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How to Teach for Deeper Learning? An International Survey Provides Insights

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This post is by Dion Burns, a research analyst at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), and Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education at Stanford University and the director of SCOPE.

The skills students need from schooling today are dramatically different from those needed in the past. And while much is known about these deeper learning skills, less is understood about how schools and teachers can be supported to provide them. The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) study, released last year, provides some fruitful insights.

In 2003, research by David Autor, Frank Levy, and Richard Murnane showed the precipitous decline in the demand for routine cognitive and manual skills in the modern workplace, matched only by the even greater rise in the need for critical thinking and communicative skills (see graph, below). As is now often said in the education policy world, children entering school today will graduate to work in jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented, to solve problems that we don't yet even realize are problems.

Murnane-Levy.jpg 

How we prepare students for the future workplace has led to the development of several educational frameworks that capture these skills. They include the Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework and the Innovation Lab Network Framework for College, Career, and Citizenship Readiness. These frameworks tend to emphasize learning and innovation skills, including the "4Cs" of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

But deeper learning requires a shift not just in what is taught, but how it is taught.  Students need opportunities to work collaboratively in groups on extended projects that require them to plan and conduct inquiries and to incorporate the use of information and communications technologies in projects and class work.

So how can education systems help teachers engage in practices and behaviors that promote deeper learning? The Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) provides some clues. The study, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD), surveyed over 100,000 teachers and principals from 34 countries regarding their teaching and the conditions in which they work. The findings show that opportunities to share and learn from colleagues can help create the conditions for the innovative and effective teaching that provides the deeper learning today's students need. Among the key findings:

1)      Although teachers generally agree with the goals of deeper learning, instructional practices that foster these skills are relatively rare: Across TALIS countries, more than 94 percent of teachers agreed that their role was to facilitate students' own inquiry and 84 percent agreed that thinking and reasoning processes were more important than specific curriculum content. Yet less than half of all teachers indicated they frequently used small group discussions in their classes. These proportions were even smaller for the use of information and communications technology in class work (37 percent), and for extended projects of at least a week in length (27 percent).

2)      Collaborative teacher professional learning supports instructional practices that promote  deeper learning for students: In many countries, teachers were more likely to incorporate these "active" teaching practices--those that require students to be more engaged in the learning process--when they had participated in a teacher professional development network, individual or collaborative research, or mentoring and peer observation. This underscores the importance of ongoing professional development that is grounded in teachers' day-to-day work in the classroom and connected to school-wide goals.

3)      Collaborative professional learning also fosters a positive school climate and ongoing teacher learning: TALIS shows that teachers were more likely to use joint teaching, observe and give feedback on a colleague's class, and engage in joint activities across classes when they had participated in professional learning activities with colleagues. Mentoring and coaching from peers was shown to be especially important, related to greater teacher collaboration in 33 of the 34 countries surveyed. Thus collaborative forms of professional learning appear to be particularly effective in supporting ongoing collaboration and opportunities for teachers to learn from their peers and a more positive school climate. This can create a snowball effect in terms of spreading more ambitious classroom practices.

4)      Time and Resources matter: Despite this compelling evidence, there is great variation around the world in the opportunities teachers have for collaboration. For example, more than 50 percent of U.S. teachers surveyed indicated that in their current school they never participate in team teaching or observe another teacher's class. One of the major impediments for the kind of collaboration that fosters deeper learning for students is lack of time. Around half of all teachers surveyed indicated that their work schedule was a barrier to participation in professional development. This may not come as a surprise to U.S. educators. Teachers in the United States were found to have among the highest number of teaching hours of their OECD counterparts (27 per week vs. the TALIS average of 19).

Time is not the only resource that matters. Funding and instructional materials are critical as well. For example, funding for substitute teachers can provide classroom teachers with the time to participate in professional learning. Yet many schools already face resource crunches. TALIS data indicate that 1 in 3 U.S. teachers work in a school in which a shortage of teachers or computers is hindering the provision of quality instruction; around 1 in 4 work in a school facing a shortage of instructional materials. And schools with many students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds face even greater shortages.

Other OECD data show that the high-performing education systems invest in teaching quality; for example, by providing a balance between teaching and non-instructional hours, structured time for teacher collaboration, and funding to support structured induction and mentorship opportunities.

Teachers, like other professionals, need opportunities to continually adapt and innovate their practices, to learn about new curricular resources, technologies, and strategies to engage students. To meet those needs, they require opportunities to work in close partnership, share resources, and exchange ideas with colleagues. 

Education systems can support this work by valuing teacher professionalism, and through adequate and equitable investments in teaching quality. By doing so, they can enhance the possibilities that teachers will learn the sophisticated practices required for deeper learning, and students will have opportunities to develop the skills needed in the modern workplace.

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