'Want to improve education? Give teachers professional freedom'

Teachers need more autonomy in today's fast-changing world, writes one of the world’s most influential educationists

Andreas Schleicher

In today's fast-changing world, teachers must have the power to change what they teach and how, writes Andreas Schleicher

Yes, we demand a lot from our teachers: not just in England but everywhere. We expect them to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning. That entails professional knowledge, such as knowledge about a discipline, knowledge about the curriculum of that discipline, and knowledge about how students learn in that discipline. It includes knowledge about professional practice so teachers can create the kind of learning environment that leads to good learning outcomes. And it involves enquiry and research skills that help teachers to be lifelong learners and grow in their profession. Students are unlikely to become lifelong learners if they don’t see their teachers as lifelong learners.

But we expect much more from our teachers than what appears in their job description. We also expect them to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond to students from different backgrounds with different needs; and to promote tolerance and social cohesion; to provide continual assessments of students and feedback; to ensure that students feel valued and included; and to encourage collaborative learning. And we expect teachers themselves to collaborate and work in teams, and with other schools and parents, to set common goals, and plan and monitor the attainment of those goals. And most people remember at least one of their teachers who took a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helped them to understand who they are and discover their passions; and who taught them how to love learning.

Attracting, developing and retaining capable teachers and ensuring that every student benefits from excellent teaching remains a formidable challenge. What shapes the pool from which countries can select their teachers is a combination of the social status associated with the job, the contributions that a candidate feels he or she can make while in the job, and the extent to which the work is financially and intellectually rewarding.

While it is relatively easy to make teaching more financially attractive, though England doesn’t have particularly attractive teacher salaries currently, it is much harder to make teaching more intellectually attractive. But it is the latter that is key to attracting highly talented individuals into the profession, particularly because many people who go into teaching do so to make a difference to their society. It is hard because it depends on how the work of teachers is organised, the opportunities teachers have for professional growth, and how their work is regarded in the profession and by society at large.

Rather than waiting for a new generation of teachers, we need to invest more in the existing schools and teachers, enlisting their commitment to reform and supporting their improvement. Teachers in Singapore are entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year to stay up-to-date in their field and to improve their practice.

The key is often not just a large amount of class-taking by serving teachers; it is the underlying career structures and how they interrelate with the time teachers work together in a form of social organisation that both requires and provides new knowledge and skills that make the difference. Successful programmes encourage the development of teachers’ learning communities through which teachers can share their expertise and experiences. There is growing interest in ways to build cumulative knowledge across the profession; for example by strengthening connections between research and practice, and encouraging schools to develop as learning organisations.

Our analysis shows that professional development activities that have an impact on teachers’ instructional practices are those that take place in schools and allow teachers to work in collaborative groups. Teachers who work with a high degree of professional autonomy and in a collaborative culture – characterised by high levels of both cooperation and instructional leadership – reported both that they participate more in in-school professional development activities and that those activities have a greater impact on their teaching.

Give teachers ownership of teaching

Successful education systems will also do whatever it takes to develop ownership of professional practice by the teaching profession. Some argue that one cannot give teachers and educational leaders greater autonomy because they lack the capacity and expertise to deliver on it. And that, of course, often holds some truth. But a response that simply perpetuates a prescriptive industrial model of teaching will continue to disengage teachers; like someone who was trained to heat up pre-cooked hamburgers will rarely become a master chef. In contrast, productive learning takes place when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, and students feel a sense of ownership over their learning. So the answer is to strengthen trust, transparency, professional autonomy and the collaborative culture of the profession all at the same time.

But the most essential reason why teachers’ ownership of the profession is a must-have rather than an optional extra lies in the pace of change in 21st-century school systems. Even the most effective attempts to translate a government-established curriculum into classroom practice will drag out over a decade, because it takes so much time to communicate the goals and methods through the different layers of the system and to build them into traditional methods of teacher education. In a fast-changing world, when what and how students need to learn changes so rapidly, such a slow process is no longer good enough because it inevitably leads to a widening gap between what students need to learn and what and how teachers teach. The only way to shorten that pipeline is to professionalise teaching: that is to ensure that teachers not only have a deep understanding of the curriculum as a product, but also the process of curriculum and instructional design and the pedagogies to enact and enable the ideas behind the curriculum.

The challenge is to build on the expertise of the teachers and school leaders and to enlist them in the design of superior policies and practices. Where systems fail to engage teachers in the design of change, teachers will rarely help systems in the implementation of change.

While governments can establish directions and curriculum goals, the teaching profession needs to take charge of the instructional system, and governments need to find ways to enable and support professionalism. However, increased professional autonomy also implies challenging idiosyncratic practice. It means moving away from every teacher having their own approach towards the common use of practices agreed as effective, making teaching not just an art but also a science.

Paradoxically, the highly standardised industrial work organisation of teaching has often left teachers alone in the classroom. Zero per cent school autonomy has meant 100 per cent teacher isolation behind closed classroom doors.

Changing this will hinge on effective leadership. Effective leadership is central to virtually every aspect of education, and most importantly so when there is little coherence and capacity in education. There are many great teachers, schools and educational programmes in every education system, but it takes effective leadership to build a great education system.

Andreas Schleicher is director for education and skills, and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. He coordinates the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings. He is appearing at the Schools and Academies Show on Wednesday

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Andreas Schleicher

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