Teacher Preparation Opinion

Lessons From Shanghai’s Professional Learning System

By Anthony Jackson — April 03, 2014 6 min read

This month, Asia Society gathered an international team of educators in Shanghai to learn about their high functioning education system. We heard that learning is like “a stone that gets polished until it is luminous.” How does a large school system offer a luminous education for all students? By investing in teachers’ professional lives. Vivien Stewart explains.

By Vivien Stewart

Last week members of Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network met in Shanghai to discuss how to scale up effective 21st century teaching. Educators from Houston, Seattle, Singapore, Hong Kong, Toronto, Melbourne and Shanghai participated in a three-day seminar to understand how cities around the world are creating professional learning processes and structures to promote continuous improvement across their whole systems. As part of the meeting, participants had the chance to visit four schools in Shanghai: Gumei School, Tianshin No 1 School, No 3 Girls Middle School, and Gezhi High school. Two were elementary/middle schools and two were upper secondary. Two were high-performing schools and two were lower performing but improving schools. Some of the schools served children from educated families from Shanghai; others had large numbers of recent migrants from rural areas. We had the opportunity to sit in classrooms and observe lessons and then to discuss teaching with members of the schools’ “teaching and research groups.”

Educators from all the visiting cities were impressed with the high quality of the teaching they observed. In one middle school physics lesson on density, students worked with a variety of materials to try to generate their own hypotheses. The teacher did not even introduce the word “density” until the end of the lesson. In an elementary school, a teacher used a lesson on time to promote knowledge of the world through time zones, part of Shanghai’s focus on preparing students for a future where interaction with people from different cultures is increasingly frequent. In another secondary school, students were conducting experiments in a plant-cloning lab. In yet another school, a young teacher was teaching a lesson that integrated art, music and history. All the lessons were extremely well prepared and executed, students were focused throughout with little time wasted, and during the course of the lesson, the teachers skillfully used questioning techniques to elicit student understanding, scaffold ideas, and promote critical thinking. The lessons also included group research collaboration and student presentations.

Other more advanced classes in the upper secondary schools were inquiry-based and a wide range of student clubs—from robotics, to Model UN, sport, music, and business—were designed to promote project-based learning and develop student’s personal research interests. Despite the range of pedagogical techniques we observed, some of the lessons were very teacher directed with little student-initiated questioning, by western standards, and this is an area where Shanghai schools are trying to improve. In every school, other teachers sat in the back of the classroom in the places regularly provided for teachers’ structured observations. Later, in one of the schools’ teaching and research groups, they offered feedback on pedagogical approaches and how the lesson could be improved in terms of individual student’s understanding and interaction.

What lessons are there in Shanghai for American schools?

First, selection into teaching requires strong academic skills and commitment to teaching. Entry into teaching courses requires high performance on the university entrance examination. This is coupled with individual interviews, which are used to judge a prospective teacher’s genuine interest in students and group interviews, which are used to assess communication skills and teamwork. At university, teachers, including primary teachers, receive strong subject matter training and major in their subject as well as taking education courses. The obvious high academic and personal quality of teachers thus reinforces the traditional respect for teachers in Chinese culture.

Second, the tradition of teaching and research groups, which collectively promote continuous improvement of teaching, exists in all the East Asian countries that perform well on PISA but has been taken to a high art in Shanghai, where it has been used to promote Shanghai’s world-beating standards in math and science and is now being used to modernize pedagogy and promote 21st century skills. Teachers share the work of lesson preparation, mentor and coach younger teachers, collectively examine student progress and diagnose student learning needs, provide regular feedback on classroom teaching, and identify, pilot and evaluate new approaches to problems in the school. Since teaching is viewed as a long-term career and since improving teaching effectiveness outweighs the impact of any other school policy, Shanghai invests significantly in these professional learning mechanisms, the trade-off for which is that class sizes are much larger than in a typical American school.

The US also spends considerable resources on professional development, but often on forms that both research and teacher judgment has shown to be ineffective in improving teaching. To create effective professional development mechanisms in American schools, we would need to rethink how we use time and resources. A study of Shanghai teachers compared with teachers in California showed that teachers in both places spend about the same amount of time on the job, roughly 42 hours per week. But California teachers spent more than 70% of their time teaching classes whereas teachers in Shanghai spend closer to 40%, using the rest of the time for lesson preparation, meeting with students individually, marking homework, observing classes and providing feedback to other teachers and participating in their teaching groups. Although we might not be able to replicate the same amount of time as in Shanghai, we could certainly increase time for effective professional learning by reducing the amount of time teachers spend on extraneous duties and on less useful forms of professional development and focus it on forms of professional learning that clearly improve outcomes for students.

Third, in addition to these systematic supports for teachers’ development, there are strong incentives for teachers to improve their teaching. There are career ladders open to all teachers with four broad bands and steps in between. Progress up the career ladder depends on active participation in professional learning activities, annual appraisal of teaching quality, creation of innovations for the school, and work in poorer schools in the district. As teachers move up the career ladder, they move into positions of increasing responsibility for curriculum development, professional learning and mentoring of younger teachers. Teachers are thus able to play leadership roles in schools and gain increased compensation without leaving classroom teaching.

Fourth, Shanghai pays systematic attention to improving the consistency of instruction across schools as well as within. The most senior teachers in the system play leadership roles not just in their own school but also across the district. They focus on researching problems and spreading best practices and innovations to other schools and, in particular, work on improving the quality of teaching in schools that are lower performing.

Shanghai education leaders developed their approach to professional learning by building on tradition and adapting what they saw as the best ideas from other countries, including England, Finland, and the United States. Like other high-performing systems, Shanghai places a major emphasis improving the effectiveness of teaching as a way to lift performance. By creating school cultures of active collaboration, where teachers give and receive skilled mentoring, coaching and feedback on their teaching and are able to advance to leadership roles in the school and district, Shanghai has created a cadre of self-confident and self-reflective teachers focused on continuous improvement.

Vivien Stewart is senior advisor to Asia Society. Follow Asia Society on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.