Globally schools are starting to focus on 21st century skills that prepare students for a changing job market and a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. To do this, teachers need to engage in the kind of 21st century thinking and practice that they are encouraging their students to develop. However, many will need professional development support to acquire these skills.
This was the theme of a recent symposium entitled From Input to Implementation: Closing the Loop in Teacher Development, hosted by the British Council Singapore where panellists discussed this and other issues around 21st Century Teacher Development. The panel discussion was moderated by Ms Leslie Davis, Training Consultant for the Teacher Training and Development team at British Council and consisted of four members: Dr Jennifer Pei-Ling Tan, Assistant Dean and Research Scientist (Office of Education Research) at the National Institute of Education; Dr Marie Alina Yeo, Language Specialist at SEAMEO Regional Language Centre; Dr Paul Grahame Doyle, Programme Director (Subject Literacy) at English Language Institute of Singapore, and Mr Martin Yakabuski, Training Consultant at British Council (Singapore).
The panellists began the discussion with the recognition that the 21st century job market requires the skills of collaboration, communication and creativity. The panellists agreed that globally, schools face challenges in preparing students for the 21st century world. They made the point that in a VUCA world, knowledge is no longer static, but is constantly shifting. In order to highlight the gap between traditional classroom practices and classrooms that prepare students for a VUCA world, Dr Tan explained that according to recent economic research, academic skills only account for 20 per cent of economic success. Dr Tan emphasised that a delivery model of teaching would no longer be enough to adequately prepare students for the challenges of the world.
The discussion then explored why it is vital that educators themselves engage in the kind of 21st century thinking and practice that they are encouraging of students. Dr Doyle observed that professional development in the 21st century is not about traditional views of professional development where “something is done to you”. Instead, it has to be a long-term process of learning, involving teachers, students, administrators and facilitators of professional development. Dr Yeo reiterated that professional development must be long-term and had to “become a habit”. With our current understandings of sustained professional development, one-off workshops “then become problematic”, she commented.
The moderator, Ms Davis, cited a 2013 report published by the US Centre for Public Education, which states that 90 per cent of teachers participate in traditional workshop-style training sessions during the school year. However, according to the report, such workshops often don’t change teacher practice. In fact, only around 10 per cent of teachers are able to transfer new methodologies into their practice without continued support. Ms Davies also cited studies which found that it takes at least 20 separate instances of practice before an experienced teacher has mastered a new skill. Of equal interest is the finding that this number further increases in tandem with the complexity of the skill being learned.
Mr Yakabuski described professional learning as a change. According to him, with professional learning, “you can never go back to thinking the same way again. It changes your beliefs as a teacher, it changes your practice and it changes your understanding of learning.” However, all the panellists recognized that change is a difficult process. To illustrate the enormity of undertaking change, Ms Davis made a comparison to the healthcare industry. Citing a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013, she explained that the researchers had measured the commitment by heart attack patients to lifestyle changes in order to avoid a second attack. The lifestyle changes advocated by the doctors were cessation of smoking, healthy eating, and physical exercise. Only 4.3 per cent of patients made changes in all three areas, reiterating that implementing change is not easy.
The panellists explored some of the constraints that prevented teachers from changing, or “closing the loop” and implementing new strategies into their classroom after traditional professional development. The panellists spoke of two categories of constraints - external and internal. Some examples of external constraints are time, resources, heavy curriculum load and exams. The panellists agreed that in order for the educators in schools to become a learning community, it is essential for administrators to remove these external constraints. Dr Doyle emphasised that teachers need time to “talk to colleagues, develop new ideas and share their practice and experiences in the classroom.”
However, even if the external constraints are removed, the internal constraints often remain. These internal constraints include teachers’ epistemological beliefs about teaching and learning. Mr Yakabuski suggested that administrators and professional development providers need to support teachers in “closing the loop”, by themselves acknowledging that “learning is a messy process, and mistakes should be valued as an essential part of that process.”
The panellists identified another difficulty with changing classroom practice - the process of teaching itself is incredibly complex. Teachers are simultaneously attempting to deliver content while dealing with the human element of having forty or so individuals in their classroom. Change requires adding new strategies to an already heavy cognitive load. Dr Doyle shared an example of a teacher doing a peer observation with a colleague who had planned to try out a new questioning strategy in the classroom. During the observation, the observer noted that the teacher did not implement the new strategy as planned. When asked about this afterwards, the teacher was utterly surprised to discover they had not in fact used the strategy. As Dr Doyle commented, “You can plan, but if you are truly engaged with students, you might forget to carry out the talk strategy you intended.”
Dr Tan similarly shared an example of a teacher who believed in the facilitator model of teaching; however, when her interaction patterns with her students were recorded and visualized at a whole-class level, she discovered, to her surprise, that she was still very much at the centre of the classroom conversations: students were primarily responding to her prompts rather than engaging in dynamic learning conversations with other classmates. In this regard, she was unknowingly being predominantly the “Sage on the Stage” rather than a co-creator of knowledge alongside her students, whether as “Guide on the Side” or “Meddler in the Middle”. The panellists agreed that these anecdotes indicate a need for support that is embedded in the classroom, to help reveal to teachers what is actually happening during their lesson.
With an understanding of the complexity of change, the discussion moved on to how leaders could support teachers through the most difficult stage of the learning process – viz., implementation. To further this discussion around supporting the change management process, Mr Yakabuski posed a unique twist to the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, commenting that the question we should probably be asking is, “how do we make them [teachers] thirsty?”
Dr Tan responded to this, explaining that teachers could have the best professional development experience outside of their classrooms, but the challenges now are about how we could design professional development spaces - dialogic spaces, productive spaces - in the classroom. Emphasising that change happens when the evidence is visible, Mr Yakabuski commented that teachers need to develop an identity “as a change agent, not a deliverer of curriculum.” Dr Yeo shared her experience with stackable professional development modules that could help sustain the impetus for continual learning and change. She also described a model of cascading, where trainers would go into the classrooms with teachers, and found that this shifts the teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning, “because it isn’t just about theory. It’s happening in their classrooms.”
The panellists collectively advocated a co-construction model, with teachers, administrators and professional development facilitators working together to solve problems inside the teachers’ classrooms. Dr Doyle reiterated that learning with the teachers is a crucial part of the change process because, “if we aren’t doing that, we are not walking the walk; we are not showing people that this is important.” The panellists agreed that education leaders had to be visibly learning as well, as this is an important factor in winning teachers over.
In summary, the panel discussion clearly cemented the understanding that traditional professional development options are no longer sufficient to enhance teacher learning in the VUCA world of the 21st century. While input sessions and workshops are a valuable part of the process, they are only the beginning. Sustainable professional development needs to be situated in the real-time complexities of the classroom. School leaders, teachers and professional development providers have to be part of a learning culture that is supportive of the messy process of change. And only then would teachers be able to successfully Close the loop from Input to Implementation.
British Council extends our sincere appreciation to our panellists and to our invited guests, for their invaluable contribution in making the symposium the beginning of our collective conversation on sustained professional learning. We look forward to your continued participation at our future symposia, so that we keep this conversation alive.