The power of observation: Learning from and with teachers

Japanese classroom scene with teacher at front with blackboard and students sitting at desks with hands raised

We demand a lot from our teachers. We expect them to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning. That entails professional knowledge (e.g. knowledge about a discipline, knowledge about the curriculum of that discipline, and knowledge about how students learn in that discipline), but also knowledge about professional practice so teachers can create the kind of learning environment that leads to good learning outcomes.

But we expect much more from teachers than what appears in their job description. We also expect them to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond to students from different backgrounds with different needs, and to promote tolerance and social cohesion; to provide continual assessments of students and feedback; to ensure that students feel valued and included; and to encourage collaborative learning.

That’s all easy to say, but so hard to do. And while public policy does a lot to push new (and sometimes old) ideas into schools and classrooms, we do so little to find the good ideas in classrooms, and to scale and spread them!

That is exactly what OECD’s new Global Teaching InSights Study is about. The study makes teaching practice visible and tangible, combining classroom observation with a pre-post design that draws on a range of perspectives, including measures of learning outcomes, questionnaires and teaching materials.

Classrooms are amazing places where students learn, live and get inspired. And all of this hinges on teachers

One of the greatest privileges of my job is that I have been able to observe classrooms in more than 60 countries. Classrooms are amazing places where students learn, live and get inspired. And all of this hinges on teachers. Watch how this Japanese teacher engages students in learning about quadratic equations, probably not one of the most exciting topics of most school careers. He is one of the 700 teachers from around the world who joined our Global Teaching InSights Study.

But watching a lesson is just a first step. The interesting work begins with making sense of what we see and trying to discern what we can learn from it. Several things struck me about this Japanese classroom. For a start, the teacher shifts seamlessly between whole class dialogue and peer-to-peer discussions. He first asks students to discuss with their peers what they found difficult and then asks those who found interesting solutions to explain them to at least three other students. Across the participating countries, student collaboration like this occurred in just 22% of the lesson segments that we observed. I also found this teacher’s classroom a great community of learners. Students support each other and are not afraid to share their ideas and questions. They raise their hands immediately when the teacher asks who struggled, and they offer detailed accounts of their challenges in front of their classmates, before those who resolved the problem explain how to overcome these challenges.

I also found it interesting that in this classroom the onus is on students to lead on explanations and to guide learning in the class. This class is grappling with whether or not they can generalise the methods they previously learnt. The Global Teaching InSights Study found that this level of cognitive engagement, that looks so natural in this classroom, is actually quite rare beyond Japan. While it occurred in over half of Japanese classrooms, we saw it in less than 15% of the classrooms elsewhere.

Another topic that is on everybody’s mind in times of the COVID-19 pandemic is how to use digital technologies, not just to conserve existing teaching practices but to transform them. In the videos that we recorded, we found just one in five classrooms using technology effectively to support self-directed learning and deeper conceptual understanding. But again, in those generalisations we too easily miss out on the good examples. Watch this Mexican teacher, who uses a graphing software to respond to student questions and lead the class towards a deeper understanding.

Given the large variation in content, methods and contexts in which teaching and learning take place, it’s really hard to make meaningful comparisons. To simplify things, we focused this first phase of the Global Teaching InSights Study on just one subject (mathematics) and in fact, just one mathematical topic (quadratic equations). Our curriculum studies show that it’s one of the topics which almost every student around the world learns at some stage of their schooling career, but many forget it soon after, perhaps because of the way in which it is taught. Few people imagine in how many different and engaging ways such a topic can be taught, but the Global Teaching InSights Study brings this out. For instance, “factorising” appeared to be the most popular approach in English and Japanese classrooms, while “using the quadratic formula” was the preferred method in German, Mexican and Spanish classrooms. What if the Japanese teacher had used a visual representation or had given the answer first and asked students to work backwards? What if the German or Mexican teachers had given greater weight to developing conceptual understanding?

The Global Teaching InSights platform does not provide answers to such questions. All it does is to provide a space for teachers to share their ideas, practices and their reflections on these questions, and to document and curate these ideas and practices within a framework collaboratively established by expert teachers in the participating countries. The idea behind this is that good learning is not about copying and pasting solutions from other places, but about looking seriously and dispassionately at good practice in our own countries and elsewhere to become knowledgeable of what works in which contexts and applying it consciously.

We are living at a moment where our future depends more than anything on effective global collaboration. Value is less and less created vertically, through command and control, and increasingly horizontally, by whom we connect and collaborate with. Scientists all around the world are working together feverishly to develop a vaccine that will curb the COVID-19 pandemic, and it looks like they will soon succeed. How much further could our education systems be with a global community of teachers, and with public policies that don’t prescribe what teachers should do, but unlock their creativity, by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for their contributions?

And in the end, the difference between education systems that are open to the world and ready to learn with others, and those that feel threatened by being exposed to alternative ways of thinking and working is likely to be a key differentiator in the educational progress that we are going to see around the world.

I am deeply grateful to the over 700 teachers who shared their time and experience to contribute to the study, as well as to the experts and researchers from the participating countries who designed and implemented the study, analysed the results, and developed the interpretative framework to compare and make sense of the classroom lessons. My special thanks go to philanthropist Charles Butt. When I mentioned this idea to him over a lunch in Paris, he trusted in the power of crowd-curated teacher expertise and helped turn this idea into an amazing product.

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