Teachers Can Transform Education if We Reinvent Professional Learning
By Thom Markham
When I propose that it’s possible for teachers to transform education, usually I get pushback like this: “Teachers aren’t known as change agents; they complain but remain compliant even while disrespecting the system in which they work; they’re trained in instruction, not activism; inevitably, they will defend and deflect rather than change and innovate.”
The blue-collar aspect of education reinforces this meme: Teachers work the trenches; Administrators supervise; Superintendents are the top brass. The structure encourages stasis, and the most vocal advocates for transformation come usually from those on the fringes—the consultants, commentators, and conference keynoters. Regardless, there’s a shared mindset. The system of schooling must change first. Once transformed, teachers will be free to do the work necessary in 21st Century schools.
I won’t engage in the ‘chicken or egg’ argument. The ‘system’ viewpoint makes sense. Also, I agree with the critics of teachers. While parents vote with their feet and head for charters or home schools, non-traditional pathways flourish, and career preparation no longer automatically includes a college degree—all early warning signs of institutional decay—most teachers remain loyal to the system. They do so, I believe, out of good motives. They care deeply about children and see traditional pathways as the best way to care.
But I’m also convinced, after working with thousands of teachers at over 400 schools worldwide, that a fresh wind is blowing—and there are at least three global forces at work which will produce a Cat 5 hurricane.
First, as schools adjust to the seismic shifts in society at large, increasingly teachers must demonstrate skills in inquiry, project-based learning, design thinking and supporting personalized learning through coaching and mentoring. This is highly disruptive to the system. Lack of professional opportunities to develop this complex skill set is leading to frustration and an exodus is building. But the real culprit is a system in which the necessary creative effort and insight to drive these modern methodologies can’t thrive. And burnout has its limits—at some point it turns to anger.
Second, the global conversation about the inadequacies and failures of the present system is uniform among all teachers, everywhere. They know the deficiencies. They agree that radical change is mandatory, and their conversation ranges far ahead of their superiors. They are all potential activists.
Third, they have reached consensus on the solution: More ‘soft’ skills; more engaging, active inquiry and problem solving; more attention to well-being and social emotional strengths; more depth and (far) fewer standards. They have figured out the future.
Where will this emergent movement take us? The evidence may be thin, somewhat anecdotal, but here is what I see: At some point, the conversation will go viral. Like other networked, crowd sourced actions in our dynamic, unsettled world, change now comes from the bottom up. Education will be no different.
I believe that those at the top who preach school transformation would do well to support this uprising by taking a critical step: Start a professional development revolution. Train teachers for the future, not the past. Support a new generation of educational changemakers.
We’ve spent a great deal of effort in the past decade redefining the role, skills and modes of learning of students. Let’s do the same for teachers, who have essentially been left untouched by this discussion. Following are a few ideas, in rough order (because they are connected concepts):
Identify the skills critical to the complex work of today’s teachers
More to the point: Stop the ‘guide on the side’ platitudes and establish and train for the skill set of a 21st Century teacher. In my work, I see at least five roles: Practitioner; Facilitator; Coach; Mentor; and Changemaker. Each role carries with it 5 – 7 core responsibilities and identifiable subskills. Excellent preparation can’t coexist with the pretense that teachers still ‘teach’ in the traditional sense or the belief that simply sitting alongside a student will do the job.
Think ecosystems, not workshops
The workshop model, aided and abetted by Power Point, is dead. In a complex, demanding environment, competency is a journey of growth fueled by resources, sharing, collaboration, experience, election, persistence, flexibility, failure, and breakthrough. Create healthy ecosystems in which growth can’t help but occur.
Link teachers to digital training resources
When seeking knowledge, it’s reported that 80 percent of young people go to You Tube first. Not so with educators. So, the mantra: Get thee online. I believe we can offload most workshop content to digital. Like the rest of the world, use the Internet to gain core knowledge, see best practices in action, share exemplars and successes, and collaborate. Will this be enough? No, see next bullet.
Coach and Co-Learn
Research and practice confirm that complex skills mastery is most effective when there is rich interplay between digital experience and in person, face-to-face professional development. In other words, we need to accept online courses as a core model for learning and communal inspiration while offering avenues for practice and feedback and remembering that the heart of the experience happens in real life. Replacing workshops with small group coaching is a great step forward. Next step: Train a corps of teacher-leaders to assist and lead.
Share global practices
The global education crisis shares the same space as the critical issues of climate change, inequality and unbridled nationalism. All require a unified global effort. Let go of the fragmented, patchwork, school by school training that encourages isolation, duplication, and insularity. Rather, connect teachers worldwide. Foster the global conversation. Share practices. Develop strength in numbers.
Accept a disturbing fact: We can’t ‘train’ a future-ready teacher
A teacher once told me a story of her Principal: As he walked by three classrooms in the hallway, each with the door open, he expected to hear teachers speaking the same sentence in all three classrooms—the first teacher beginning the sentence, the second in the middle, and, at the last classroom door, the third teacher completing the sentence. That’s extreme but emblematic of the outmoded belief that training a teacher in inquiry and PBL is no different than training them to follow a pacing guide and deliver a scripted lesson. It’s a new world. Competency in today’s world relies on reflection, adjustment, and a personal commitment to self-paced growth and accumulating lifelong knowledge. Under this weight, our training systems will fail, as well as our teacher evaluation systems (ask a Principal how they evaluate a PBL teacher!).
By far, this is the steepest challenge. Reinventing professional learning depends on our willingness to foster internal regulation, openness to problem solving, and self-awareness. But, come to think of it, isn’t that we’re asking of students now?
About the author
A leading PBL pioneer, psychologist, and founder of PBL Global, for over 25 years Thom has focused on his life mission: To share high quality PBL methods with educators and mobilize youth globally to become design thinkers, insightful citizens, and empathetic collaborators focused on the common good and sustainable development goals. His goal now is to prepare the teaching force worldwide to be ‘future ready’ through redesigning professional learning for the digital age. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @thommarkham.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.