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What Social Anthropology Can Teach Us About Effective In-Service Training

What Social Anthropology Can Teach Us About Effective In-Service Training

In the 1970s, a young Italian aid worker by the name of Ernesto Sirolli set off to Africa to help manage an agricultural aid project in Zambia. Upon arriving, the group found extremely fertile ground near the Zambezi River, perfect for growing tomatoes and zucchini. The land up until then had not been used for agriculture. Sirolli and his fellow aid workers saw this as a great opportunity to teach the Zambian leaders how to leverage this great natural resource. To their surprise, the Zambians were not initially interested, and it was only after the Italians decided to pay them to learn that they participated.  

The aid workers and Sirolli trained the Zambian people how to prepare the land and grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. In Italy, tomatoes grew perhaps to the size of a fist, but in Africa, not only did the crop flourish, it grew nearly double in size. The Italians were very proud of what they were accomplishing and intended to use the experience as an example to teach the Zambian nation about how easy and beneficial agriculture is. And, just when they were ready to start evangelizing—when the crops were nice and ripe—one night, about 200 hippos came out from the river and ate everything.

The Italians were panicked. They ran to tell the Zambians what happened. The Zambians replied, “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.” When the Italians asked why they didn’t share that information with them, the Zambians replied, “You never asked.”

They didn’t ask.

Today, as the founder of the Sirolli Institute, a worldwide enterprise facilitation organization, Dr. Sirolli is asking. At its core, the Sirolli Institute approaches economic development by harnessing “the passion, determination, intelligence, and resourcefulness of the local people.” So, why do I share this story with an audience of teachers? Because this mission has striking similarities to the goals and challenges of teachers and administrators across the United States and beyond.

Think about it—what if we ask?

As we—district and school leaders, as well as technology providers and education consultants offering training—think about program planning and in-service, it may be a good idea to reconsider the ways in which we approach harnessing our student’s passions. In spending over 15 years in education, I cannot recall one professional development I took or delivered that helped teachers learn more about their students personally. I never walked away from a session knowing that Erick doesn’t like basketball but feels pressured to play by others because he’s good at it, or that Jessica is often tardy because the drop-off/pickup line may be inefficient, that Jose’s parents are eager to be involved but hesitate because of a language barrier. What if, instead of crowding together in a room to learn the latest tool or strategy, we got out in the “real world” and spent some time with our students to try to uncover deeper, perhaps completely unknown, challenges they may be facing? Face-to-face interviews with students and parents and planned family outings, like those suggested by Zion & Zion, are great ways to build empathy and rapport with the communities you serve.

The aid workers who Dr. Sirolli was with in Zambia did not fail because they didn’t understand or know how to effectively implement agricultural methods; they failed because they felt they had nothing left to learn about agriculture. They satisfied their checklist for good grounds but neglected the stories, feelings, and experiences the locals had to share. They focused on facts, not context.

As educators, there is always a problem to solve. Often, we are so focused on a solution that we don’t stop to think about whether we are solving the right problem or if we even know what the problems is. The stories, interests, opinions, fears, and dreams of our students and their families may contain the insights we need to understand our greatest schooling problems. Innovation is a question away—all we have to do is ask.

Looking for more outside-the-box ideas to support meaningful professional development? Check out these 5 Ways Educators Can Get Off the Classroom Island to Connect and Grow!