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November 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 3

How Teachers Around the World Learn

From Singapore to Shanghai and beyond, countries are focusing on embedding teacher-led professional learning in their systems.

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Professional LearningSchool Culture
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Schools around the world face urgent demands to prepare students for changing social and economic environments—for jobs not yet created and technologies not yet invented, and for citizenship in diverse and interconnected societies. To meet these challenges, many governments are setting ambitious goals for their education systems.
We hear a lot about demands on teachers in U.S. schools, but the bar is being raised for teacher performance in other countries as well. Teachers are now expected, for example, to have a broader, more specialized knowledge of their discipline; engage students and facilitate the development of their cognitive and noncognitive skills; employ digital technologies; and respond to the individual needs of students from different backgrounds while helping all achieve high standards.

A New Focus on Teacher Learning

For the past eight years, these immense challenges have brought together ministers of education and leaders of teachers' unions and other teacher organizations from more than 25 countries for the annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession. The leaders in attendance at these summits—which I help organize and report on—often focus on the state of the teaching profession in their countries (Asia Society, 2011–2018). It's clear that leaders of nations with very different systems all recognize teachers as the single most important in-school factor for improving student achievement. Every country is convinced of the centrality of teaching to the quality of their education system.
However, while some countries have a plentiful supply of high-quality teachers to drive their systems forward, many others are intensely concerned about teacher burnout and turnover, the growing challenge of recruiting high-quality novice teachers, and teachers' lack of confidence in their own abilities.
On the positive side, there is an emerging international consensus that more powerful professional learning opportunities are needed to enable teachers to become the best teachers they can be, and that job-embedded, teacher-led learning is an essential component of these opportunities. Through the summits, my own research, and my experiences in leading delegations of educators to visit schools and examine best practices in more than 12 countries, I've seen that countries can integrate this kind of professional learning across their entire systems and thus better position their schools to meet changing demands.

Teachers (Everywhere) Yearn for Collaboration

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that while U.S. teachers rate the quality of their overall lives higher than people in most other occupations and professions, they rate their work environment comparatively low (Lopez & Sidhu, 2013). Part of the reason for this might be a sense of professional isolation and lack of support. The OECD's 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (covering more than 30 countries) showed that on average:
  • Ninety percent of teachers love their jobs but feel unrecognized and unsupported.
  • Most work in professional isolation. (Fifty percent never team teach; only 30 percent observe their colleagues.)
  • Forty-six percent say they receive no feedback on their teaching.
Overall, teachers feel that they have too many initiatives thrust upon them and not enough opportunity to exercise their own initiative.
Fortunately, although the cultures and traditions of countries vary enormously with respect to school governance, across the world there has been a shift from a more top-down regulatory approach to managing schools to a more decentralized environment. This shift brings with it a focus on supporting teachers' professional learning and teacher leadership as a main driver for improvement.
So what forms of teacher-led learning are countries experimenting with? And how might these be organized—at scale—to reach millions of students in thousands of classrooms? Here are some examples of how other countries are developing high-quality teaching through teacher-led professional learning.

Singapore: Teacher-to-Teacher Sharing

In Singapore, every teacher is entitled to 100 hours of professional development a year (about 12 days), paid for by the government. There are professional learning communities in every school, led by senior teachers. The school day is organized such that every teacher has an hour a week of peer learning time, built into the school day, to work with their subject matter or grade-level teacher groups on learning problems identified in the school or on creating new approaches.
At the beginning of each year, every teacher creates a professional learning plan. The 100-hours entitlement can be allocated between a teacher's individual learning goals and the goals of the school as determined by the principal and teachers, within the context of Singapore's overall priorities. Since the publication of an influential policy report, "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation" in 1995, Singapore has been evolving from a system focused on high levels of performance in traditional academic subject matter to one focused on deeper learning and 21st century competencies, with an aim toward producing graduates who are "confident, independent thinkers and self-directed learners who are active contributors and concerned citizens of Singapore and the world" (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2015). These new goals have entailed a widening of pedagogical approaches, and educators are helping each other pilot, evaluate, and disseminate such approaches as collaborative learning, student field research and data collection, and service learning (Stewart, 2011; Asia Society, 2011–2018).
In addition to the teacher-led peer learning communities within each school, there are a variety of ways teachers can create and share innovations with colleagues across the system. The Academy of Singapore Teachers, run by teachers, provides professional learning opportunities in every curriculum area and helps spread new practices across Singapore's schools. Teachers increasingly use technology to share ideas, with videos of effective teaching practice now widely available. Teachers can also be involved in action research on pedagogy with the National Institute of Education, Singapore's teacher training institution.
This commitment to continuous improvement through raising the quality of teaching has helped Singapore to move from a system characterized by lower standards, teacher shortages, and large numbers of untrained teachers to a world leader in education (Stewart, 2011).

Shanghai, China: Developing Master Teachers

In Shanghai, the world's largest school system (with 16 million teachers), teacher collaboration and peer learning are a way of life. Teachers in China spend less time in front of students than American teachers, reserving much more time for peer collaboration and learning. The trade-off for this systematic teacher-led professional learning is larger class sizes (Zhang, Ding, & Xu, 2016).
Every teacher in a school is a member of a "teaching and research" group that includes all teachers who teach the same subject. The groups meet together each week to plan lessons, collectively examine student progress, diagnose student learning needs, and design new ways to meet those needs. Teaching and research groups often select a particular educational issue, review the literature, try out different approaches in the school, and produce papers on their findings for other teachers. They tend to focus on aspects of subject matter in which students are having difficulty, on interventions to increase achievement by students who are behind, or on introducing new elective courses. Ten years ago, there was almost no use of technology in Shanghai schools; today it's infused throughout the curriculum, thanks to the work of these teacher groups.
Teachers are also members of grade-level learning groups that meet regularly to address issues affecting students in that grade. In Shanghai, classrooms are open: teachers observe each other's classrooms regularly and provide structured feedback on pedagogical approaches, student engagement, difficult points in the curriculum, use of technology, and so on. Over the course of their career, Shanghai teachers are thus constantly learning from and sharing their knowledge with other teachers.
Career ladders are an important aspect of making this work. In Shanghai, as elsewhere in China, structured career ladders, with multiple stages, are open to all teachers. Progress up the ladder, and increasing compensation, depends not only on being a high-quality teacher, but also on supporting other teachers' professional learning. All teaching and research groups are led by senior-level teachers whose role is to support junior teachers and who are responsible for the quality of instruction in the school. The most senior teachers play important roles across the system, particularly in bringing up schools at the bottom of achievement rankings. Routinely, senior teachers and education leaders work with educators in less advantaged schools through communities of practice to improve the teaching and management in those schools. Indeed, to be promoted to the most senior ranks in Shanghai, a teacher needs to have spent time working with or in a disadvantaged school community (Zhang, Ding, & Xu, 2016).

Finland and Estonia: New Steps

Finland and Estonia, two small, high-performing school systems, both have high standards for entry into teaching and a small number of highly competitive teacher-preparation programs. These countries have relied heavily on this high-quality initial entry as the main driver of school quality. Teaching in these countries is a highly regarded profession and—within broad national curriculum frameworks—much education decision making is decentralized to the school level, so teachers have considerable autonomy for developing curricula and assessment.
Schools in these countries are relatively small (200–500 students), so there has been less emphasis on formal mechanisms of peer collaboration. However, the rapid changes facing these societies in terms of growing diversity through immigration and increasingly digitally focused economies are bringing a greater focus on teachers' lifelong learning. Both countries are expanding mechanisms for teacher-led collaborative learning communities within and across schools (Asia Society, 2011–2018).

British Columbia and London: Innovation and Equity

Some countries are experimenting with ways to use teacher-led learning to foster innovations and improve equity. For instance, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and several Canadian provinces have created teacher-run Innovation Funds, to which groups of teachers can apply to try out innovations in their own school. Teachers then spread their discoveries to others through regional teachers' networks.
The Canadian province of British Columbia conducted a society-wide "envisioning exercise" on what education should look like in 2030. Then, building on previous experience with spiral of inquiry approaches, the government provided small grants to encourage groups of teachers to establish "inquiry working groups" in their schools. These groups will work over the course of a year to identify an issue affecting student learning currently or in the future, review relevant literature, collect data on student learning, and develop and demonstrate innovations that address those problems or bring some aspect of the province's vision of education in 2030 to life (Jensen et al., 2016).
In London, educator-led communities of practice have proven powerful in addressing inequity. In the early 2000s, London was a chaotic, underperforming system with high degrees of poverty and deprivation in many boroughs. From 2003–2011, the London Challenge responded to increasing accountability pressures with a variety of initiatives. Key among them was pairing experienced and credible school leaders and teachers from higher-performing schools in Greater London with lower-performing schools to provide leadership coaching and improve pedagogy. This shift to school-based learning led by outstanding practitioners, as opposed to intervention by outside "experts," helped educators respond effectively to the identified needs of particular schools, aiding teachers in improving their own practices, and making heavy use of student data to identify underachievement and track progress. During this period, London went from being the worst-performing education authority in England to being one of the best (Fullan & Boyle, 2014).

Takeaways for U.S. Schools

Here are five takeaways for U.S. schools and educators from these international examples.

Commit to Systemwide Policies and Incentives

Traditional approaches to teacher development—strong attention to initial teacher preparation followed by occasional "professional development days"—are now widely recognized as insufficient to develop a highly effective teaching force. Although the international systems described here vary in many ways, their common theory of action is that continuous professional learning for teachers and leaders is at the heart of school improvement. Movements by small groups of teachers to create job-embedded, teacher-led professional development can significantly affect some aspects of some schools. But lifting up a whole education system requires a commitment to systemwide policies, incentives, and structures that make ongoing teacher-led professional learning universal and frequent. The examples I've described feature strong policy frameworks and incentives at the national or state or province level (sometimes embodied in teacher contracts), yet the professional learning itself is designed and carried out at the local school level. Successful innovations are then diffused across schools through teacher networks.

Restructure Teachers' Time

One huge barrier to job-embedded professional development is lack of time in the school day. Education systems that make professional learning central to how they operate address this issue in different ways. In Shanghai, there's an explicit trade-off between teachers having time for intensive professional collaboration and larger class sizes. In Singapore, time for professional collaboration and peer observation is built into the school day by having flexible class sizes. Class sizes may vary across the day; for example, a class using an approach in which teams of students work independently can be larger than one taught by methods that require frequent teacher direction. Other systems find time by eliminating ineffective forms of professional development, reducing teachers' administrative tasks, or streamlining meetings. Schools will find different solutions, but finding just one extra hour a week for groups of teachers to work together purposefully or provide feedback on each other's teaching can yield big benefits over the course of a year.

Create Collaborative Cultures

Much of the debate about improving teaching focuses on effective teachers as individuals, but successful schools raise achievement through teamwork. In high-performing systems, the culture of teaching has changed from a stand-alone culture to a collaborative one. The 2013 TALIS survey showed that, across countries, peer collaboration is associated with teachers having greater confidence in their ability as teachers and with their job satisfaction (OECD, 2014).
Building effective collaborative learning cultures is not simple. A balance needs to be struck between bottom-up, teacher-led collaboration and guided systemic improvement. Collaborative teams should go beyond common but superficial forms of collaboration, like informal sharing of materials, to ones that open up classroom practice through classroom observation, action research, or team teaching. Collaborative cultures also need to be well-led and tied to a deep understanding of professional practice.

Develop Teachers' Skills for Leading Professional Learning

Professional learning needs to be led by teachers who are respected by their peers as effective teachers, but who also have skills in facilitating adult learning. In some of these countries, career pathways or ladders provide a strong incentive for teachers to improve their teaching and their leadership capabilities. Progress up the career ladder depends on teaching quality, on active participation in professional learning, and on the development of innovations for the school. As teachers move up the ladder, they move into positions of increasing responsibility for curriculum development, professional learning, and mentoring younger colleagues. Teachers can thus play leadership roles in their school and gain increased compensation without necessarily leaving classroom teaching (although some may choose to become principals). The most senior teachers may serve in leadership roles across the district.
Other countries do not have elaborated formal career pathways but are finding ways for expert teachers to play recognized and meaningful leadership roles in schools. Teacher leaders might coach and mentor other teachers, take responsibility for certain curriculum or pedagogical areas, or lead school-improvement teams. They often receive training in how to execute these roles and work closely with the principal so that each school has distributed leadership.

Encourage Teacher Research

Compared to a field like medicine, teaching does not have a strong track record of generating its own research. A major emphasis of professional learning in high-performing systems is teacher research and inquiry. There are a variety of teacher inquiry approaches—action research, lesson study, learning circles—and in all of them, teachers review literature, collect and analyze data on student work, try instructional solutions, and assess the impact of these solutions. In Finland, where teacher preparation takes place in research universities, preservice teachers are trained in inquiry approaches in their initial teacher training. And in Canada and Singapore, teachers often partner with university researchers to examine 21st century pedagogies, technology applications, and so on. Thus, teachers' roles change from always being on the receiving end of others' research to being co-creators of knowledge.

A Systemic Approach

A high-quality teacher workforce doesn't happen by chance or as a result of "cultural respect" for teachers. It is a result of deliberate policy choices and well-designed systems. U.S. schools cannot simply copy and paste models wholesale from other countries; models need to be adapted to American circumstances. But one thing is clear: Across the world, systems are moving away from industrial-like forms of work organization—in which principals manage teachers as "workers"—to forms in which teachers play meaningful leadership roles within schools.
Many practices discussed in this article are found in the United States in "pockets of excellence." But what's needed is a systemic approach so that every teacher's professional learning is continual and developmental, built into the daily life of the school, and achieved in collaborative structures led by outstanding teachers. This learning must happen within an ethos of purposeful improvement and innovation to meet our expanded objectives for students in the 21st century.

Guiding Questions

  • Stewart cites survey data showing that U.S. teachers rate their "work environment" comparatively low. In what ways could opportunities for collaboration and meaningful professional learning change that?

  • Review the structures for teacher collaboration, formal peer mentoring, and even funding that countries use to help teachers develop and share innovations (pp. 31–33). Which of these structures would it be helpful for your school or district to set up? Could they realistically do so?

  • In your experience, what barriers stand in the way of job-embedded, teacher-led learning programs in schools? How could they be addressed?

 

References

Asia Society. (2011–2018). Reports on the International Summits on the Teaching Profession. Retrieved from AsiaSociety.org/teachingsummit

Fullan, M., & Boyle, A. (2014). Big city school reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto, and London. New York: Teachers College Press, and Toronto, Canada: Ontario Principals' Council.

Jensen, B., Sonneman, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD. Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems. Washington, D.C. National Center on Education and the Economy.

Lopez, S. J., & Sidhu, P. (2013). U.S. teachers love their lives but struggle in the workplace. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/161516/teachers-love-lives-struggle-workplace.aspx

OECD. (2014). TALIS 2013 results: An international perspective on teaching and learning. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Singapore Ministry of Education. (2015). Framework for 21st century competencies and student outcomes.

Stewart, V. (2011). "Singapore: A journey to the top, step by step." In M. Tucker (Ed). Surpassing Shanghai. An agenda for American education built on the world's leading systems. Boston, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Zhang, M., Ding, X., & Xu, J. (2016). Developing Shanghai's teachers. Washington, D.C. National Center on Education and the Economy.

Vivien Stewart is senior education advisor and former vice president at Asia Society, where she has been leading a national effort to prepare American students and educators for the interconnected world of the 21st century. She has worked with schools around the country to broaden students' educational experiences to prepare them for work and citizenship in a global age. She has worked with states to adapt their policies to a global knowledge economy, and she has developed resources for teachers to use to promote global knowledge and skills. Stewart has also used her unique international background in education to bring together education leaders from different countries to share expertise on how to respond to the rapid transformations of globalization and the need for world-class educational systems.

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