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Elevating the teaching profession

Elevating the teaching profession

We live in a world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there is no automaticity it will do so in the future. Students growing up with a great smartphone but a poor education will face unprecedented risks.

When we could still assume that what we learn in school will last for a lifetime, teaching content knowledge and routine cognitive skills was rightly at the centre of education. Today, the world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know. If all we do is teach our children what we know, they may remember enough to follow in our footsteps. But it is only if we help to build a reliable compass that they will be able to go anywhere and find their way through this increasingly complex, volatile and ambiguous world. The challenge is to shift in instruction from knowledge transmission to knowledge co-creation, from receiving abstractions in textbooks to learning by experimenting, from summative evaluation to formative monitoring.

Of course, all this is much easier to say than to do, and the road of educational reform is littered with good ideas that were poorly implemented. The laws, regulations, structures and institutions on which educational reform tends to focus are just like the small visible tip of a huge iceberg. The reason why it is so hard to move school systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline. This invisible part is about the beliefs, capacities, motivations and fears of the people who are involved in education.

This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part of the education system tends to evade the radar screen of public policy. That is why educational leaders are rarely successful with reform unless they build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change, and unless they build capacity and create the right policy climate, with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation rather than compliance.

What we expect of our teachers

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), and knowledge about professional practice so they can create the kind of learning environment that leads to good learning outcomes. It also involves enquiry and research skills that allow them to be lifelong learners and grow in their profession. Students are unlikely to become lifelong learners if they don't see their teachers as lifelong learners.

But we expect much more from our teachers than what appears in their job description. Most people remember at least one of their teachers who took a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helped them understand who they are and discover their passions; and who taught them how to love learning.

We expect teachers 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. And we expect teachers themselves to collaborate and work in teams, and with other schools and parents, to set common goals, and plan and monitor the attainment of those goals.

There are aspects that make the job of teachers much more challenging and different from that of other professionals. Teachers need to be experts at multitasking as they respond to many different learner needs all at the same time. They also do their job in a classroom dynamic that is always unpredictable and that leaves teachers no second to think about how to react. Whatever a teacher does, even with just a single student, will be witnessed by all classmates and can frame the way in which the teacher is perceived in the school from that day forward.

Self-efficacy and professional autonomy

The most important point of leverage for change in education is changing teacher beliefs. This often requires transforming a fear of failure to a willingness to try. Teachers with a very high or very low sense of self-efficacy may be less likely to use the new skills they have learned, while those with moderate confidence in their own ability might be the most likely to do so. Self-efficacy, in turn, is related to the ways in which teachers' work is organised. OECD's TALIS (the Teaching and Learning International Survey) shows that when teachers teach a class jointly, when they regularly observe other teachers' classrooms and where they take part in collaborative professional development, they are more satisfied with their careers and they feel more effective in their teaching.

Teachers who work with a high degree of professional autonomy and in a collaborative culture – characterised by high levels of both cooperation and instructional leadership – reported in TALIS that they participate more in in-school professional development activities and that those activities have a greater impact on their teaching.

In contrast, in some countries, educators consider teaching to be entirely in the purview of the individual teacher in the sanctuary of his or her classroom; but that often leads to a profession without an accepted practice. The challenge is moving from a system where every teacher chooses his or her own approach towards one where teachers choose from practices agreed by the profession as effective.

We should not take freedom as an argument to be idiosyncratic. What seems most important in this context is that professionalism and professional autonomy do not mean that teachers do what they think or feel is right in a given situation, but rather that they do what they know is right based on their deep understanding of professional practice. If a pilot would announce to his passengers he was taught to land against the wind but, this time, they would want to try to land with the wind, the passengers would start to feel rather anxious.

Of course, it is not easy for school leaders to balance the fact that teachers may feel that landing with the wind is a good idea, on the one hand, and promoting their autonomy and ownership over the profession, on the other. Because so many areas of teaching do not yet have clear standards of practice, teachers may infer that there should be complete autonomy in all areas, even in those where the evidence base is well established. So when there is not common agreement on professional practice, teachers may feel disempowered when leaders steer them towards selected evidence.

That is why the heart of great teaching is ownership. Successful education systems in the 21st century will do whatever it takes to develop ownership of professional practice by the teaching profession. I meet many people who say we cannot give teachers and education leaders greater autonomy because they lack the capacity and expertise to deliver on it. There may be some truth in that. But simply perpetuating a prescriptive model of teaching will not produce creative teachers.

By contrast, when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when productive teaching takes place. So the answer is to strengthen trust, transparency, professional autonomy and the collaborative culture of the profession all at the same time.

Teacher-led professional standards

When teachers assume ownership, it is difficult to ask more of them than they ask of themselves. In 2011, I studied how the Netherlands' Ministry of Education was developing teacher-led professional standards. Initially, there were concerns in the government that leaving this to the profession could sacrifice the necessary rigour and result in a set of professional standards based on the lowest common denominator. But the opposite happened.

Then-State Secretary for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Sander Dekker, told me later that no government in the Netherlands would have ever been able to impose such demanding standards for the profession as the profession itself had developed. The same holds in other professions: think of barriers to entry in the medical profession or in law. Sometimes professionalism and professional pride seem far better regulators than governments.

I learned many things from this experience. First of all, involving teachers in the development of professional standards is a great way to build professional knowledge. Indeed, for teaching standards to be relevant and owned by the profession, it is essential that teachers play a lead role in designing them. Similarly, it is essential that teachers participate in designing methods for teacher appraisal if the appraisal system is to be effective. Inviting teachers to participate is a way of recognising their professionalism, the importance of their skills and experience, and the extent of their responsibilities.

Teachers will also be more open to being appraised if they are consulted in the process. Thus designers of appraisal systems need to work with teachers' professional organisations and outstanding teachers from across the system. In the end, teachers, like other professionals, have a genuine interest in safeguarding the standards and reputation of their profession.

Ownership of the profession

But most important, teachers must assume ownership of the profession because of the pace of change in 21st century school systems. Even the most urgent efforts to translate a government-established curriculum into classroom practice typically drag out over a decade because it takes so much time to communicate the goals and methods through the different layers of the system, and to build them into teacher-education programmes. When what and how students learn changes so rapidly, this slow implementation process leads to a widening gap between what students need to learn, and what and how teachers teach.

The only way to shorten that timeframe is to professionalise teaching, ensuring that teachers have a deep understanding not only of the curriculum as a product, but of the process of designing a curriculum and the pedagogies that will best communicate the ideas behind the curriculum.

Schools face a tough challenge in responding to what will be valuable for young people in the future. Subject matter content will be less and less the core and more and more the context of good teaching. Many of today's curricula are designed to equip learners for a static world that no longer exists. Those types of curricula could be delivered with an industrial approach in hierarchical bureaucracies; they do not require teachers to have advanced professional insights into instructional design. But that is no longer good enough. Curricula now need to account for fast-moving flows of knowledge creation.

Moving forward

Paradoxically, the highly standardised industrial work organisation of teaching has often left teachers alone in the classroom. Zero per cent school autonomy has meant 100 per cent teacher isolation behind closed classroom doors.

As the prescriptive approach weakens, the position of the classroom practitioners needs strengthening. While governments can establish directions and curriculum goals, the teaching profession needs to take charge of the instructional system, and governments need to find ways to enable and support professionalism.

Finding out which pedagogical approaches work best in which contexts takes time, an investment in research, and collaboration so that good ideas spread and are scaled into the profession. Achieving that will require a major shift from an industrial work organisation to a truly professional work organisation for teachers and school leaders, in which professional norms of control replace bureaucratic and administrative forms of control.

In turn, more professional discretion accorded to teachers will allow them greater latitude in developing student creativity and critical thinking skills that are central to success in the 21st century, and that are much harder to develop in highly prescriptive learning environments. Supporting such a shift is what we should expect from 21st century education policy.

These ideas are further explored in Andreas Schleicher's new book World Class – how to build a 21st century school system, available to download free at

Andreas Schleicher says TALIS data show when teachers teach a class jointly, regularly observe other teachers’ classrooms and take part in collaborative professional development, they are more satisfied with their careers and they feel more effective in their teaching. As a school leader, are you providing opportunities for teachers to participate in this kind of collaboration?

He adds there are certain things that make the job of teachers much more challenging than other professions. What are some of the greatest challenges you face in your role as an educator? In your view, how could these challenges be overcome?

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