Classroom simulators to support teacher training

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. Could technology be part of the solution?

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 such as teaching placements with a curriculum of digitally mediated simulations.

Lead researcher on the project, 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.’

Blending feedback from study participants with empirical evidence on pre-service teacher preparation was a key consideration in designing training content.

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.

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. Cohen says there could also be a suite of simulations designed specifically for practicing teachers.

References and related reading

Cohen, J. & Wong, V. (2021, November 17). Using classroom simulators to transform teacher preparation. Brookings.

Cohen, J., Wong, V., Krishnamachari, A. & Berlin, R. (2020). Teacher coaching in a simulated environment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(2), 208-231.

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 school leader, do teachers have opportunities to engage with supports, feedback and coaching even past the pre-service period?