Best Practices in Training Design

Press Releases Results

By John Leary, Executive Director

Most development work implemented over the last 75 years has entailed “training” people with knowledge and skills related to health, agriculture, and business. Because of a lack of clarity and guidance on effective training design, results from training programs have varied greatly.

With a grant from USAID’s Technical and Operational Performance Support (TOPS) Program, Trees for the Future was able to enhance our Forest Garden Training Program (FGTP) and package it for scale. This was an opportunity for me to dust off all the best ideas I gathered during my doctoral studies in the learning sciences and work with training specialists at Trees for the Future and LINGOs (now Humentum) to push the edge of innovation in training design.

If you look at the learning sciences, you’ll see that every factor that can influence students’ or trainees’ performance has been researched extensively. The guiding principles for effective training design that I summarize in this article come both from my own research into the learning sciences and from working in the trenches with instructional designers.


The Forest Garden Training Center ( houses training resources for the three audiences:

  • The end target audience consists of rural farmers across the developing world. Lots of them. Hundreds of millions of families who earn less than $1/day, struggle to meet their nutritional needs, have already deforested most of their landscapes, and are considering migrating.
  • The main target audience for our new online/offline certification consists of practitioners and trainers – agricultural extension agents, forestry technicians, input providers, water user association leaders, climate-smart agriculture technicians, Peace Corps Volunteers, and community-based knowledge workers – who deliver training and extension to farmers.
  • And the master trainers in our Forest Garden Training Program are the people who train the trainers.


Before we get into the important elements of training design, let’s answer the question What is NOT important?

  • The delivery method doesn’t matter (face-to-face vs distance education vs blended vs online). The research shows that training can be delivered just as effectively across methods and media if the instructional designers know what they are doing (assuming the trainees can read and access the Internet).
  • Homework doesn’t really help until the high school level when it can be ‘deeper’, so don’t expect homework to be a game changer for farmers.
  • The number of students per class doesn’t matter (great trainers can handle more students)
  • Using overly polished, high-resolution, slick multimedia, and flashy teaching aids tends not to be more effective than using simple graphics.
  • The level of technical knowledge of the teacher does NOT significantly influence trainee performance. Wait, did I just say the knowledge of the trainer is not a critical success factor? Yes! Too often trainers and master trainers are subject matter experts in health, agriculture and business who, frankly speaking, don’t know a thing about training. They have given a million lectures but don’t know how to ensure trainees learn what they need. Sorry subject matter experts, but the learning sciences are clear: the knowledge of the teacher is NOT an important factor in trainee success.


When it comes to selecting teaching strategies to deploy, we have somewhat clear guidance on what training strategies and activities work best. Reciprocal teaching (we included Learn-and-Teach activities in which small groups of farmers teach other small groups who teach other small groups); direct instruction (used widely through the FGTP and consists of clear learning Intentions, success criteria, hook to build engagement, guides on presenting lesson [input, modeling and checking], guided practice, and independent practice); and problem solving methods (give the group a challenge and some tools and turn them loose) are three powerful teaching strategies we have incorporated into the FGTP, and you should use them too!

The word participatory has been used and abused for decades, and I’d like to frame it in terms of engaging people with training content because people create knowledge from their experiences, not from what they are told. One of my favorite and easiest ways do accomplish this is inquiry-based teaching (IBT). Through IBT, we developed learning activities and challenging situations in which trainees must observe, question, pose explanations, conduct research, and draw conclusions, and all the while our trained facilitators are engaging them with a lot of smart questions. Imagine Socrates walking with a small group of students, drilling them with questions as they try to make sense of the world around them, validating what sounds legitimate and offering alternatives when the students have exhausted their own contributions. We’ve incorporated IBT widely throughout the Forest Garden Training Program. In most modules you will see lists of critical questions that trainers should ask farmer groups. The answers will change from country to country, but the questions don’t.

Ultimately, we need to know when to train and when to facilitate (read the Trees for the Future Training of Trainers Guide to unpack that), and when we do need to train, the research tells us that direct instruction is the framework with which we should plan much of our instruction, but when teaching a process, rather than just content, inquiry-based teaching is particularly effective.


Besides the three effective teaching strategies mentioned above, there are several other factors to consider. The learning sciences show that there are common cross-cutting themes that make most teaching strategies successful: pre-planning (who can argue with that?), focus on learning intentions/success criteria (we defined very clear year-by-year evaluation criteria for farmers as they progress through our four year program) and “constant feedback to teachers on how successfully they are teaching students” (Hattie, 2009, p. 200).

Delivering smart teaching strategies in a cooperative environment (we set rules and expectations from the onset of the program, setting the right ‘culture’ or ‘learning environment’) simultaneously builds inter-relationships between teachers and students (an important factor in learning outcomes) while enhancing students’ interest (yes, that is a critical factor too) and problem solving abilities.


Once our impact evaluations on the Forest Garden Training Program proved it generates significant increases in economic resilience and food security among farmers (look out for our upcoming Impact Report at, we were ready to tackle that challenge of creating a scalable training of trainers.  “Training of trainers” are three words that I take very, very seriously. It is not simply a more complicated version of a training program delivered to high-level directors or ministry officials with the hope that essential points trickle down to the people who need it most. A training of trainers should be a very deliberate, calculated and systematic transfer of core knowledge and skills through trainers to reach the people who need it most. Trainers should not be put in a position where they have to synthesize complicated topics for farmers. You should package training for the target audience according to best practices outlined earlier in this article, and then teach trainers how to deliver the training program according to standards. That is what we have done with the Forest Garden Training Program, and that is why we have created a certification. The Forest Garden Trainer Certification helps ensure that the people we certify are able to deliver Forest Garden training as well as own field technicians. Remember, it is not the trainer’s knowledge of soil, seeds and trees that is important, but their ability to deploy it to farmers in effective ways.

During my presentation at the USAID TOPS Knowledge Sharing Meeting (Washington, DC: July 20, 2017) and InsideNGO Annual Conference (Washington, DC: July 21, 2017) this week we will unpack challenges we all face when creating training of trainers, including but not limited to: a) quality control when cascading complicated technical information; b) literacy & numeracy; c) ensuring women’s participation; and d) tracking what actually happens after trainers are trained and certified.

Questions? Feedback? email John at

Please help us announce the global launch of the new Forest Garden Training Center September 5th, 2017!

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