Teachers at the centre

Is student-centred learning a given when we are talking about schooling in today’s world?  Our system’s theory of action has the student at the centre but in recent times, I have begun to rethink whether the teacher should be at the centre.  Without good teachers and leaders at the centre, can you improve the learning outcomes of every student?

A few weeks back I caught a TED talk by Geoff Mulgan about a new model of school called the ‘Studio School’, which aims to reach disengaged teenagers who didn’t see any relationship between what they learnt at school and future jobs. The key features of ‘Studio Schools’ include smaller class size, curriculum centred on real life practical experiences, coaches in addition to teachers and timetables much more like a work environment in a business. The underlying principle of this model of schooling is based on the idea that a large portion of teenagers learn best by working in teams and by undertaking real-world activities. The result was that student performance improved significantly.

The Studio School is one example of the innovations taking place in education today, centred of course around the learner.  But good teaching is the other ingredient in this and I wonder whether we are over-compensating for the deficiencies of an industrial model by not focusing enough on the quality of teaching and the role of the teacher.

We have tangible examples where investment in learning at every stage of a teacher’s careers is having an impact on the quality of learning.  Linda Darling-Hammond states that in Singapore, teacher education is a serious investment throughout a career. Darling-Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education ‘to get the best teachers, students from the top one- third of each graduating high school class are recruited into a fully paid 4-year undergraduate teacher education program, and immediately put on the ministry’s payroll. When they enter teaching, they earn as much as or more than beginning engineers, accountants, lawyers and doctors who are in civil service…during the course of their preparation, there is a focus on learning to use problem-based and inquiry learning, on developing collaboration, and on addressing a range of learning styles in the classroom.’

Countries that have invested in improving teacher quality have seen the largest gains in student achievement according to a recent article by William J. Bushaw and Shane J. Lopez in the Phi Delta Kappan Journal. Their finding was based on the conclusion reached by educators who participated in the International Summit on the Teaching profession hosted by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and data from the latest PDK/Gallop poll which surveyed over 1,000 people about their views on public education.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley in The Fourth Way: The Inspirational Future for Educational Change also concur that high quality learning is dependent on highly qualified teachers and teaching. Finland controls teacher quality at the point of entry. They get high-quality teachers and know how to keep them by giving teachers’ professional status, support and considerable autonomy.

The New York Times featured Relay Graduate School of Education which has no campus, no lectures and graduate students mentored primarily at the schools they teach. The president of Relay, Norman Atkins, claims that vastly improving teacher education is critical in fixing the failure of America’s public education.

We know that good teachers always put their students at the centre and good teaching is what makes the difference.  Perhaps our theory of action requires a rethink or a tweek so that this relationship is clear.  This understanding puts to rest the proposition that you don’t need teachers in an online connected world.

Schools desperately need good teachers now more than ever. Invest in teachers and you’ll see dramatic improvements in student achievement.

14 thoughts on “Teachers at the centre

  1. I run Kip McGrath Education Centres in Scotland. I agree with so much of what you say. Our strength is the good quality of out tutors. They are all trained teachers but they are then trained in the added skill of tutoring. We have unique curriculum to help the task of the tutor but the tutor is our best resource. The child is at the centre but there need dictates what happens in any session not the child. This results in happy children because they are being helped by positive people in a structured way.

  2. Fascinating comments which resonate very deeply with me in my new role with Sydney CEO. My brief essentially revolves around improving teacher effectiveness through innovative pedagogies and my credo is that teachers are our greatest resource and source of hope for the future of learning. As a student I was lucky to have the benefit of inspirational teachers (especially in English!!)

      1. Too true. I was actually referring to you. You may not remember me but I was in your Year 10 English class at JTHS all those years ago!

  3. Great comments. It does beg the question what does an inspirational teacher look like. It then challenges us to ask the question what are we doing to support these people in their roles and what am I doing as a leader of teaching and learning in my school to supplement their work. I believe we need to get to the basics with each teacher to ensure they are engaging our students. How this looks may vary between schools however we need to have these discussions otherwise we all work in silos.

  4. It is true that teachers play a pivotal role in the field of education imparting, shaping and moulding the pillars of the future of any nation. We also need to be aware that children are the natural resources of any nation. So both teachers and students are very much needed for any nation. I wonder how many of us are aware of Finnish education and their teachers. Only top scoring students are offered enrolment to take up teaching degree and to be a permanent teacher one should have treained at master level. That’s why, students from Finland outperform peers in 43 other nations – including the United States, Germany and Japan – in mathematics, science and reading skills. Finland is also ranked top in economic competitiveness.

    I totally agree with Greg’s ideas and “Great Expectations”.

  5. Thanks Peter and Nidy for your comments. I agree that what it looks like may vary in each school but it is important to be continually focusing and investing in the development of our teachers – then I believe the results will speak for themselves. Good teaching will definitely result in good learning.

    Nidy, I agree Finland provides a great example of what happens when we invest in teachers and education and make it a real priority.

  6. I love Finland Education Policy and I have adequately discussed this issue in School Matters Website. If Finland policy in terms of Teacher Education is followed in Australia, it may be possible for Australia to be ranked No: 1 in global education. “I Have a Dream” just like Martin Luther King.

  7. If we closely read the Finland Education Policy, we can understand that not the policy is great but the massive effort of the teachers who tirelessly strive for the intellectual strength of the students. They were also given freedom to achieve their target and that makes them to stand top in the world. Someone said, “not gold but only men can make a nation great and strong”.

    1. Nidy, Finland recognises the responsibility for building teacher capacity lies with the teacher themselves and it demonstrates a trust in that capacity. They matched the rhetoric with a policy framework that provides support for teachers to work together without imposing the pressures of narrow high stakes testing on students or on staff. We do have to be wary that you cannot transpose the Finnish model on to other systems. There is no one size fits all approach. Every system and individual has to reflect on its learning – there are no seven simple steps.

  8. Greg, effective hopefully inspiring teaching makes a difference. We also know that effective teaching within an effective school has an even greater effect. Some questions for me revolve around how effective schools support and enable teachers to grow and develop. We know form V Robinson and others some of the key ingredients that are required but for me its also about holding us all to account for tasks we are charged with: governments for a career structure that acknowledge the true worth of the activity, school leaders for professional learning programs that enables the growth of inspirational reflective practioners, teachers to learn, grow and remain passionate and parents to join the partnership in active, committed and supportive ways.

    1. Mark, your questions go right to the heart of the issues and its where the rubber hits the road on building teacher capacity. It’s no easy task but what I have found helpful is first clarifying who is responsible for what. Working within state and federal requirements is a given but we need to get clear the policy framework, which reflects these statutory requirements. This defines a range of things but must include accountability and measures. It’s then a matter of the cohesion that exists between the school and the classroom teacher. As you move from system frameworks, you should be able to map school accountabilities and where the teacher sits within this. Transparency is key here because the end product is the school and the community it serves and parents need to be assured of the quality. This requires new structures and thinking for delivering and greater time for teacher learning and reflection.

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