School & District Management

How Turning Teachers Into Researchers Helps Shanghai Schools Thrive

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 14, 2016 3 min read
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While teacher action research sometimes gets a bad rap among research purists, it is one of the ways Shanghai and other top-performing systems keep their educators growing professionally.

That’s one of the takeaways of a pair of studies released today by the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Center on International Education Benchmarking. In them, researchers analyzed teacher professional-development systems in Shanghai, British Columbia, Singapore, and Hong Kong—four education systems whose students traditionally score highly on the Program for International Student Assessment in reading, mathematics, and science.

Co-authors Minxuan Zhang, a professor and director of research for the Institute of International Comparative Education, and Ben Jensen, CEO of Learning First, an Australia-based education research group, found all of the countries structured their teacher professional development around an “improvement cycle” dedicated towards identifying and trying to solve problems both for individual students and the system as a whole.

Minxuan Zhang, who previously served as president of Shanghai Normal University and deputy director of the Shanghai Education Commission, said each school in the system typically has three teams of teacher-researchers. One investigates new pedagogical practices; another evaluates content lessons in the school; and a third investigates student-affairs issues like behavior, child welfare, and extracurricular activities. In a 40-hour-per week teaching schedule, the groups dedicated about four hours a week to research.

“If researchers in the universities find the what, teachers in the schools have to find the how,” he said.

The teacher-research groups followed a cycle similar to U.S. scholars’ emerging improvement science. In the first third of the school year, working groups of six teachers each choose a particular issue or problem and look at the existing research on what works to solve it. For the next third of the year, they experiment with approaches or interventions based on that research, and in the last third of the year they evaluate their success.

Sometimes they develop and publish journal articles on the findings, Jensen said. But, he said, school systems “are not as interested in whether this research leads to some big breakthrough or has a huge impact on student achievement. They are interested in teachers continually developing their practice.”

Participating in these research and professional learning communities is part of the formal career ladder for all teachers in Singapore, too, the studies found. “You don’t get promoted in Singapore unless you have helped other teachers improve their practice,” Jensen said.

“Putting in regulations that say we should have more hours of PD will never change people’s behavior,” Jensen said. “All of the research leads us back to that improvement cycle. This is not a story of a few changes in teacher practices—this is a story of change. “

To change teacher practices, Jensen said, top-performing schools:

  • Have a clear purpose, so that everyone understands why they are using particular practices;
  • Have role models act visibly and consistently;
  • Ensure all teachers have the skills and capacity for new behavior; and
  • Reinforce consistently, through teacher and school evaluation, ongoing data collection, and accountability.

You’ll be able to dig into more on how top-performing school systems approach teacher development over at Teaching Now.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.