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Learning After You Know It All

March 31, 2011

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

– UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden

First day of the International Summit.

The recent tone of the conversation about public education in the United States has been contentious.  Everyone seems to be an expert with answers to all the questions about how we adequately prepare our students for an increasingly complex world.  Taking time to listen to others from different backgrounds with different perspectives seems to be an after-thought for many.  So, it was quite remarkable to attend the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York City where a global collection of ministers of education, labor organization representatives, and teachers sat side-by-side to listen, discuss, and learn. This was the first time such a summit had been held in the United States.  Delegations from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, The People’s Republic of China, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Slovenia, and United Kingdom joined our home-grown delegation to explore four main topics: Teacher Recruitment and Preparation; Development, Support and Retention of Teachers, Teacher Evaluation and Compensation; and Teacher Engagement in Education.

The summit was organized and hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Education International (EI), the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Council of Chief State School Offices (CCSSO), Asia Society and WNET.

I was struck by the common themes that permeated the two days of meetings: autonomy, responsibility, trust, collaboration, and investment.  However, it was also a stark reminder of how much work still must be done in the United States to create, implement, and support policies that value educators as professionals, promote quality teaching, and emphasize the importance of instructional leadership.

On the first day of the summit, the minister from Finland started her country’s presentation by stating: “We are very proud of our teachers.”  She described the close cooperation between Finnish teachers and government officials built on trust and a common commitment to excellence.  There is the understanding that collective collaboration is far more powerful than collective confrontation to address education issues.  Teachers are treated as experts and professionals, and are provided adequate time and opportunities to collaborate, analyze student progress through authentic assessments, and work with instructional coaches and mentors.  Not surprisingly, Finland also invests heavily in teacher preparation and continuing professional development.

This same attitude about the teaching profession was echoed by other countries in attendance.  Many representatives discussed the significant emphasis placed not only on recruiting talented people to be teachers, but continuing to build and support that talent.  They focused on the importance of providing teachers with the opportunity to be both consumers of research and active researchers in their classrooms.  They also emphasized teacher leadership; giving teachers a pathway to be a leader, mentor, or coach without having to leave the classroom completely for an administrative or policy position.  This is a dual role – having the opportunity to both teach and make systemic changes – that is relatively rare in our traditional education system.

I often think of a dynamic classroom as a microcosm for what policy and its implementation can and should look like.  The teacher works backwards by first identifying the learning outcomes and then creating opportunities that prompt students to collaborate, innovate, inquire, and think critically.  Hierarchies are torn down, with both the teacher and student modeling and learning.  Students are encouraged to take calculated risks by teachers who recognize that learning is a process.  There are clear standards and high expectations; but students are also supported and given the necessary time and resources to build their capacity.  A skilled teacher anticipates possible difficulties confronting students and designs assessments, both formative and summative, that will align with the learning objectives.  It is not a top-down model, but rather an environment in which each student feels a sense of ownership, responsibility, and accountability.  That is why policy decisions must include the teacher’s voice.  Always on the frontline, teachers are an invaluable resource to identify complications and address obstacles.  Policies must provide teachers with the opportunity to participate, collaborate, strengthen their skill sets, and be professionals.

Many important ideas were shared, and many questions were asked, at the Summit.  The challenge is now to transform the rhetoric into meaningful and effective policy that will work at the classroom level.  As Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at the Stanford University School of Education and one of the rapporteaurs at the Summit, wrote in a March 23 Washington Post Op-Ed., effective learning begins with effective teaching.  To improve our education system so all students are provided with quality learning opportunities, a strong commitment must be made to train and support teachers both before and after they enter the classroom.

As we define, develop, and discuss policies for the teaching profession, it is imperative that teachers have an authentic and leading voice in the conversation.  Even if we think we know it all, more can be learned from that voice of knowledge and experience.  And, that knowledge and experience will help us implement lasting systems that support teachers, develop effective instructional leaders, and create relevant assessments that accurately reflect the same skills and dispositions we promote in our students.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    March 31, 2011 8:41 am

    Glad you participated in the summit; appreciate the report through your lens. As teachers, we know we need to treat our students as though they are what we hope they will become, even if not all do so (we are A factor, not all factors). As an English educator helping to prepare teachers, and an MA program and coordinator and Writing Project director, one concern is how to translate this same stance into my work, and urge colleagues to do so. Too few preparation programs treat preparing teachers as the professionals we need them to become, instead treating them as future scripted clinicians. And veteran teachers know how they are commonly treated on all fronts. What a gap we must overcome to see teachers in the United States justly esteemed as their colleagues elsewhere seem to be! JSD

  2. Lee Barrios permalink
    March 31, 2011 8:46 am

    I am constantly reminded by teachers, like you, that “the classroom is a microcosm for what policy and its implementation can and should look like.”

    The structure, content and process (of the classroom system), when properly conducted, should be a model for the bigger systems of oversight (school administration, school boards, central offices, State and U.S. Departments of Education) that are organized to SUPPORT and ASSIST in IMPLEMENTING those classroom activities. Could it be that the greatest factor fueling the destructive flames of our current reform agenda has been the exacerbation of the theory that education should be run like a business which is typically a top-down, policy-making, hierarchical construction where oftentimes “the boss” has never put his hands on the product, much less created one.

    How much simpler and more cost effective could it be if our support systems were structured and focused on recruiting talented people to be teachers and to continue to build and support that team of talent. If I were allowed only one sentence to explain and justify my vision for producing an effective education system it would be this: Learning takes place IN THE CLASSROOM. That’s why everyone seems to agree that the most important factor on the quality of a child’s education depends on the quality of the teacher. Teachers and doctors and artists aren’t born, they’re made. The potentialities vary just as the potentialities in our students vary. It’s up to us to identify the strengths and weaknesses in our teaching pool just as we do with our students. We should not be focusing on developing systems that test, grade and fail our teachers so that we can get rid of them anymore than we should be focused on testing, grading and failing our students in order to cull out those that are in the most need of being educated. That certainly doesn’t fit the business model – you don’t sell diet products to skinny people.

    I believe that when this latest fad for education reform has run its course that the teacher-led model for policy and school administration will have surfaced because teaching is the essence of education. The one element that CANNOT be eliminated in this vastly complicated hierarchical system of education that the corporate model seems intent on creating is – the teacher.

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