Thursday, May 10, 2012

Transforming teacher education

Reading and listening to Sir Ken Robinson talk about education struck a chord with me, especially when he speaks about the way today's educational institution is designed like a factory.
"We have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it. […] Schools are still pretty much organized along factory lines; ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. We put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It's like the most important thing about them is their date on manufacture."

Looking back on some twenty years' experience teaching in the French national education system, I couldn't agree more. We're educating kids for the 19th century, not the 21st. The most important quality a student has, apparently, is that he should be seen and not heard. At end of trimester meetings, I hear colleagues bemoaning the fact that some students won't sit still, keep quiet and copy their lessons off the board like docile automatons. Rarely do any of them talk about working outside the "programme" – the officially mandated curriculum for their discipline.

Yet this is exactly what we need to do. For example, as an English teacher, my "programme" consists in long lists of grammar points, and more or less utopian targets of the proficiency levels all students should reach by the time they leave school. It's a mandate for standardization and conformity. While we have been fortunate that the official instructions for foreign language teachers mention more and more often elements of 21st century learning – task-based and project-based learning, international communication and collaboration projects like eTwinning and Comenius – so few teachers really take those innovations to heart. In my region (Région Centre, Académie Orléans-Tours) I often feel like I am the only one carrying the torch of 21st century learning practices. Certainly, none of my fellow teacher trainers seem to be operating on this wavelength.

Indeed, teacher training is in crisis here in France. The institutions responsible for teacher training, the IUFMs, were first gutted and then abolished by the Sarkozy administration, with very little actual teacher training of any sort taking their place. The budgets for in-service teacher training have been shrinking every year, and there seems to be little or no support for innovation and the four C's of 21st century learning - Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration and Communication. What would really help is a concerted effort from the new Hollande government, and whoever he eventually selects as Education Minister, to revitalize both initial and in-service teacher training. If there were a network of teacher trainers bringing this message out from the Ministry to the Académies to schools and to individual teachers, we might see real qualitative changes to the school-as-factory paradigm that has inflicted so much damage on the educational potential of young people today.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Teacher training for the 21st century

I'm just emerging from 3 months of intensive teacher training sessions - in addition to my regular classload - and reconnecting to 21st century learning networks. Wow! is the only word to really describe it. Reading and viewing the work of innovators like Sir Ken Robinson and Will Richardson fills me with wonder... but also with some measure of frustration. It's all well and good to preach against broadcast-based teaching, against the school-as-factory model and against standardized testing, but as a classroom teacher I only really have control over what takes place in my own classroom. Even as a teacher trainer, what I do with other colleagues boils down to giving advice and sharing ideas about what a given classroom teacher can do during the couple hours a week they have with a class of students.
Robinson argues convincingly for profound changes in learning practices from the top down, at the level of the national education system. And yet, all the innovators I know say they are swimming against the tide. Profound changes like curriculum and class scheduling aren't within the grasp of a classroom teacher. The best they can do is adapt what happens within the walls of their own classroom to 21st century learning practices. "For the most part," Robinson notes, "these innovations are happening not because of the dominant cultures of education but in spite of them."

Even within these constraints, there are many things the classroom teacher can do. Simple software, like Audacity and Photostory, can free students from the broadcast mode of teaching, allowing them to spend an entire class period speaking in their target language, instead of the few minutes each will get out of a class of thirty students interacting individually with their teacher. Tools like interactive whiteboards can help focus students' attention on content, while providing opportunities for interaction that simple videoprojection can't provide. Moreover, the single most important innovation doesn't involve technology at all, but a specific attitude towards what constitutes teaching and learning. Project-based learning, where students make significant decisions in the process through which they acquire learning, is a huge step forward over traditional broadcast-based teaching. I first began promoting project-based learning some twelve years ago when I discovered the WebQuest concept pioneered by innovators like Bernie Dodge and Tom March. At the time, most web-based activities simply asked students to find specific pieces of information from their online research; students were still only consuming information, albeit in a more autonomous and self-directed way than in the traditional classroom. But the WebQuest concept goes way beyond the "treasure hunt" by giving students a concrete goal, a real-life role that they can adopt in seeking their goal, and a step-by-step process that helps keep them on task over the course of their work.

What I realized over the years, during teacher training sessions where I helped colleagues to develop WebQuests to use with their students in a computer lab, was that this task-based approach doesn't necessarily need to take place using web-based research. It works just as well with students in a classroom, working alone, in pairs or in small groups, trying to achieve concrete goals and use their target language along the way, rather than having them passively absorb the knowledge broadcast by their teacher.

Changing the classroom from the bottom up is an incremental proposition. I have changed my own classroom, and exposed some hundred or so colleagues every year to elements of that change. Other innovators are on similar quests, and yet, statistically, only a very small percentage of teachers within the French national education institution have begun the shift towards a new teaching paradigm. Perhaps with the arrival of a new government in the next few days there will be a new chance for bringing this paradigm shift to the very top of the institution.