Teaching the teachers: asking the right questions in Nepal

20 August 2019 by James Russell

James Russell is a Volunteer Teacher Trainer within the Sisters for Sisters project in Nepal. Sisters for Sisters is part of the UKAid funded Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC), the world’s largest global fund dedicated to girls’ education, supporting up to 1.5 million marginalised girls with access to education and learning across 17 countries. Led by VSO Nepal, Sisters for Sisters is working with 64 schools to improve the education of upto 9,810 marginalised girls in Nepal. 

Understanding the challenges

The Millennium Development Goals played an essential and successful part in increasing school enrolment across the Global South. In Nepal, enrolment has increased from 18% in 2004 to 84% in 2016.[1] Therefore, the challenge for schools has moved from enrolment to retention and the quality of learning. However, Governments in low income countries have been unable to drastically increase their spending to meet the challenge.[2] If we are to succeed in the Sustainable Development Goal Challenge Goal 4 to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education”, education projects now need to join the focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning.

From the start of the project, we were very conscious that we had to have a clear understanding of the local challenges teachers face, as well as their current level of teaching expertise. So, before any interventions were designed, we spent many days in schools, taught lessons, spoke to teachers and conducted lesson observations using our purpose-built assessment system. This helped us to understand what was working and how to build on it.

In some schools in Surkhet, Western Nepal, many classrooms are overcrowded and teachers don’t always have the knowledge or resources to manage large numbers. Education in Nepal is free up until Grade 10, at which point many students (especially girls) leave education. When I visited my first Grade 11 class, I was excited that so many students were keen to continue their education. However, I was dismayed when I saw 96 students crammed into a dark, narrow room. Some were packed onto the benches and others were sitting on the writing desks of the other students. I commented to the teacher on how overcrowded it was. She agreed and, in a way, was thankful 30 students hadn’t attended that day!

In many classes, I observed that teachers were confident using the textbook as a learning resource, and some could go beyond it. I saw some inspirational lessons. However, I also saw some teachers who were overwhelmed and as a result could not give adequate attention to all students or manage lessons effectively. The lack of coherent initial teacher training and professional development means there is great inconsistency in the quality of education.

Some parents have told me that they don’t understand why they should send their girls to school. If they are not achieving in their exams, then wouldn’t it be better for them to be with their families helping their parents make money? Parents need to see evidence that the schools are performing well, and their students are achieving. Otherwise we could see a decline in school attendance and lose the next generation of skilled women. Indeed, weakness in the quality of teaching is a risk to gains made in education access, and why our project is so focused on helping teachers to improve their skills. The following is an example of helping enhance that teaching quality.

Asking the right questions

During my own teaching experience, I often used John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ (2012) and Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s Assessment for Learning (2004). They both stressed the importance of asking questions in a classroom for two reasons: to find out what students know and to make students think.

Taking the first principle ‘to find out what students know’, Dylan Wiliam’s recommends ‘hinge questions’. These are moments in the lesson when the teacher gauges the general understanding in the room through a high participation technique. It has got to be quick and visible. Multiple choice questions work well. After asking students to write full page letters A, B and C in the back of their book, you give them multiple choice questions which every student can try and answer.

I saw an English teacher utilise this wonderfully, checking use of auxiliary verbs for first, second and third person (A = am, B = are, C = is). He quickly identified the minority of students who needed help and gave them the easiest activity in the text book. For the others he set a more advanced task. Using the technique, the teacher identified student needs and differentiated tasks accordingly: a core principle of inclusive education.

Similar results can be achieved using ‘True and False’ cards. In any subject the teacher can make a true or false statement and students can collectively answer. They are also useful for gauging how many students agree with an answer. Teachers have also been resourceful using various sign language techniques (such as thumbs up, thumbs down) for quick and easy responses.

In Surkhet, we found a printing shop which laminated sheets of plain paper for a few rupees. These became a great low-cost mini ‘white board’, used across many subjects. They are useful because the teacher can easily monitor and see the learning. They are a great resource during pair or group work to record conversation and monitor that students are engaged. We are using these as an evidence base to lobby the local education boards to provide more durable resources, but in the meantime the low-cost version is getting the practice going!

The second aspect of the framework is ‘to make students think’. Knowledge and facts make up an important part of any curriculum and, rightly, have an important place in Nepali classrooms. However, learning is often reduced to learning by rote and does not take account of higher order thinking skills like understanding, analysing, or evaluating[1]. Therefore, VSO is working with teachers to ensure students are taught to think for themselves and find solutions instead of just memorising information and processes. We have found ways to utilise locally available resources in engaging activities that increase students’ thinking skills.[2]

I had seen some good use of questions given by teachers designed to check understanding and could see opportunities to make quick improvements to aid participation. Many teachers would nominate a student, and then ask the student a question about the lesson. Nominating students (rather than ‘hands up who…’) is a good practice as it encourages all students to participate in the learning and not hide behind an enthusiastic minority. However, by nominating and then asking the question the teachers had missed an opportunity for all students to be thinking. My advice is a simple reversal: ask first, then nominate. This means all students should think about the question.

It is highly effective, although it still puts some children on the spot which doesn’t produce the best thinking. Instead I encourage teachers to give processing time before nominating. When I began to talk to teachers about this, they told me about APPLE: Ask, Pause, Pick, Listen, Evaluate. Since then we’ve worked on how we can implement APPLE more effectively in classrooms by team teaching, team planning and conducting observation. If the processing time (the ‘Pause’) is combined with group or paired discussion, students are generally able to think at a higher level and have more confidence when they are nominated for an answer. We have also begun to lower the fear of mistakes, accepting that this is a normal aspect of learning.

From the training to the classroom

We conduct whole-school training workshops to encourage peer sharing and consistency. We introduce some straight-forward techniques to engage students and develop more sophisticated thinking skills. Our workshops have many great and practical classroom ideas. However, change doesn’t happen in the workshops. We have to work with teachers to help them find ways to adapt the ideas to their classes. This happens through coaching, team planning, team teaching, demonstration classes, observation and feedback.

At the moment the teaching and learning team of volunteers and counterparts are doing this, but it is our plan to identify skilled teacher-coaches in each of the schools who can take on this responsibility and become lead practitioners. If we don’t manage sustainable change, then our fear is not only will education stagnate, but the gains already made could start to reverse. Nepal has made great strides in improving enrolment, including for girls, achieving a net enrolment rate of 96 per cent in primary education and encouraging gains at lower secondary level. [3]However, there is an ongoing need to ensure quality teaching to help increase learning and maintain demand for education from parents and students alike. I believe that by supporting teachers to hone their skills to enhance students’ learning in the classroom, this VSO project is playing its part in this important task.


Recommended reading

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., & Bloom, B. S. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete ed.). New York: Longman.

Black, P & Wiliam, D 2004, Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for learning in the classroom, Phi Delta Kappan, Bloomington, United States. More information:

Creasy, J and Paterson, F (2005) ‘Leading Coaching in Schools’ National College for School Leadership. Available online:

Hattie, J (2012) ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ Routledge. London. More information:


[2] Countries in the Global South typically spend between 2% and 4% of GDP on education (e.g. Uganda 2.21%; Tanzania 3.48%; Nepal 3.98%) whereas European and North American countries tend to spend at least 5% of GDP (USA 5.38%; UK 5.73%; Finland 7.17) (2014 figures )

[3] As Benjamin Bloom suggests in his ‘Cognitive Taxonomy of Learning’. See recommended reading.

[4] For example, Algebra Beans by Kathy Kuhl: