Getting our teachers to teach

Louis van der Merwe says that what matters most in the ecology of learning is expanding the competency of teachers

Teachers and Schools that Learn

Developing competent South African teachers at scale

As long as we assume that the purpose of a school is to ensure that the knowledge in the minds of teachers is ‘banked’ in the minds of the school children we are “eating our children”. Moving towards a more robust model for teaching and schools themselves is critical.

As we look into the future it is predetermined that we will meet those children there that have come through the current schooling system. They will have in their minds and hearts whatever they have learnt in our schooling system. We know now when they will be working, voting and governing based upon what they learnt while in this critical development process. Besides the health of family systems, there can be nothing more important for sustaining the future competitiveness of our country than the quality of our education system.

In schools where teachers, pupils and the schools themselves learn, all the key stakeholders need to work together to enable and optimise the learning process amongst teachers and children in a particular school. Parents, teachers, educators, administrators, elders of the community, local businesspeople and unions have to work together to achieve a common purpose.

When any one of these key stakeholders adopts a narrow, short-term view to serve their particular interests they will probably sub-optimise their school’s learning system as a whole. See link to schools that learn – here (PDF). The most important role of all these stakeholders is to create, together, the enabling conditions for optimising the learning process in their schools. The premise underpinning learning as that the ultimate competitive advantage is to learn faster than the competition. Good teachers enable this. Singapore has shown this is as true at national level as it is at organisational level.

The assumption that good teaching is inborn and cannot be developed, is mistaken. The real question should be; what are the consequences of inappropriate or unskilful teaching? Any teacher that discourages children from developing an inquiring mind or sets limits to a child’s aspirations is one too many.  

What matters most in this ecology of learning is expanding the competency of teachers. Here competencies include knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the teacher. Schools often neglect their most important students, the teachers themselves.

Fortunately this can be addressed. Focusing first on developing the essential competencies that are required for good teaching, as outlined below, will provide immediate practical results. Formal academic credentials often provides a basis for assessing the relative worth of teachers. Competency-based selection assesses what a teacher’s practical capability is notwithstanding academic credentials, including valuable practical experience gained by association with great teaching. A competency-based approach also enables teachers to take responsibility for actively planning and managing their own professional development. 

The epistemology of the word ‘educate’ literally means ‘to lead out’ from the Latin ‘ducare’ to lead and ‘educare’ to lead out. In the context of learning a process of leading out learning from within the student represents best practice for good teaching. The average teacher commonly assumes the task of teaching is to transfer their knowledge into the minds of the children in their class. This mode of learning can and must be improved.

Raising the quality of the teaching process itself, is the point of greatest leverage for improving the overall quality of education. Enabling greater learning in a system of schools that learn, will take back the current bleak future for our children wallowing in sub-optimal schooling systems.

Education has a history of lurching from one miracle solution to another. Around the world few teachers are well enough prepared before being let loose on children. This is especially true for emergent economies. John Hattle of The University of Melbourne found from an extensive study of 65,000 papers on learning amongst 250 million students that what parents mostly concern themselves with, issues such as class sizes, uniforms, and streaming by ability, make little or no difference to whether children learn or not. What matters most is what he calls ‘teacher’s expertise’. He found that what matters most is what teachers do in the classroom.

Rob Coe of Durham University in England documented what makes for great teaching. He insists that teachers must impart knowledge and also critical thinking skills. He goes on to identify, amongst other aspects, as the most important; ‘a blend of subject knowledge and teaching craft’. The Education Endowment Foundation ranks the best return on investment in the learning process between teachers and pupils as firstly; feedback to pupils on a one on one basis, then helping pupils think explicitly about their own learning, then peer tutoring amongst teachers, followed by collaborative group learning. Only after these relatively inexpensive, high return investments are made should the expense of reducing class size come into play.

Charles Chew is one of Singapore’s “principal master teachers” an elite group that guides schools in Singapore. Widespread, effective education was one of founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s priorities for transforming Singapore into the globally competitive superstar it now is. Note that Singapore started its transformation in 1965 as a British colonial trading post and is only now a thriving Asian metropolis with the number one airline, best airport, busiest port of trade and also the fourth highest per capita real income. Note also the priorities in its economic development strategy from 1965 to 2015.

Teachers like Chew, ask probing questions of all students. In another recent report on the education craft, David Reynolds compares math teaching in Nanjing and Southampton. He found that that in China “whole class interaction” was used 72% of the time while only 24% of the time in England.

James Stigler of UCLA found that in Japan teachers asked “why” and “how” questions in preference to “what” questions which are more commonly used in the US schools. These findings point towards teachers that are able to keep students engaged, interested and reflecting on their learning thus enhancing their learning experience and creating a yearning for more knowledge. 

We as a society are about to be challenged and will be disrupted by the advent of what the World Economic Forum (WEF) has named ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. This revolution is driven by amongst other drivers, massive digital transformation of society, in ways beyond what we can yet imagine. The WEF warns that it will require new knowledge and skills from our school leavers. It will change the nature of work and eliminate many kinds of work. It will also change fundamentally the nature of class room learning. This digital era can and must be turned to advantage to develop good teachers at scale. Our children must be in the hands of competent teachers so that they may face The Fourth Industrial Revolution with confidence.

James Myburgh, editor of Politicsweb provides a useful description of how Germany raised its national football capability through a system of local academies, talent spotting and the availability of world class mentoring for all talented players. The successful strategy Myburgh describes created a national ecology based on the conditions where local talent would inevitably surface and be developed. The national winning team consisted almost entirely of locally developed, world class talent, as Germany once more moved up to the top of the world football rankings.

Perhaps lessons from raising the national standard of football in Germany can be applied to raising the standard of teachers in South Africa? Developing home-grown, competent teachers at scale within schools that learn within a national ecology that support this. This can be done for the teaching profession through a combination of mentoring by great teachers and reinforcement and development of essential competencies by locally available academies placed across the country in strategic locations.

Some of this work is currently being done on ad hoc, voluntary basis by committed, professional educators. This support needs to be planned, funded and aggregated in order to be available to all teachers and schools. The future competitive capability of South Africa and with that wealth creation and elimination of poverty depends upon it.

Louis van der Merwe is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty @systemsetc. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica