Learning is for life, not just for your early career

16th January 2009 at 00:00

In Singapore, teachers are entitled to 100 hours' in-service training each year. In Chicago, collaboration between the university and schools allows provisionally certified Latino teachers to earn teaching credentials while giving in-class support to English language learners. Melbourne University has introduced a two-year master of teaching programme to develop teachers with high-level capabilities. In Japan, there is an in-service scheme whereby groups of teachers design, teach and improve lessons by observing each other and taking careful notes to produce "shareable knowledge".

All across the world, dynamic attempts to produce a new vision for 21st-century teaching are under way.

Now, nine of the world's leading institutes of education - including London's - have formed the International Alliance of Leading Education Institutes, to shape the extraordinary transformation of education we are living through. Our first report, Transforming Teacher Education - of which I drafted the UK components - is a unique document: written across four continents, it draws together the best knowledge on teaching and teacher education, demonstrating that old models for training teachers won't do. The way we train, develop and support teachers needs to change radically.

The report focuses on one fundamental challenge. Almost everyone recognises that the quality of education is central to national success, but globalisation and the information technology revolution pose hard questions. What is the job of teachers in a world where unimaginable amounts of information are available to anyone in Singapore, Sydney or Southampton at the click of a mouse? How do we train and develop teachers when knowledge and its transmission are changing at such dizzying speed? Given the pace and radical nature of change, how can we provide new teachers with the basis for lifelong learning?

The needs of learners are becoming vastly more complex and differentiated as a result of huge population movements and great changes in the role of families and the lives of children. The international alliance shows that these questions underlie a vast transformation of teaching across the globe.

Improving teaching quality is an international priority, but it demands significant change in the way we prepare and support teachers. We must stop thinking of teacher training as something that happens at the beginning of a career and focuses simply on the survival skills and knowledge needed by new teachers. Instead, we need to see teacher training as the first step in a non-stop process. We need to be much clearer about the specialised knowledge and skills teachers need to build over time. We need to plan sophisticated programmes that pull together pedagogy, subject knowledge, classroom skills, understanding of children's complex cultural inheritances and of school improvement.

Teachers of the 21st century need the knowledge and skills to be active interventionists with other professionals in shaping teaching and removing barriers to learning. Universities and schools need to establish powerful partnerships that help teachers to structure "empowering learning environments", to guide learners and to work with others inside and outside schools to ensure that education remains relevant. It is no longer an option to close the classroom door on the world outside.

This is a huge change. Until recently, we believed that learning to teach was an apprenticeship that could be topped up through occasional courses. But our report is clear that this is no longer viable, whether in London, Ontario or Beijing.

We envisage for teaching the revolution that medical training went through after the Second World War: a move to evidence-based instruction, greater responsiveness to practitioners, sustained attempts to develop schools as learning places for teachers. It's a huge, exciting agenda: the worldwide transformation of teaching around giving teachers the intellectual and personal resources to build excellence, equity and social justice.

There are lessons for England in the report. We can learn from Melbourne about the importance of stable relationships in schools geared to support teacher learning; from Singapore about the importance of long-term support for teacher learning; from Canada and Australia about the need to clarify what knowledge base teachers need. We can learn, too, about the challenges: in the United States, 91 per cent of teachers are white and nearly half speak only English, but about a third of pupils belong to minority groups. Many countries are struggling with recruitment, particularly in shortage subjects such as science, maths, languages and special education. The demand for a more culturally representative teaching force needs more inventive strategies.

Perhaps this seems a long way from the realities of teaching on a wet winter afternoon. But what our report - the first of an annual series - shows is that the challenges of building a teaching profession fit for the 21st century are not confined to this country. The reshaping of teaching is a worldwide phenomenon - and we're all part of it.

Find the report at www.intlalliance.orgreports.html

Chris Husbands, Professor of education and dean of faculty at the Institute of Education, London University.

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