Teaching, collaboration and the future of education: insights from teachers in the Slovak Republic

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

In a typical classroom, once the door closes and the lesson begins, the teacher is alone to do their work. Yet although moments like these can make teaching seem like a solitary endeavour, collaboration among teachers is a fundamental – and increasingly critical – part of the profession. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) show that teacher collaboration is strongly related with students’ performance, as well as teachers’ job satisfaction and self-efficacy.

It was in this spirit of collaboration and open discussion that more than 300 Slovakian teachers gathered for an international teacher forum in Bratislava this month, where they met with teachers from Teach For All’s global network and gained insights from OECD education analysts on teaching in high performing systems. The forum, convened by Martina Lubyová, Minister of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic, provided a space for teachers to exchange ideas with peers from other countries and interact with both education researchers and officials from their own education ministry. Over the course of three days, participants discussed modern pedagogy and schooling needs in the 21st century, with OECD analysts providing original data and research to frame the discussions. The event was organised by Slovakia’s premier teacher training institute, Metodicko-Pedagogické Centrum (MPC), in collaboration with the OECD, and supported by Teach For All.

The forum aimed to encourage greater collaboration among Slovakian teachers, but there was considerable debate around exactly how to create a culture of collaboration in schools. Trust was frequently mentioned as a key component – trust between teachers and their colleagues, and between teachers and their principals, but also between teachers and the broader system. Suzanne McAllister, a teacher from the United States, pointed out that teachers are more likely to seek help from one another if they feel that their jobs are not at risk. But she also noted that education systems should not force collaboration frameworks upon teachers from above. “For collaboration, when it is only work for work’s sake, it has a limited effect on student achievement and a negative effect on school culture,” McAllister said. Slovakian teacher Jozef Trenčan noted that peers in his country are still largely reluctant to collaborate, and that he’s working to shift their mind-sets. “I am curious as to why it happens, but some of my colleagues are afraid to collaborate,” Trenčan said. “I tell them that the worst thing that could happen is that they get some tips on how to improve.”

Slovakian teacher Jozef Trenčan speaks with OECD analyst Thomas Radinger at the teacher forum in Bratislava.

It was clear from the start of the forum that almost every teacher was looking to the future. Teachers across the world are aware that schooling needs have dramatically changed in recent years, and that teaching must adapt accordingly. Many forum participants provided examples of ways in which they’re already adapting their approaches. Josiane Atallah, a teacher from Lebanon, said that in her class, “a game-based approach to teaching and having a mission have helped me target life skills and discuss topics that are important and critical at times, but in a way that made sense to my students.” Other forum participants said it’s time to break the barriers of subject-orientated instruction and adopt a cross-curricular approach based on concrete topics that could be examined from different perspectives. Designing such a curriculum, and building a teacher education system around its implementation, were identified as critical elements for 21st-century learning.

An interesting debate also emerged about the importance of resources and working conditions for promoting innovation in teaching. While some teachers argued that having the appropriate infrastructure and equipment is critical to innovation, others argued that effective teachers are able to use their creativity and any resources available to engage their students in new ways. Eleonóra Gulach, a Slovakian teacher, pointed out that regardless of available resources, innovation relies on teachers working together to test new approaches – it cannot be done alone.

In discussions around resources, many teachers cited technology in the classroom as a key concern – in terms of both its availability as well as its proper use. Technology allows for new ways of learning, but it is not a panacea. Teachers at the forum agreed that there is often a temptation to flood schools with new technologies without properly assessing needs and appropriate applications. Educational objectives should be established first, they suggested, before acquiring the technology to meet those goals. Lucy Ashman, a teacher from the United Kingdom, urged her colleagues to think about why they want the tech and what outcome they are seeking, emphasising that “technology should not be used simply to tick boxes.”

There isn’t adequate space here to fully convey the rich discussions and debates that were held throughout the forum, though the spirit of the event can be captured in its name. The decision to call this event a “forum” was deliberate, because it was about exchange, debate and discussion. We wanted to hear directly from teachers about their teaching, and the level of engagement, motivation and dedication from the Slovakian participants was truly inspiring.

The OECD thanks Teach For All for their support in the planning of the forum, and thanks also go to all the Teach For All teachers who attended. We also extend our gratitude to the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic for hosting the event.