Why experience matters in teaching

By Francesco Avvisati
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

It often takes years of reflective practice to master complex, non-routine jobs. And few jobs today are more sophisticated and complex than teaching.

As parents and citizens, we expect students to leave schools not only with a solid foundation in reading, mathematics and other subjects; we also expect students to leave school as lifelong learners, with the ability to think critically about complex issues, and the will to constantly adapt to change. And we expect schools to contribute to the well-being of our children, and to strengthen the fabric of our societies.

Much of the burden of delivering on these expectations falls on teachers, who are the most significant resource in today’s schools. And it is easy for teachers to feel overwhelmed by these expectations, particularly at the beginning of their careers.

There is no doubt that classroom experience is important to develop the skills required for effective teaching. Even when educational success is narrowly defined as test scores, research has shown that teachers’ effectiveness increases with experience – especially early in their careers – and under favourable circumstances, it continues to increase over the entire career.

This month’s PISA in Focus also shows that in many countries, schools with more experienced teachers tend to have stronger results in the PISA science test and a better school climate. Notably, this association remains significant after accounting for students’ socio-economic status, and therefore, to some extent, for the tendency of many school systems to concentrate the least experienced teachers in the most challenging schools.

Teachers are not interchangeable widgets on an industrial assembly line.

If experience affects teachers’ effectiveness and, ultimately, the capacity of education systems to foster skilled and resilient citizens, what can countries do? One implication of our findings is that inexperienced teachers should not be concentrated in particular schools; such imbalances may not only harm equity, but also limit the  ability of novice teachers to gain professional knowledge from their more experienced colleagues. A second implication is that excessive teacher turnover should be avoided. Novice teachers with high potential should receive all the support they need to grow into confident professionals, and career structures should ensure that experienced teachers continue to work alongside their less experienced peers. The findings also underscore the importance of learning from experience as a key dimension of teacher talent, as well as the need to better understand  the conditions under which professional learning flourishes.

Today’s highest-performing education systems view teachers’ professional development in terms of lifelong learning, with initial teacher preparation providing the foundation for ongoing learning, rather than producing ready-made professionals. In these countries, initial teacher education not only provides sound basic training in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogy; it also develops habits of reflective practice and research on the job, and links professional development opportunities at later career stages to classroom practice and concrete issues in schools.

The importance of experienced teachers reminds us that schools today are complex organisations built on human engagement and interactions: teachers are not interchangeable widgets on an industrial assembly line. It also reminds us that improvement in education is often cumulative and incremental. It is our collective responsibility to create the optimal conditions for teachers to learn, schools to improve, and systems to deliver on our high expectations.

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