Getting ready to start teaching in the classroom, managing student behaviour and meeting with parents can be a daunting prospect for many pre-service teachers. Researchers at the University of Virginia in the United States have spent the last five years looking into ways to supplement traditional teacher training methods with a curriculum of digitally mediated simulations.
Lead researcher Dr Julie Cohen says latest study findings (Cohen & Wong, 2021) suggest the use of classroom simulators can support pre-service teachers to provide equitable and effective teaching from day one.
The research uses simulations that are administered through a mixed-reality platform which features a virtual classroom with student avatars, paired with live coaching and feedback from the research team. Each avatar is controlled by professional actors that are trained by the researchers in realistic classroom interactions.
A blended approach
Acknowledging the value of face-to-face classroom training with a teacher mentor, Cohen says the research focuses on aspects of teacher training that can be supplemented and strengthened, rather than replaced.
‘I fully think that there’s some things that can’t be automated – but lots of things can be. And so we’re trying to identify those things and starting to build those automated simulations,’ she tells Teacher. ‘We’ve tried to really focus the practice and the simulations on things that candidates might not get the chance to lead in student teacher placements.’
For example, participant feedback indicated that one of the key experiences pre-service teachers felt unready for was preparing to meet with parents.
‘I always ask [pre-service teachers] “what are you most excited about?” and “what are you most nervous about?” …Across the board, they are nervous about parents… no one is really going to give a teacher in training the chance to lead a conference with a parent, because it’s an infrequent interaction they have a couple of times a year. They’re very high stakes,’ Cohen says, ‘So that’s a perfect kind of target for something to simulate.’
She explains that blending feedback from study participants with empirical evidence on pre-service teacher preparation was a key consideration in designing training content.
‘There’s a very interesting difference between what they feel they need and what they empirically need. There’s the question of what works across grade levels, what works across content areas. And so, in our American standards, there’s this real focus on texts… so we developed a scenario that’s really focused on helping kids make arguments with texts. Pushing kids to engage with the texts, not just their opinions, but more generally about a topic.’
The importance of practise and feedback
Cohen says not only do simulations provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to engage with content they normally wouldn’t be able to, they also allow practise of the same content again and again, and to receive immediate, targeted coaching and feedback along the way.
‘I’ve been a classroom teacher and by the end of the day you can’t remember what you did at 9:30 in the morning, right? So our model is around immediacy. So you get the coaching, and you do it again, and then you get the coaching, and you do it again,’ she explains. ‘There’s lots of evidence about coaching in real classrooms, too. And I think we’re not doing enough of it; we’re not giving beginning teachers that kind of feedback, and I think they need it immediately.’
Interestingly, the study found that having the chance to practise challenging classroom scenarios and to receive direct coaching and feedback can also equip teachers with the tools necessary to fight burn-out and attrition commonly associated with on-the-job training.
‘If you don’t have the tools you need to be effective in your classroom, it’s going to be tiring to be in the classroom… the teachers who are just self-reflecting and who aren’t getting coaching, they’re putting the onus on the kids – one, the problem is the kids, it’s not the teaching.
‘To say the kid should be suspended, to send them to the principal… that suggests to us that they don’t feel empowered, that they don’t feel like they can do things to help. And to me that’s… nothing’s going to make you feel more burnt out than that.
‘So to us, that is a really important finding. We need to give teachers the tools so they can feel like they can do the work. If we’re not doing that, then we’re failing them.’
Where to from here?
This emerging technology in teacher education is already an established training tool in other fields, like medicine, aviation and military. So, will simulations become a fixture in pre-service teacher training?
‘I hope so,’ Cohen says. ‘I think other fields have more resources than we do, so I’m mindful of that… I can imagine a world in which teachers at all levels have those kinds of systems where they can practise things and get feedback.’
The research team is now working towards creating a suite of simulations focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as studying the impact of feedback for teachers, the significance of mindfulness interventions for teacher wellbeing, and mentor-focused training.
‘We could have a whole suite of simulations for practicing teachers too, and that’s something I’m working on right now. So they’re going to need different things. They have different kinds of knowledge and schema and background than pre-service teachers have, but they need practise, and they need feedback too,’ says Cohen.
‘In America at least, the research is showing that mentor teachers are just a hugely important part of this ecosystem, and we haven’t paid enough attention to them… And so for me, I really want to move the needle in teacher education and I don’t think we can do that without our mentors.’
References and related reading
Cohen, J. & Wong, V. (2021, November 17). Using classroom simulators to transform teacher preparation. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/11/17/using-classroom-simulators-to-transform-teacher-preparation/
Cohen, J., Wong, V., Krishnamachari, A. & Berlin, R. (2020). Teacher coaching in a simulated environment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(2), 208-231. https://doi.org/10.3102%2F0162373720906217
Thinking about your own school, how do you support pre-service teachers in the classroom? Have you asked them what they are most nervous about?
As a principal – do you have a mentor program for teachers at your school? Do teachers have opportunities to engage with supports, feedback and coaching even past the pre-service period?