Posts tagged ‘relational aspect of teaching’

Building Professional Capital

Recently, YouTube in partnership with the Khan Academy put the call out for educational content creators to train and mentor a growing online learning audience. In many parts of America, mandated participation in online courses as part of students’ K-12 schooling is on the rise. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are emerging in the higher education sector, challenging traditional approaches to tertiary education, which is evidenced by declining enrolments in some tertiary courses. Senator Stephen Conroy last week challenged Australian universities to rethink their business models to incorporate MOOCs or risk becoming irrelevant. This raises alarm bells for me about the quality of instruction and students’ engagement in learning.

If we agree that teachers make the biggest difference to student learning outcomes, we need to ensure online learning models are not harnessed in such a way as to reduce education to a self-serve product.

While the proliferation of online educational content certainly provides an opportunity to influence the delivery and engagement of contemporary learning and teaching, we cannot lose sight of the important role that teachers play in engaging students in deep learning. We know the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content (Elmore, 2009) – the instructional core – is paramount to the learning and teaching process. If technology supplants teachers and students become learners in isolation, this is not only detrimental to the development of critical thinking skills, but also for their capacity for deeper learning and understanding.

Andy Hargreaves and myself at the 2012 ADC lecture.

The focus for education, then, needs to be in building teachers’ capabilities: individually and collectively. We were privileged to have Andy Hargreaves deliver Catholic Education’s annual Ann D Clark lecture recently to over 300 educators. He warned of the increasing prevalence of the ‘business capital’ approach to education i.e. short-term investment (e.g. online delivery models) for quick return, saying the education sector had become a lucrative market for investors.

‘When we begin to move the whole profession of education to serve the short-term interests of business capital, it comes at an immense price and carries dangerous assumptions about the nature of the teacher and whether or not this is even a profession,’ (Hargreaves, 2012)

In their book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) identify three components of ‘professional capital’ – human, social and decisional – which he says, when developed in concert, will build the teaching profession.

  • ‘Human capital’ refers to highly qualified teachers having the content knowledge and an understanding of child psychology, individual pre-service training and preparation, emotional intelligence and capability in relationships
  • ‘Social capital’ refers to trust, collaboration, collective responsibility, peer pressure and support, mutual assistance and networks
  • ‘Decisional capital’ (a term coined by Fullan and Hargreaves) refers to the teacher’s judgement, in case experience and lots of practice, in a teacher’s ability to reflect alone and together on their practice and to adjust their practice to improve students’ learning accordingly.

Building professional capital needs to take place throughout a teacher’s career in various ways at various stages because Hargreaves suggests it takes around eight years or 10,000 hours to develop expertise in the profession of teaching through practice and concerted effort.

Hargreaves says quality teachers need to:

  • understand that teaching is technically difficult
  • know cognitive science
  • understand a range of special education abilities
  • know about differentiated instruction
  • be able to assess in a sophisticated, diagnostic way
  • have massive emotional intelligence
  • have high levels of education and long periods of rigorous training
  • be able to use judgement, wisdom and discernment to know what’s in the spreadsheet of data to connect it to the students and to the knowledge they’re trying to acquire.

Teaching is not an individual task, but is something that is done collectively with other people as a community that takes time, investment, conditions and support. These human capabilities and the collaborative aspect of teaching (social capital) cannot be substituted with an online learning system alone.

I was pleased to read Khan Academy founder, Salman Khan, tackle the concern that the Khan Academy was a way to replace teachers:

‘Human teachers will become far more valuable in the future because [the classroom] will be a more interactive place and they are going to be doing the things computers cannot do, which is form bonds, motivate, mentor, diagnose,’ (Salman Khan, 2012).

I couldn’t agree more. There is, and always will be, a role for teachers.

It’s easier to tell than to teach

The release of a discussion paper on teaching last week by NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli was not before time.

For too long, education policy has been surrounded by myths. For instance:
•    lift the ATAR for teacher training courses at university and we will naturally graduate better or brighter teachers;
•    pay teachers more and we will automatically improve teaching practice;
•    give principals greater autonomy and we will certainly improve school performance;
•    make class sizes smaller and we will logically ensure better student learning outcomes.

While some myths are falling out of favour – e.g. the lack of supporting evidence is making it increasingly difficult to hold up the small class policy as a key improvement strategy – many are still being propagated as a cure-all to what ails our schooling system with little or no evidence to suggest they will have the intended effect. Unfortunately many of these myths are focused at the wrong end of the problem. If we want to improve learning and teaching it will be in the doing or as Elmore says, we ‘learn the work by doing the work’. Silver bullet approaches or appeals to jingoism e.g. ‘Teach for Australia’ don’t do justice to the important issue that every child in every school deserves a good teacher.

Over the past few months, The Australian newspaper has been running a series called ‘Inside our Classrooms‘ and I have been reading with interest the views of teachers and education commentators on what they see as the key issues facing educators today. Some teachers believe it is becoming increasingly harder to ‘control’ students and are finding they are competing with Google for credibility in the classroom. Others are yearning for the ‘good ole days’ when scholarly excellence was the primary pursuit of the teacher. For myself, the issue goes far deeper than keeping students engaged in class or teachers having exceptional knowledge of their subject matter.

It’s in the relational aspect of teaching that the magic happens.

In the 21st century, teachers don’t just need good subject discipline knowledge; they need to have a deep understanding of pedagogical theory and be able to apply it in the classroom – it’s the profession of the teacher to know the difference and bring the two together. It’s in the relational aspect of teaching – the application of both content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge – that the magic happens; in how well teachers know each learner and personalise learning to accommodate diversity and individual needs.

We need to move beyond the myths to the practice – from the telling to the teaching. This relies on a very different framework; one that highlights the absolute complexity of teaching. And we need to take an honest look at our teacher training programs to see if we are adequately preparing teachers to meet the demands of 21st century schooling because the game has changed.

In the 21st century, we live in a connected world where students have unprecedented access to information and knowledge at their fingertips. It is no longer desirable or sustainable for teachers to be the sole keepers of information. The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 edition released in June predicts that tablets and mobile phone apps will be widely adopted by schools within the next 12 months with the potential to be prevalent across all academic disciplines because of their pervasive impact on practically every aspect of ‘informal life’. The report highlights the importance, both for teachers and students, of acquiring new skillsets such as ability to assess the credibility of resources, comprehend information, develop capacity for leadership and creativity which come about through ‘challenge-based, active learning’.

We know from Bransford et al (2000) that students are capable of discovering their own knowledge, incorporating that alongside previously learned knowledge and using that knowledge to solve real-world problems. The 2012 Horizon Report signals that those teachers who see themselves primarily as content experts will find it increasingly harder to survive, let alone thrive, in the modern classroom. Subject matter, while important, only goes so far.

On the other hand, a greater focus on accommodating new ways of learning and teaching to suit the changing context in which our students live does not necessarily equate to improved learning. Good teaching candidates require a deep subject knowledge – not necessarily the highest ATAR – and the passion to continue to learn about their subject area; they need to be able to relate well to young people and meet the learner where they are at; to understand and implement learning theory; and employ the right pedagogies to make a difference.

This requires a rigorous model of teacher training that incorporates both theory and practice; that provides quality feedback for teachers on their teaching; and one that links teachers with mentors and coaches while in training. Melbourne University has taken a step in this direction by offering a Master of Teaching where as part of the course, graduate teachers are placed in a school for a full semester and actively teach classes. Throughout the placement they receive quality feedback from experienced teachers and mentors and have the opportunity to build professional networks while learning their craft in situ in a real learning environment.

This model has application for all teachers throughout their careers. In our own system, we focus strongly on teacher collaboration and the use of professional learning communities with a specific inquiry focus because the research shows that teachers learn best when they learn together (Timperley et al, 2007). We need to find examples of teaching innovation and excellence and take them to scale through collegial collaboration and ongoing teacher learning. And to do any of this we need to trust the profession.

My point is that extrinsic factors don’t make good teachers. We have to work on improving teacher quality from the inside out. And while we certainly have to train and prepare new teachers coming through, we also have to work with the teachers already teaching in our schools.

It’s time to move beyond the myths and shift the focus from the telling to the teaching. As I commented in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald we need to build teacher capacity, involve teachers in continual professional learning and encourage them to share their practice with each other. Teachers are the ones who have to improve and get better at their craft.

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