Doing More About Less: A Targeted Approach to Workforce Readiness

Comprehensive reform of a single mandatory subject in Rwandan secondary schools is setting students up for real-world opportunities by aligning classroom learning with life after graduation.

Education systems tend to be labyrinthine bureaucracies, comprising countless stakeholders and moving parts. Amid their complexity, pedagogical reforms often run out of steam
before they can take root in the classroom. The most common pitfall is the disparity between ambitious educational policies and the practical capabilities of overburdened national education systems, particularly in lower-income countries. Large class sizes, inadequate teaching and learning materials, and insufficient teacher training all present roadblocks to innovation.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of young people are facing new realities and labor market demands after they leave school. This is perhaps especially true in Africa. In Rwanda, for example, half the population is currently under 19 years old, and an estimated 2.6 million new jobs
are needed by 2035 to accommodate them. Preparing these youth to create jobs and secure employment is important not only to achieve the economic growth that Rwanda and many African countries hope for over the next decade but also to set them on the path to earning dignified livelihoods.

While the World Bank highlights the need for jobs to emerge in exports, trade, and services, a significant portion of employment will remain in the continent’s huge informal sector. In light of this, many countries across Africa have attempted to move education systems toward interactive, student-centered learning that prioritizes labor market readiness and skills development, including transferable skills such as problem-solving, negotiation, creativity, and financial literacy.

Our youth employment and skill-building organization, Educate!, was mindful of these shifts and challenges in 2015, when the Rwandan government asked us to help reform the school subject of entrepreneurship. The study of entrepreneurship is mandatory at the upper secondary level—the last three years before students go on to tertiary education or work—across the country’s schools. As technical advisors with experience designing curriculums based on practical learning rather than theory and rote memorization, we collaborated with the work-readiness training group, Akazi Kanoze Access, to support the Rwanda Basic Education Board. The goal: to equip students with skills that better align with labor market demands.

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Today, this reform has reached every secondary school in Rwanda, positively impacting 165,000 students annually. A randomized controlled trial, for example, showed that teachers who received our training were 19 percent more likely to use active, student-centered instruction techniques, leading to improvements in soft skills like perseverance and patience that are closely linked to workplace success. In addition, university enrollment doubled among all students and increased by 167 percent among young women. This correlates to long-term economic success, as tertiary graduates in Rwanda earn about a third more than secondary graduates. Young women whose teachers used the new pedagogy were also 16 percent more likely to have a business and 12 percent less likely to qualify as not in education, employment, or training (NEET).

How did this reform overcome the classic hurdles to achieving scale and sustainability within a complex education system? Our experience underscores the importance of taking a systems change
approach that supports uptake and implementation at every step. In our case, although the reform targeted a single subject area, success required simultaneous change across three distinct but interconnected systems—the curriculum and related policy, teacher training and management, and assessment. Changes encompassed teaching and learning materials, in-service teacher training to support professional development, assessment practices of student work, school leadership, and school inspection.

Graphic showing Educate!'s three stage approach to co-designing an employment-focused subject in secondary schools as explained in the article
(Graphic courtesy of Educate!)

A Three-Stage Strategy

The first part of our three-stage strategy focused on policy change and curriculum reform. In collaboration with the Rwanda Education Board, senior teacher representatives, and Akazi Kanoze Access, we developed a framework for an engaging, student-centered school subject that supported the development of skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication. The original curriculum focused primarily on theoretical knowledge and defining concepts such as entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation. The revised approach prioritizes interactive learning. Students explore these concepts through case studies and practical application; they do market research, product development, and business planning, and can even start real businesses through a business club.

Educational reforms often end with curriculum change, but we kept going. Stage two focused on teacher training and management. We introduced a two-year teacher training model that incorporates Educate!’s student-centered pedagogy, Skills Lab. A departure from traditional “chalk and talk,” this pedagogy emphasizes active instruction techniques such as group discussion, research, debate, and role-playing. In the six years following the curriculum reform, we trained entrepreneurship teachers in a third of Rwanda’s secondary schools. Now, thanks to a major investment from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the teacher training model is scaling to cover all secondary schools in the country.

The third and final stage involved building processes that would encourage sustained impact. While the reformed curriculum shifted toward skills development and teacher training helped educators improve pedagogy, long-term adoption relied on aligning these changes to the systems used to evaluate student performance. Without this alignment, teachers are more likely to revert to traditional pedagogies that prepare students for assessments based on memorization. Since the early stages of the reform, Educate! worked alongside government partners to explore how project-based assessment could support this link, driving the development and implementation of a national comprehensive assessment system. The collaboration aimed to develop a system where project marks could contribute to students' national exam scores, directly incentivizing active pedagogies and facilitating more opportunities for students to apply practical skills.

A woman stands over a group of students in a classroom
Rwandan teacher Grace Umutoniwase guides students in group work and problem-solving aimed at developing practical skills for life after school. (Image courtesy of Educate!)

By the end of 2025, our three-stage comprehensive reform will be complete. Throughout the process, we encountered challenges that left us bruised but provided invaluable insights we believe can help other policy makers and governments achieve transformative systems change, especially in Africa.

1. Narrow the scope of reform. One core lesson is a counterintuitive call to do more about less. Attempting to overhaul every subject and every classroom often results in "trickle-down" reform, where despite significant inputs, only small changes materialize at the classroom level.

Our previous experience in Uganda, where we collaborated with schools directly rather than working at the national level, informed our strategy in Rwanda. In Uganda, a randomized controlled trial
demonstrated that a single subject related to employment could significantly impact economic and life outcomes. Specifically, just before graduating from secondary school, participants of Educate!’s model who started businesses as students earned nearly double the income of peers. Additionally, there was a 25 percent increase in university enrollment among women four years later.

In partnering with the Rwandan government, we maintained our focus on adjusting the entire ecosystem around a single, compulsory subject to ensure a lasting impact. Supported by evidence from randomized controlled trials, we believe this approach delivers meaningful results at a faster rate and lower cost than trying to tackle every subject at once.

2. Set a common goal and align everyone in the system around it. Complex bureaucratic systems and processes make this challenging; different departments have different priorities and agendas. While the curriculum body may attempt to reform learning to include projects that build skills, the examination body might continue the focus on more traditional assessment methods.

In our case, it was important to engage with government agencies like the Rwanda Basic Education Board and the National Examination and School Inspection Authority, as well as local education authorities and teachers, to define and agree on a central goal and determine everyone’s role. This encouraged everyone involved to take part in a co-design process that fostered partnership and shared commitment.

To begin, we ensured that groups integral to the implementation of reform —including school leaders, teachers, and national education officials—had a chance to express their goals and concerns during various discussions. School leaders, for example, expressed the need for practical timelines that wouldn’t overwhelm teachers, while national education officials emphasized the importance of integrating critical thinking and problem-solving skills into the curriculum.

3. Listen to participants and adapt as you go. Sustainability is the hardest part of systems change because it requires ongoing adaptation and commitment beyond initial implementation.

At Educate!, we’ve found that continuous experimentation and iteration alongside teachers, education officials, and students can rapidly diagnose areas that need improvement. For instance, when teachers highlighted the need for a wider variety of Skills Lab lessons to cater to diverse learners and classroom settings, we were able to add more example lessons to government-distributed curriculum materials. Indeed, we’ve worked to create a teacher-powered reform movement, with experienced local educators at the forefront, that fosters a ground-up approach to pedagogical change. Educate!’s two-year teacher training model supports this effort; the trainers are fellow teachers who are in classrooms daily, rather than regional leaders or external experts, and most teacher development takes place in schools rather than in remote training venues.

Teacher feedback also led us to support the government in developing new assessment guidelines. Going forward, assessment will include classroom projects like those in Skills Lab in addition to the existing exam system, giving teachers more incentive to assign them. A data system known as the Comprehensive Assessment Management Information System
(CAMIS) enables teachers to track students’ grades following the new guidelines and gives education officials insight into learning gains or gaps across the entire country.

Advances in Rwanda reveal the benefits of doing more about less: A narrower but multi-level approach to change can be more effective than efforts that try to do it all. Policy makers and organizations setting out on the path of education reform need to examine all the moving parts in the system and what connects them, and ensure that all the different groups are aligned on the goal. Simplifying what you want to achieve and fostering an environment of continuous learning gives us a real chance to create the sustainable systems change we all aspire to.

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Read more stories by Kamanda Kamiri, Rogers Patrick Kamugisha & Boris Bulayev.

 

Education

Kamanda Kamiri
Kamanda Kamiri is the regional director of partnerships at Educate!, leading government relations and partnerships in Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Rogers Patrick Kamugisha
Rogers Patrick Kamugisha is the principal product strategist at Educate!, overseeing its teacher training model globally, and a master trainer, who has worked with hundreds of teachers over the last 10 years.

Boris Bulayev
Boris Bulayev is CEO and co-founder of Educate!, the largest youth employment and skills provider in East Africa.