Human Development

Micro-innovations in education

  • Blog Post Date 17 July, 2013
  • Notes from the Field
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The poor quality of school teachers is widely acknowledged as a major obstacle to the educational success of children from low income families. STIR Education visited and spoke to over 3,000 teachers in government and affordable private schools in New Delhi and compiled a list of replicable micro-innovations suggested by them. The exercise demonstrates that if given the opportunity, teachers can be a part of the solution, rather than a barrier to education reform.

It is extremely easy to become gloomy about teachers in India. In fact, it is quite a rational response given the barrage of depressing statistics we are often presented with. We know, for instance, that the single biggest in-school factor contributing to a child’s educational success is the quality of their teacher. We also know that across India around 25% of teachers are absent every day and, of those attending, many are often found reading the newspaper or talking in the staffroom rather than actually teaching, let alone teaching high-quality lessons (World Bank 2005).

However, despite the huge problem these figures highlight, they only present a partial view of teachers in India. Last summer, STIR Education visited and spoke to over 3,000 teachers working in schools serving low-income communities across Delhi. A significant number of these teachers (in both government and affordable private schools) were taking the initiative to develop their own solutions to the challenges of providing quality education and wanted opportunities to develop. Teachers can, if given the opportunity, be part of the solution, rather than a barrier to education reform.

Thanks to studies by the Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and others, we have an increasing understanding of the mechanisms and incentives that are effective in improving teacher accountability. But how do we encourage teachers to want to teach well? How do we motivate and support teachers to become ‘quality-conscious’? These are the questions we are trying to answer at STIR Education.

Micro-innovations in education

We at STIR aim to identify, test and scale ‘micro-innovations’ – low-cost (and often no-cost), scalable, teacher-led practices that have the potential to make a significant positive impact on student learning. We spoke with around 3,000 teachers regarding micro-innovations, and then used a three stage final selection process to choose 25 high-potential micro-innovations to take to scale. Firstly, we gathered teacher feedback about which of the shortlisted micro-innovations they would be most likely to take up. Secondly, we gathered feedback from around 40 partner organisations including the Bharti Foundation, Teach for India, ARK India and the Azim Premji Foundation and finally, with the support of J-PAL, we looked at existing research evidence to help us make a judgement about which micro-innovations were most likely to make an impact in schools. Five of the micro-innovations, which can be either classroom or school level interventions, are described below1.

One micro-innovation, for instance, was developed by Sajid, a principal in a school attached to a madrassa in East Delhi. Sajid supports the professional development of teachers in his school by filming lessons, and asking them to review the film using a structured self-reflection sheet. This is followed up by feedback from him.

Another was developed by Jasbeer, a Hindi teacher, who created a ‘Student Letterbox’ so that students can share their concerns and questions with her in writing, reducing the ‘distance’ between the teacher and students.

A third micro-innovation was created by Dr Indira, a teacher in a government aided school. Dr Indira introduced 40 minutes of English lessons at the start of every day for grade 1 students at her school. These lessons focus heavily on English conversation and building confidence by exemplifying sounds using words that children in her school will recognise – the ‘i’ sound, for instance, being exemplified using ‘India’ rather than the word ‘igloo’ (as in some international resources).

Alice, a teacher in an affordable private school in Khajuri Kas, has developed a micro-innovation to deal more effectively with disruptive students. She and her colleagues write case studies about their approaches to dealing with disruptive students and then discuss the case studies during staff meetings to support each other to develop solutions; rather like a business school case study approach.

Finally, Iram Mumshad has created a system of ‘Smiley Cards’ for children at her school. Students are awarded ‘Smiley Cards’, which are worth Rs. 25 ($0.4), for working particularly hard, or for an especially good piece of work. The cards are then redeemed at the school annual function and the children are recognised publicly for their hard work and achievements.

All of the 25 selected micro-innovations fit into key ‘themes’ that research indicates are important for improving education quality - tracking student progress and achievement, parental engagement, recruitment and training of teachers, classroom practices, teacher accountability, organisation of school day/ week, girls’ education, and external factors impacting education. We are now working with over 40 NGO, government and private sector ‘scale-up partners’ (including Pratham and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi) to implement these micro-innovations at scale. The Bharti Foundation, for example, has already introduced the ‘Smiley Card’ micro-innovation at a number of schools in their network. We are also working closely with J-PAL to gather additional feedback from our network of teachers to those identify micro-innovations for which it makes sense to carry out in-depth impact evaluations (randomised control trials where appropriate). Implicit in this approach is the recognition that if innovations are to be scaled up, they will need to meet the needs of specific teachers and be supported at an institutional level. By crowd sourcing teacher feedback and creating an evidence base for the impact of our micro-innovations, we aim to build the confidence of teachers, schools and scale-up partners in STIR micro-innovations.

Importance of teacher motivation and networks

An important and unforeseen benefit of the STIR micro-innovation search was the impact it had on teacher motivation. Teachers who participated in our micro-innovation search really enjoyed having the chance to share ideas, discuss practices and inspire each other. They enjoyed the recognition they gained from sharing interesting micro-innovations with a group of colleagues, and being part of a creative community of teachers (rather than being isolated in their own classrooms). STIR is now building on the enthusiasm created amongst teachers during our micro-innovation search to increase teacher motivation and interest. Following our second micro-innovation search (which begins in July 2013) we will be setting up and running STIR Teachers’ Innovation Networks. We also plan to train partner organisations to do the same.

Teachers’ Innovation Networks will give STIR teachers what teachers in quality schools benefit from every day – a group of colleagues willing to support them when trying something new to improve the quality of education they offer. By launching the networks on the foundation of a search for micro-innovations, we begin our relationship with teachers from a positive point that recognises the contribution they make when they develop new ideas. We then work explicitly with them to help them see themselves as capable of and responsible for leading improvement in their classrooms, schools and the education system. STIR has collaborated with Professor Gita Johar from Columbia Business School to analyse the impact of participation in a STIR network on teachers’ motivation and self-efficacy. Prof. Johar describes the key questions that we seek to explore as follows:

“Research on motivation has a long history and recent research suggests that teachers’ perceptions of their self-efficacy, or their belief that they can positively impact student learning, is a big driver of the likelihood that they will adopt innovations. Teachers’ personal self-efficacy is also related to student achievement and motivation. However, even if teachers believe that they are capable of achieving a desired level of performance, they may be ineffective because they do not believe that they alone have the ability to bring about change. A second component of motivation is teachers’ judgements about the likely consequences of their behaviours (i.e., outcome expectancy)—for example, they may believe that no matter what a teacher does, the home environment predicts student success. Clearly, any intervention aimed at improving teacher motivation and teacher capacity to generate and adopt innovations has to address both aspects of motivation…. A key question concerns how to increase these beliefs.”

By supporting teachers to see themselves as ‘change-makers’ and by creating an eco-system to take their innovations to scale, STIR will, we believe, increase teacher motivation and self-efficacy. By providing access to additional training opportunities and support services, teachers will be ready not just to teach, but to teach well.


  1. Please see for a description of all micro-innovations that were selected.
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