Teachers learn better at school

by Darleen Opfer
OECD Thomas J Alexander Fellow

Most of us probably have fond memories of time off school due to teacher training days. Whilst it may have presented a  logistical problem for our parents, it was a blissful free day off for us students. We didn’t stop and consider what teachers were actually doing during these training days. But if we had, we would have wanted them focused on activities directly related to our school experience.  The new Teaching in Focus brief shows that professional development embedded in school life has more impact on teaching practice than non-school embedded professional development.

Traditionally, teachers do not spend the training days in their own school, giving them the chance to focus on solving problems directly related to teaching their students. Instead, teachers are pulled out of their schools and attend one day, ‘single shot’ workshops or conferences where they listen to others instruct them on new policies and practices.

For both school and non-school embedded professional development there are variations in participation levels across countries. Teachers in Chile, France, Italy and the Slovak Republic indicate a high level of participation in non-school embedded professional development activities, whereas teachers in Abu Dhabi, Alberta (Canada), Mexico and Singapore report low levels of participation.

Across the countries surveyed however, teachers reported that they are more likely to participate in non-school embedded professional development activities, such as courses and workshops (70%), than in activities within school, such as collaborative professional learning (61%).

This is a shame because when teachers participate in embedded professional development activities within schools, where they can focus on problems of practice, use real student work, and collaborate with their same-school colleagues, there is a positive impact on teachers’ classroom practices. In the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), teachers reported impacts of professional development on:  knowledge and understanding of their subject field, pedagogical competencies in teaching their subject field,  ICT (information and communication technology) skills for teaching and student behavior and classroom management, among others.

In general, TALIS teachers who report taking part in more non-school embedded professional development activities tend to also report that their professional development has a lower impact on their work, in comparison to the teachers who report engaging more often in school embedded professional development.

A good example of the positive impact that can be achieved when teacher professional development is focused directly in the teaching school, can be found in Latvia’s Developing Skills for Experiential and Cooperative Learning programme, which is funded by the Soros Foundation–Latvia. Teachers in this programme work  together to identify and understand  problems in their teaching practice. Next, they generate a set of ways to address the problem and work on implementing their strategies for solving the problem. Most importantly, they do not do this work on their own, they collaborated as teams to implement and evaluate how well their strategies address the problem. Teachers in the programme continue to work on sustaining their efforts beyond the foundation funding, by forming the Latvian Association for Cooperation in Education (LAPAS, Latvian acronym ) which helps teachers develop collaborative approaches to education reform.

From this evidence, the message to teachers, school leaders and policy makers is clear: prioritise professional development activities that take place in school settings and that are sustained, collaborative, and focused on problems of practice. These are the activities that have the most positive impact on classroom practices.

Find out more about TALIS
Teaching in Focus No. 10 : Embedding professional development in schools for teacher success, by Darleen Opfer and Katarzyna Kubacka
Re‐conceptualising professional development of teacher educators in post‐Soviet Latvia
International Summit on the Teaching Profession, Banff, Alberta, on March 29–30, 2015
Photo credit: Group of People and Collaboration Concepts / @Shutterstock

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