Want to Improve Teaching? Listen to Teachers

Joya Jurdi sat at the back of the hall trying in vain to keep her eyes open while pretending to take notes. Joya has extensive experience in teaching and she is currently the head of the science department at an international K-12 school. She was attending a workshop on blended learning as part of the professional-development training the school organizes every Wednesday afternoon.

Joya did not choose this topic nor does she know how it can be applied to improving her teaching. The speaker, who is an expert in the field, talked for two hours about blended learning without knowing anything about the school and whether the teachers, students or parents were ready for blended learning.

Next week, Joya will attend a workshop on emotional intelligence. She is expected to apply both concepts in her own teaching and to support teachers in her department as they apply them.

To many practitioners, this scenario is a fairly accurate picture of professional development and the struggle that teachers face to make use of it. It is one of many examples reflecting the perception of teachers as implementers of knowledge and techniques; teachers are critical stakeholders in the educational process, and they need to be empowered and perceived as decision makers.

The role of professional development is not only to add to the knowledge of practitioners but to provide them with skills and perspectives that will help them direct their own learning.

Having spent more than 16 years teaching and leading schools, I can assure you that one of the things teachers dread the most is professional development. As a teacher I have always asked myself, “Why do I have to listen to a group of outside experts who do not know anything about our school?” and “How is this learning meaningful?” These questions remained unanswered for me and for many teachers.

Teachers are often required to attend professional development. As a teacher and a school leader, I have often asked myself what is the added value of these isolated workshops that teachers are attending. I often attended workshops and never got the chance to apply them in my practice.

I stopped practicing a year ago to dedicate my time to research that is grounded in the day-to-day practices of teachers. Research loses much of its significance when it fails to speak the language of practitioners. I am currently a university lecturer and coach. In both of these roles, I focus on listening and attending to teachers’ and school leaders’ concerns.  I always remember the days when I sat in halls listening to experts talking to me about topics which I knew I could never apply in my classes.

My goal is to engage in collaborative research with practitioners, making them a pivotal part of the research. As practitioners become researchers, professional development becomes meaningful, effective and sustainable.

Professional development has been long considered an integral part of school improvement. Traditionally, professional development has involved bringing in a group of external experts, university professors in particular, who give advice to people like Joya on how to solve their problems and overcome the challenges they face in their practice. Of course there’s value in exposing practitioners to experts’ knowledge. The question is, How aware are these experts of the specific needs of the schools they visit, and why do schools need to exclusively depend on external experts for their improvement? Research suggests that many professional-development programs have failed because of their one-size-fits-all nature.

For professional development to be effective and gain the trust of teachers and school leaders, it needs to be more than a task simply added on to their busy schedules. It needs to be become embedded in the daily practices of practitioners; it needs to become professional learning grounded in practice. Until this happens, we cannot speak of professional development that is meaningful, sustainable and effective.

Research loses much of its significance when it fails to speak the language of practitioners, the writer said (Photo: Ezzeldeen Al-Natour).

For professional learning to be meaningful, it needs to stem from the needs and wishes of the learners. Therefore, it is crucial for professional-development designers to spend time familiarizing themselves with the context in which they are working. More important, designers need to work with school practitioners to help them identify their learning needs and priorities. Teachers do not force their students to learn; schools cannot dictate to practitioners what form of learning to engage in. In the case of Joya and other teachers, the topics are generally decided upon by the schools’ administration and a group of external experts. These may or may not reflect the interests and the needs of the practitioners.

Making professional development sustainable may prove to be more difficult. Practitioners have a wealth of untapped potential learning opportunities. Professional development should aim at improving their “reflective practice” skills so that they can convert their daily experiences into learning opportunities. In reflective practice, teachers are trained to reflect on their daily job experiences to improve their teaching. In the course of a busy day, teachers tend to routinize complex tasks and become oblivious to the learning that is embedded within these tasks. Reflective practice prompts teachers to pause and transform these routinized experiences into dynamic learning opportunities.

Making professional-development training effective is related to whether the objectives of the training have been reached. In the traditional framing of professional development as a series of workshops, monitoring and evaluation are often overlooked. After the workshop Joya attended on blended learning ends, she will return to her classroom with minimal support and follow-up to determine whether she has grasped the concept and is applying it effectively.

I recently received a grant from the Education Quality and Learning for All initiative, which is part of New York University’s Global TIES for Children, to design professional-development plans to help improve the teaching of critical thinking in deprived areas in Lebanon.

The initiative, known as Equal, seeks to build networks that engage researchers, practitioners, and nongovernmental organizations in the Middle East-North Africa region and in Sub-Saharan Africa to help countries achieve the global educational objectives outlined under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4. As part of their activities, these networks provide seed grants to education researchers in both regions for projects related to the goal’s targets and indicators.

In designing professional-development plans for teachers in Lebanon, I was keen on ensuring that the training would be meaningful, sustainable and effective. I was determined to help teachers and school administrations create a learning environment where they can continue learning and developing long after the Equal grant ends.

Critical thinking and reflective practice represent two ways to empower individuals and help them direct their own learning. There is a large body of research linking critical thinking to lifelong learning and global citizenship.

Research indicates that teachers require knowledge and skills to be able to teach critical thinking. In Lebanon, there is a lack of published material on the effectiveness of professional-development plans in general and especially those aimed at improving the instruction of critical thinking. Moreover, a literature review indicates that there is a lack of research correlating professional-development plans with changes in teachers’ and students’ learning.

In this context, my research aims at filling the gap in professional-development initiatives by developing a model that is sustainable, effective, and rooted in improving students’ critical thinking. Sustainable in the sense that teachers will continue learning in areas that are rooted in improving students’ critical-thinking skills, and effective in the sense that there are mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the progress of students and teachers. The project will aim to develop a model that can be scaled up to reach the national level.

The project has the following objectives:

  • Identify the learning needs of teachers who are engaged in developing students’ critical thinking.
  • Analyze factors that affect the way practitioners learn to teach.
  • Measure changes in teachers’ practices at the classroom level.
  • Measure changes in teachers’ reflective practice.
  • Measure changes in students’ critical-thinking skills.
  • Develop a professional-development model aimed at improving the teaching of critical thinking that is sustainable and adaptable to different contexts.

Achieving these objectives will not only help improve the teaching of critical thinking but will help develop teachers as reflective practitioners, making the learning sustainable. In this context, the project is using the teaching of critical thinking as a vehicle to improve the teachers’ reflective practices.

To be effective, professional development needs to be ongoing, social, and a contextual activity depending primarily on teachers’ initiative and rooted in the improvement of students’ learning. As Joya Jurdi joins our professional development, she will not be forcing her eyes to remain open since she is confident and excited about a subject that she knows is relevant and significant to her practice.

Passion is the driver to transformative learning leading to school improvement!

Yara Hilal, PhD, a lecturer- Education Department, American University of Beirut and at Haigazian University.


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