered learning. 

Zambia’s MOE has strongly advocated for the learner-centered approach in recent years, seeking to combat traditional “chalk and talk” methods in which teachers spend a majority of instructional time lecturing. However, implementation of the learner-centered approach has been hindered by the difficulty some educators found in balancing teacher-led instruction and student-oriented learning. Now it appears that some Zambian classrooms have reduced the role of the teacher too greatly, leaving students without enough support or guidance to meaningfully engage in new learning experiences. 


A teacher stands behind a student and helps the student write on the blackboard.

The effectiveness of teacher-directed instruction has been evidenced elsewhere. 

A balance of pedagogies in which teacher-directed instruction is the main (but not sole) mode of instruction has been found to positively correlate with learning outcomes in mathematics and science in 2012 and 2015, respectively, on the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). 

In 2012, PISA consolidated student survey responses and captured the extent to which classes were teacher-directed vs. student-oriented. For every education system that performed above the OECD average in both mathematics and creative problem-solving, student survey results indicated that instruction was generally more ‘teacher-directed’ than ‘student-oriented’. McKinsey also conducted an analysis of the PISA data from 2015, and investigated the balance of ‘teacher-directed’ and ‘inquiry-based’ approaches that led to the highest science scores. They found that in every studied region, students typically did best if they had teacher-directed instruction in ‘most to all’ lessons and inquiry-based learning in some.5.5 

The above research suggests that student-centered learning is effective in combination with a substantial amount of teacher-led instruction. Both PISA data and the ethnographic exploration of some of the world’s top-performing education systems, captured in the book Cleverlands, identify a positive correlation between this balance of pedagogical approaches and student learning in high-income contexts (i.e., Finland, Japan, Singapore, Canada). However, through UNICEF’s DMS research in Zambia, we are now observing that that this balance of classroom strategies may prove beneficial in non-high-income contexts as well. 

What does teacher-directed learning look like? 

In Zambia, teachers at PD schools tend to spend more time at the front of the classroom, introducing new academic content or reviewing past material that connect to a subsequent learning activity, such as a hands-on experiment or practice problem. 

In contrast to traditional lecturing, students are more likely to actively listen in these moments, and aim to extract the information needed to solve the task at hand. Students then work on these activities individually or in small groups, while the teacher provides individual support as needed. 

Similarly, Cleverlands recounts the experience of a 16-year-old Finnish student in a typical mathematics lesson. The student recounts that the teacher would go through the homework with the class and would randomly select students to share their answers. Then the teacher would explain the key concepts in the new lesson, after which the students would have a discussion. If the teacher believed all students had understood, the class would complete some independent work, and the teacher would go around and provide individual support where necessary.6 

What does this evidence mean for teachers in Zambia, and in other comparable contexts? 

For Zambia, the MOE must now consider how to best prepare new teachers, and support current teachers, to effectively lead classroom instruction and know when to turn the focus of the lesson to student practice. With a growing evidence base, a structured pedagogy program could serve as cost-effective option for supporting teachers in Zambia’s classrooms.7 Middle-tier education actors at regional and district levels can also be leveraged to support teachers but must first be equipped with more nuanced and timely data on teaching and learning.8  

Moving forward, DMS will continue to collaborate with the Zambian MOE to identify other positive deviant behaviors and practices and ways to optimally scale them to other schools. 



  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Zambia Ministry of Education. 2017. Education in Zambia: Findings from Zambia’s experience in PISA for Development. Zambia MoE: Lusaka. 

  2. Zambia Ministry of Finance and National Planning. 2022. Eighth National Development Plan 2022–2026. Zambia Ministry of Finance and National Planning: Lusaka. 

  3. Xinhua. 2023. Free education brings hope to vulnerable families in Zambia. The Star. 

  4. Syakalima, D.M. 2022. Zambia: Unprecedented teacher recruitment follows free education. The Africa Report. 

  5. Mourshed, M., Krawitz, M., & Dorn, E. 2010. How to improve student educational outcomes: New insights from data analytics. McKinsey & Company. 

  6. Crehan, L. 2016. Cleverlands. Unbound: London, UK.  

  7. Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel. 2023. Cost-Effective Approaches to Improve Global Learning. World Bank: Washington, DC. 

  8. UNESCO-International Institute for Educational Planning. 2023. Leading teaching and learning together: the role of the middle tier. UNESCO-International Institute for Educational Planning.