Every country has its own education system and its own way of training their teachers: From hiring systems, over the structure of the teacher education, to the content itself: what teachers should know on their first day in class, and what they need to know, twenty or forty years of experience later.
Too many countries do not train teachers according to their needs and the outcome ends up being quite disastrous: many teachers complain they do not work together, find it hard to meet the students’ needs, sometimes they do not get any practical experience before entering a classroom or they do not get enough feedback on their practice over the course of their career.
As official reports (PISA, OECD) and other articles have shown, the best ranked education systems are systems that have centered their attention and most of their reforms on teacher training. So what should a good teacher education include?
“Teachers, you are not alone”
Teachers often say that theirs is a very solitary profession: they are alone in front of their classes, they prepare their courses alone, assess the students alone, make decisions on their own, etc. In some countries, freshly graduated teachers are followed and tutored by senior teachers in their first year, but this arrangement never lasts long. In the French system for example, the only intent is to assess the teachers and award the final teaching qualification.
Singapore, topping the most recent OECD reports, has a system where experienced teachers become mentors after a while, and tutor new teachers during their first two years (we touch on this in greater detail in this article. The beginners are given advice, resources and assistance if they encounter problems at different stages of their experience:
In Finland, teachers have full responsibility for the syllabus and assessment system within their own school, they all have to make decisions collectively.
Even though the French education system has not been ranked highly in PISA reports, it features some interesting practices in regard to teacher training. For instance, the French Education Ministry has given endowment to schools in more disadvantaged areas or greater metropolises such as Paris or Marseilles for them to incorporate teamwork hours in the teachers’ schedules as part of their due teaching time. Every week, teachers get time off from classes at the same time for two or three hours, so they can gather and talk, build up projects together, and work on their professional development. Meanwhile other French schools struggle to enable deep teamwork among teachers, because it would be perceived as unpaid work.
Train teachers the way you want them teach
Many teachers, be they new or experienced, have this natural tendency to apply what is called isomorphism : they don’t teach the way they were told to teach during their initial training, but the way they were taught themselves, back in the day. To keep this from happening, it is crucial that teachers are taught in the same way they are expected to teach their students later on. As Lidia Grave-Resendes explains, the only isomorphism that should exist, is the one between the pedagogy, which will be implemented to achieve the goals desired for the students, and the pedagogy used in the teaching training process. Otherwise teacher training is merely theoretical and not in accord with what is needed in the classroom.
Practice and theory at the same time
For a long time, countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany or Austria have trained their teachers along a “consecutive” model: teachers would first learn all about theory (subject, didactics, pedagogy), and only then, about practice. This system has been proven wrong: teachers should learn about education as they are practicing it, observing it, visualizing it.
The idea behind the “concurrent model” is to go beyond a back-and-forth between the subject taught, didactics and pedagogy and to reach instead a larger vision of the kids, their learning mechanisms and structure, and thus practice as teachers are learning.
Focus on the students’ needs
Times are changing. For students, going to school does not have the same meaning as it used to: the youth now have access to information much faster. Therefore, schools and teachers need to adapt to those changes. Kids and teenagers need to be at the center of teachers’ education, and not only the discipline taught. The relationship to “knowledge” needs to evolve and adjust to the current world: this is no more about knowledge that should be given or transmitted, but knowledge that should be built, constructed, and thus, that can be changed. While training teachers, the focus should be on how to construct and compose the knowledge with the students, and go from a vertical teaching, to a horizontal one, where students take full part in it.
Likewise, in many teacher training systems, not enough focus is put on the pedagogical aspect of the job, and what is mostly emphasized is the subject itself. As this graph sums up, the transmission and knowledge of the subject itself is one point among others of what teachers should know, but does not represent their unique role.
Illustration: Michael Davidson, 2013, OECD
Teachers need to be aware of the varieties of the students and the numerous difficulties they can encounter in their education, and be able to adapt their teaching and pedagogy accordingly. They need to be trained about the dys- phenomena (dyslexia, dysorthographia, dyscalculia, etc), the behavior issues a kid can have, and know how to adapt to these individualities. This cannot be done effectively if what teachers are mostly taught during their training is how to teach their subject and not how to apprehend kids or teenagers.
Additionally, the didactics differ from one school subject to another: it is crucial for teachers to adapt their way of teaching from one subject to another. That is also why it is so interesting for teachers to enter each other’s classrooms and observe the different ways of teaching.
As for pedagogy itself, serious pedagogical works have been made by professionals like Freinet, Montessori, Oury or Makarenko and they need to be more taken into account in teachers’ training, as “the pedagogical aspect is the basis for the teaching-learning process”.
The youth at the core of everything
During their training, too many teachers do not hear about neurosciences and the actual differences between adults and children or teenagers, in terms of brain structure, ways of learning or behaving. This lack in the teachers’ education does not help teachers understand how teenagers work, and adapt their teaching to them. As Donna Coch explains in her essay, a report “called for teacher education to include both learning education (i.e., how students learn) and teaching education (i.e., how to teach; currently, neuroscience has more to contribute to the former than to the latter), as well as explicate the relations between the two”.
Studies have shown that the best-ranked education systems are those that have centered their reforms on teacher education: nothing is more important than to train teachers well. An efficient training should include in depth knowledge of the children and teenagers: teachers should learn how to teach their subject, but without excluding the relationship with students and learn how to respond to their needs. Neurosciences and diverse pedagogical approaches need to be taught to the teachers, as these would represent a solid base for their teaching. Most countries have now understood how crucial it is for teachers to practice in a classroom while they are learning about theory on the side. Besides learning about theoretical models, an efficient way to train teachers is to have them work together and develop their professional skills hand in hand: visit and observe one another in their classrooms, use video records to give feedback along specific observation criteria, etc. Such practices will help teachers evolve and respond to both students’ and nations’ needs.