Two weekends ago, I spent my Saturday morning at Educa, an education fair in Helsinki organized by Trade Union of Education (OAJ). In attendance were 17,900 teachers, representatives from non-profits/educational technology start-ups, and other education specialists (including Timothy Walker, author of Teach Like Finland, who I met in passing!). The highlight for me was having the opportunity to connect my research on professional development for in-service teachers to an actual professional development events and better understand the culture around teachers and teacher-training in Finland.
I have written about ways in which pre-service teachers are trained in Finland, and the high standards of university education required in order to become a K-12 teacher her, but equally as impressive are the mechanisms in place that ensure in-service (i.e. practicing) teachers receive continued professional development.
Educa is one of many so-called “VESO-training days” available to in-service teachers in Finland. All teachers are required to attend at least 3 of these professional development events per year, though not all VESO-training days are necessarily as intensive as Educa. At this event, there was a convention-center full of booths representing various products that teachers could learn about and test, before considering introducing them within their own classrooms.
The logic behind this professional development requirement lies in educational philosopher John Dewey’s understanding that teachers, like their students, must also consider themselves to be reflective, life-long learners. According to this understanding, the knowledge and pedagogy of teachers must be fluid, and always open to new ways of learning/teaching. Dewey posits that classroom teachers must be “possessed by a recognition of the responsibility for the constant study of school room work, the constant study of children, of methods, of subject matter in its various adaptions to pupils.”
When I have spoken to teachers back in the States about their own in-service supports (or lack thereof), the overwhelming sentiment is how challenging it is to learn and implement new technologies, teaching methods, or content, while continuing to the countless other tasks required of them on a day-to-day basis. This is particularly the case when teachers are asked to adopt new technologies in their classrooms, and it is one of the most significant barriers to entry for new educational technology products in the K-12 education market.
While the age of teachers is sometimes thought to be a determinant of how likely they will be to adopt new technologies in their classroom, it has been found that exposure and experience to those technologies may actually be the stronger determinants of successful classroom adoption. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense: teachers, like any other professionals, will be more likely to use the methods that they are comfortable with and anticipate being successful–especially when the stakes of trying and “failing” with more unfamiliar methods are the educational outcomes of their students.
The question I am left with after all of this, is: how do we create opportunities for this exposure and experience to new teaching methods/tools so that teachers feel comfortable and willing to challenge their current teaching methods?
In the context of K-12 teachers in the US, especially, I think we need to think more about how to create holistic supports for teachers so that are able to feel as though they have the autonomy to explore their teaching practices within their classrooms in the first place. It is, of course, not a fair measure of how much a teacher is a “life-long learner” to merely force them to introduce a new technology, while failing to provide essential in- and out-of class supports for them and their students. And the culture of test-based accountability in the US naturally inhibits the amount of in-class exploration teachers in the US can pursue, while not risking the outcomes of their students.
Perhaps, then, the answer is in shifting our understanding of schools as machines that must produce certain ends to a conception of schools as also “reflective learners,” in a sense. There is a natural aversion to change the way things are done, when the stakes for failure are poor test scores (and a subsequent loss of funding). However, unless there is a willingness to challenge the way things are done at the school-level, then it seems unreasonable to expect teachers and students to do so and expect the same exact results from them in the short-term.