Is collaborating with teachers worldwide in your resolutions for 2021?

Colombian classroom scene with student writing on whiteboard while teacher and other students watch

By Anna Pons

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

and Lawrence Houldsworth

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

When school doors shut last year, we came to realise just how magical and important classrooms really are. There is so much going on in them, and this is why looking into the classroom can help us to appreciate more fully the complexity and richness of teaching around the world. This is what our Global Teaching InSights Video Study did through a unique combination of methods, including classroom videos, teaching materials, teacher and student questionnaires and student pre- and post- cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes, across eight countries and economies.

We looked into the world of the past in this study. Classrooms certainly look very different today, though there are nevertheless many lessons that we can learn from the study as we prepare for a new normality. The findings from the classroom observation element of this study are particularly fascinating because teaching is such a complex, nuanced and physical subject matter. There are elements of teaching that simply have to be seen and witnessed if we are to understand teaching more fully.

One of these elements is how classrooms are managed and organised and what role students play in them. The study found that frontal teaching prevailed in 88% of lesson segments, while other structures such as collaboration were observed in only 22% of lesson segments. Teachers have recently had to find new ways of delivering their lessons to keep students engaged in a digital space. Could this spark new ways of fostering student engagement and student agency in the classroom? The study provides us with rich examples of how classrooms can be managed in different ways to promote a variety of skills and learning opportunities. For example, in Colombia we observed a teacher start a lesson by immersing the students immediately in a quick-fire recap game that energises them. Another example saw students role-play complex real world problems of agricultural yield.

We have seen great variation across the world in how schools and education systems respond to the evolving challenges of the pandemic – It reminds us of how much we can learn from each other

The human relationships and, more broadly, the social-emotional environment are also key drivers of learning that have been brought to the fore during this crisis. The findings of the study showed that nine out of ten classrooms are neither very cold and distant nor very warm and encouraging environments. There are thus promising foundations for teachers to build upon and observing teaching across borders could offer further inspiration here. For example, in Mexico we observed this teacher promoting a strong culture of mutual respect in her classroom. She interacts with each student in a warm and joyful way and maintains a constant dialogue that gives students agency, whilst at the same time encouraging students to think about the learning of their peers.

All of the disruptions from the pandemic are likely to be leading to substantial learning losses, particularly for the most disadvantaged. Helping students to move forward in their learning and overcome these gaps will be crucial in many schools. Across the classrooms that participated in the Global Teaching InSights Study, no more than one in every five teachers provided students with thorough and detailed feedback. In Japan, for example, we observed a teacher giving careful praise and encouragement that is focused on recognising the student’s effort whilst still challenging them to continue and persist through their mistakes. Watching other teachers such as this Japanese one from the study could serve as a powerful prompt for self-reflection and self-enquiry into one’s own teaching practice.

This crisis is turning the mantra of preparing students for an uncertain future into an imperative. To solve complex and unknown problems, students need to have a deep understanding of the subject matter, among others. The study found that the full richness of mathematics, which comes alive through its connections and patterns or through the challenge of detailed reasoning and hypothesising for instance, was only seen in a few classrooms. We know that it is possible though, as witnessed in this Japanese classroom where the underlying thinking behind processes was explored and in this Mexican classroom where we see generalising across visual representations.

We have seen great variation across the world in how schools and education systems respond to the evolving challenges of the pandemic. It reminds us of how much we can learn from each other. Similarly, the study showed important differences in how teachers approach just one slice of the curriculum. As we work out what the new normality should look like, we should not forget about how much we can learn when we look at one another’s approaches and then exchange and discuss.

Most of us make wishes at the beginning of every year. With vaccination campaigns underway in many countries around the world, we hope that the pandemic will be behind us this year. But, we also hope to build on the extraordinary commitment of the profession evidenced during these difficult times and empower teachers to further collaborate and learn more about teaching at a global scale. To do so, we’ve developed the Global Teaching InSights platform which showcases a range of resources and materials from the study, including a fascinating collection of teaching videos. It offers a space for teachers from around the world to come together and discuss the intricacies and challenges of their profession. We have seen scientists work together at a global level to carve a way forward out of the COVID-19 pandemic. What if we could have teachers put their brains together to make classrooms even more extraordinary?

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