How can teaching standards improve teaching?

By Nóra Révai
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

When I started teaching English in my native Hungary, I was excited, confident, and maybe a bit nervous, about managing a group of students and helping them grow. My first year went well: I established good relationships, my students were actively engaged in their learning, and they made huge progress. A year later, however, I taught my first class in mathematics, and the experience was entirely different. The class was often a mess, my students were disengaged, and I felt helpless. I was still the same teacher, so why were the two experiences so different? Or, to put it more broadly, what makes good teaching?

We can all probably agree that teachers must be capable of planning a lesson and managing a classroom. They also need to use teaching methods that facilitate learning and allow every student to grow. And to do that, they need to know how students learn. Some of this knowledge can be applied across all subjects, some is more discipline-specific. But regardless of which subject they taught, we probably remember our best teachers as being enthusiastic and always willing to help. Good teaching certainly relies on teachers’ motivation, as well.

In an effort to improve education for all students, countries have been trying to identify the characteristics of good teaching and design policies to promote them. Developing teaching standards – or  a description of what teachers, as professionals, are required to know and be able to do – is one way to do this. A number of questions naturally arise around standards, including how they are developed, how they relate to the teaching profession and teacher learning, and how they work in everyday practice. We take a closer look at all of these issues in a newly published report.

Standards differ quite considerably across countries, though there are a number of common elements. Standards in Singapore, for example, are strongly centred on values, with core competencies such as “nurturing the whole child” or “winning hearts and minds”. Understanding research and data is required in Estonia, while standards in Australia emphasise engaging in professional learning. Technology features in most standards, yet there is some variation here, too. While Estonia and Australia focus on selecting and using technology that engages students in learning, teachers in Singapore also need to help students understand issues around cyber wellness.

If standards are used to facilitate dialogue, rather than resolve tension, teachers might feel a bit less helpless on their first day of class.

Standards relate to the profession in different ways, as well. In some countries, teachers, teacher educators and other stakeholders are deeply involved in their development. In others, they are less involved. Some standards distinguish between career stages and guide teachers’ learning from initial education to professional development, while others describe only one set of competencies for the whole profession. Most countries try to tie standards to the profession  by connecting them to teacher learning. Often, their  goal is to adjust teacher preparation programmes to the standards so that teachers will be well-prepared regardless of the subject they teach or the course they complete.

Aligning teacher education to standards, however, is not such an easy matter. Teacher education programmes have their own traditions. Some teach classical disciplines such as psychology and sociology, while others take an applied educational research approach, or are built around involving teacher candidates in collaborative enquiry.

Standards, on the other hand, most often reflect a very practical approach, in which teaching activities are translated into requirements, and matching such activity-based expectations with university courses is not straightforward. Even institutions that carried out thorough examinations of their teacher preparation programmes did not always establish clear and direct connections between courses and standards. The language used in course descriptions is often more research- and knowledge-oriented, and their definition of professional knowledge is broader than the one found in standards. Moreover, some programmes have features that are not included in standards at all. A course in Australia, for instance, includes “Contemporary educational debates in social, cultural, political and historical context”, that, one could argue, are important for teachers to know about, but such knowledge is not part of the standards.

So do standards make any difference to educating teachers then? Yes, they do! But not by forcing institutions to make explicit, direct and consistent connections between standards and their courses. The ultimate policy objective should instead be to engage the entire teaching profession with standards, teacher education and professional development programmes and course outcomes – and allow them to reflect on what great teaching actually is. If standards are used to facilitate dialogue, rather than resolve tension, teachers might feel a bit less helpless on their first day of class.

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