MEd Academic Practice – My (Multi-perspective) Reflections 4

The academia train continues…this year with the completion of another Masters in Education (MEd) in Academic Practice module in Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching (TELT) and my PhD. Yes, I said it…my PhD. It is finally happening.

Here are some articles and perspectives on learning and teaching, including perspectives on the use of technology and internationalising the curriculum, that I’ve read over the Christmas break in an attempt not to lose momentum with the MEd course. Somewhat “teacher learning” focussed…as I’m self-referential about my professional practice at the moment.

‘Do learner-centred approaches work in every culture?’ is written by the British Council’s Ian Clifford in response to his recent webinar on the subject in relation to contexts of Burma [Download the presentation slides with further information].

  • Avoid terms like ‘learner-centred’, suggesting that it’s not always clear what classroom practices they refer to…there are different interpretations among educators…group work…teacher gives little instruction…learners find out for themselves…all about a ‘philosophy’, and not tied to any particular method at all.
  • There’s no agreement about ‘the right way to teach’
  • A UK report called ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ (a great document by the way – do download) concluded that the evidence favoured ‘direct teaching’ rather than approaches that involved little teacher instruction such as ‘discovery learning
  • Whole-class teaching – ‘direct instruction’ – is one of the most effective methods of teaching…just because learners construct knowledge for themselves, it doesn’t mean we have to take one particular approach to teaching; in fact, he argues that whole-class teaching can achieve this if done in an interactive and effective way.
  • Learner-centred approaches are not always a good cultural fit – can cause cultural mismatch as approaches to teaching based on a Western idea of the individual don’t fit well in cultures which emphasise group goals over individual needs.
  • “Terms such as ‘constructivism’ or ‘student-centred’ … obscure rather than clarify … details of practices … not given … assumptions already known.” (Westbrook et al, 2013)
  • “Teacher being actively engaged in bringing the content of the lesson to the whole class.” (Muijs and Reynolds, 2011)
  • ‘teacher as activator’ approaches significantly more effective than ‘teacher as facilitator’ approaches
  • One problem with learner-centred – Interactions of divergent cultures – “high power distance”, “collectivist” cultures (Hofstede). Roles of teachers and students – teachers expected to be in control – students expected to be obedient.

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‘Improving the learning of teachers’ – ten things teachers should know – written by  from The Sutton Trust. To me, this is an area of needed and understated professional development for teachers – “teacher learning”. Here, I’ve shared Major’s 10 points for teachers to know:

  1. The best bets for teacher learning are those that involve teachers working alongside other teachers focusing on their practise in the classroom.
  2. Reviewing a teacher should ideally combine the results of multiple approaches of assessment.
  3. The strongest evidence supports the use of three main sources of feedback: teacher observations (particularly from fellow teachers or peers); surveys of students; and measures of student progress.
  4. Observations and feedback for professional learning should be a separate process to appraisals or performance management.
  5. Teachers should be properly trained as observers.
  6. Teacher observers need to be extremely cautious about their assumptions of what great teaching looks like. In his blog ‘Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think’ Durham University’s Professor Rob Coe spells out the many traps observers fall into.
  7. Teachers should adopt the same principles for teacher feedback as they do for providing feedback to pupils in the classroom. See for example the “professional learning cycle” used by schools in Australia. It mirrors so much of what we know about feedback loops for dialogue between teachers and children.
  8. It is critical to create a culture of trust and collegiality among teachers if feedback is to genuinely impact on practice. It is a key point highlighted in reviews undertaken by New Zealand academic Helen Timperley (referenced extensively by John Hattie, among others).
  9. At the same time there must also be genuine challenge for teachers if they are to change behaviour, something that can be provided by school heads or external peers.
  10. Last but not least, any professional learning programme needs to be rooted from start to finish in student outcomes. The yardstick for success is improved progress of learners in the classroom.

Continuing on the theme of “teacher learning”, I came across the article ’10 Ways To Naturally Support Teacher Collaboration In Higher Ed’ by OpenColleges. The key points (which were expanded upon in the article) were:

  1. Build an online resource database
  2. Start a reading group
  3. Collaborate on lesson plans and rubrics
  4. Mentor new teachers
  5. Team-teach by taking over in your area of strength
  6. Create a social group just for collaborating teachers
  7. Create a Collegiality contract
  8. Design and conduct a research project together
  9. Pick an “instructor of the month” to highlight
  10. Observe your colleagues in action

To me, points 3, 6, 8 and 10 are teaching and learning methods that are vastly unused and should be more integral as part of curriculum design. However, these require time…time to establish, time to reflect on findings, time to discuss (and despair?!). Point 4 us also very important as I believe it is here, when teachers mentor teachers and students mentor students, that direct and intuitive learning can take place.

‘Show us that you care’: a student’s view on what makes a perfect teacher’ was written in October 2015 by an anonymous 16-year-old contributor to the Guardian. It opens with an image of the Robert Stevenson character Mary Poppins…therefore, implying that teachers are to have a nanny-like demeanour with magical powers (obviously). Are we? Can we be? Are we expected to achieve the unachievable as if magic? The article talks about students’ experiences of ‘what students love about the best teachers – the ones whose lessons are discussed at the dinner table, whose names are always remembered and whose impact is never forgotten – is quite different’. It is framed under the titles – ‘Show us that you care; Don’t shout at us; Show us your personality (but not too much); Tell us when we’ve done well; Remember that we do appreciate you’…things I’m definitely going to use part of my learning and teaching philosophy in 2016 whilst remembering no one can ever be perfect, right?

“I’m not sure that the perfect teacher exists, but the incredible teachers I’ve had aren’t the ones who never make mistakes, they’re the ones who never give up on me and have taught me that I should never give up on myself.”

Betty Leask, ALTC National Teaching Fellow, gave a seminar in 2011 at Duke University on the Internationalization of the Curriculum. She references an experience of talking to US immigration officers as she was entering the country to give this talk. Asked to explain the nature of her talk, she said ‘it is about making students more globally aware, fostering their inter-cultural confidence, getting them to have a broader mindset, not necessarily through travelling.’ She reflected on her encounter stating the value of these type of experiences…that study abroad isn’t the only way to create an understanding of the world, it can be through a teacher, if you have time to reflect upon what you are doing. It reminded her of the “distance travelled” where we often focus on the short-term not the long-term. The 1980s to now…the world is a very different place…and due to the work that has been done through the internationalisation of the curriculum. Something that I am trying to do now with the new MA Contemporary Arts China programme I have co-developed at Birmingham City University.

Betty Leask

Finally, the article ‘Why we still need face-to-face teaching in the digital age’ by Sophie Partarrieu. She questions, ‘can we take the best of the face-to-face experience – with all its linguistic and emotional complexities – and blend it with digital technology?’ whilst stating ‘there is no single recipe for success when combining traditional and digital methods, but it’s clear that human presence – even remotely – still plays an important role in student motivation and progress.’ Here are some notes from her article:

  • Teachers can support students in ways computers can’t – With so much information available online, the issue for teachers is less one of what knowledge to pass on but rather how to help students understand, interpret and apply the knowledge available to them.
  • Teachers act as guidance counsellors or provide emotional support. ‘Conveying warmth, providing a stable environment for learning, and making children feel safe and appreciated, are things that teachers in conflict zones, and elsewhere, can provide. Computer technology can’t.’
  • Face-to-face experiences convey linguistic and emotional complexity – in situations like foreign-language teaching, where a teacher’s body language and cultural insights provide students with complex information.
  • The same goes for so-called ‘creative subjects’ where a teacher’s human touch in the form of interactive learning, demonstration and improvisation are a fundamental part of a good learning experience.
  • Face-to-face teaching and technology can work together suggested through a blended learning approach – traditional teaching methods and technology.

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