Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2015

Teachers as learners Photo by Jim Prisching

"To be an effective teacher you have to be a learner"

Teachers as Learners

By Julianne Beck
Teachers as Learners
Photo by Jim Prisching

Each day brings new experiences and questions for a novice teacher. Learning to navigate the intersection of teaching the subject matter while keeping kids engaged requires time and practice. For the senior staff member down the hall, new technology in the classroom may present fresh challenges. How can teachers at all levels master evolving skills and improve student learning? The answer, according to experts at the School of Education and Social Policy, may sound familiar: It’s education.

“I think that to be an effective teacher you have to be a learner,” says Kirabo Jackson, associate professor of human development and social policy.

Tracking teacher learning

Jackson’s research has documented that teachers who learn throughout their careers boost their students’ cognitive and noncognitive skills. The results are a brighter future for their students in terms of college admissions and earning potential, among other benefits. “If you look at the research on the importance of teachers, what you will find is that being exposed to a teacher who is highly effective versus one who is highly ineffective has a large effect on the student’s achievement, and that translates into better outcomes as an adult,” explains Jackson. “If you look on average at a first-year teacher versus a third-year teacher, there is a big difference in how effective they are,” Jackson adds. “That tells me that there is a large scope in how much on-the-job training could be done.”

Further in a teacher’s career, professional education continues to be important. “It’s imperative that we make sure that teachers are not only very strong but that they stay strong over the course of their 30- to 40-year career,” says Tim Dohrer, director of SESP’s master’s program in teacher education.

The benefits of professional education extend beyond the classroom. It’s better for everyone when all of the teachers in a school are learning, according to research by Jackson, because it leads to more peer learning and teacher growth. “If teachers are learning, it should be reflected in improved outcomes for students,” he says. “However, we are still trying to learn what type of professional development is most effective.”

At SESP, “we know that it is critically important for a teacher to have the ability to reflect in the moment and make changes in the moment” when it comes to professional learning, notes Dohrer. “A hallmark of our teacher education program is a focus on inquiry and reflection.”

The value of video

Video is increasingly used to help teachers learn in the classroom and out—both as students and professionals. Miriam Sherin, professor of learning sciences and director of undergraduate education, began videotaping teachers in the classroom 20 years ago. She selected clips and shared them with teachers for discussion and professional learning. “Simply having these focused discussions with peers about student thinking has really helped teachers change their practice,” she found.

Advances in technology can make such evaluations even more efficient. Teacher participants now wear a small video camera while teaching, and click a button to select a moment to record for future discussion. “One of the big questions,” she notes, “is ‘do teachers pick video that is going to be useful for their learning?’”

To investigate, she recently launched a new study together with professor Bruce Sherin, coordinator of the Learning Sciences PhD program, with funding by the Spencer Foundation. The Sherins plan to look at how teacher-captured video can be a resource for professional development. They will also explore what kind of support or guidance will help teachers select valuable clips. They will then share these clips with teachers via the Teaching Channel for formal and informal learning.

“The great benefit of technology in terms of teacher learning is how much knowledge is at teachers’ fingertips now as compared with 10 years ago,” says Dohrer.

An added benefit of the Sherins’ work is the impact the presence of a video camera can have on the teacher, often elevating a teacher’s aware-ness, or “noticing,” of what is happening around him or her. “We are really trying to see if we can leverage digital technology to help teacher noticing in the moment,” Miriam Sherin explains. “Some teachers told us they had a heightened sense of awareness when they were wearing the camera. It was exciting—we got the sense that teachers are paying new attention in important ways.”

Opportunities for on-the-job reflection and learning are especially exciting, according to Sherin. “Video is a very valuable resource for teachers,” she says. “Teachers can be more analytic about what is going on.” In the end, “when teachers are paying close attention to student thinking, the students’ opportunity for learning increases,” she explains.

Miriam and Bruce Sherin are collaborating on another innovative project with the Teaching Channel to develop online professional learning modules. Those modules will be evaluated for effectiveness against selected learning criteria.

Planning professional development

Other situations can also strengthen teachers’ ongoing learning. For example, Jackson is studying a learning technique for teachers called “lesson study” where teachers engage in group conversations, critique specific lessons, and together rework a lesson until they perfect it. “The key component of this kind of professional development is that it uses your colleagues and is embedded in everyday practice,” says Jackson. In a new study he will measure whether student achievement improves as a result of teachers’ participation in lesson study.

In addition, Jackson is investigating online trainers for teachers. In this study, teachers had access to high-quality online professional development to test feedback about what works. Based on an initial look at the data, Jackson says, “What we are finding is that teachers who were highly effective did not really benefit as much from these online trainings, but teachers who were underperforming did benefit from the online training.” Measures can be developed, he says, that identify teachers’ ability levels and connect them to the most helpful training.

Following from these research-based approaches, teachers enrolled in SESP’s Teacher Leadership master’s program learn how to create impactful professional development for their peers in the future. In addition to serving as leaders and mentors within their schools, helping to contribute to a culture of learning, those individuals are learning how to integrate technology into a school system and develop opportunities for lifelong learning.

“It’s an exciting time for teachers because we’re finally recognizing how critical it is to have teachers who are part of the solutions in the schools,” says Dohrer, who believes that professional learning has to be much more personalized, individualized, reflective and engaging than in the past. “Teachers are at the center of their ongoing professional learning. As teacher educators, we need to continue to put them there.”