I recently spoke with Ben Jensen, School Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute in Australia, about Shanghai’s professional development system for teachers. Ben is a highly regarded analyst and commenter on school education. He previously worked at the OECD Education Directorate where he focused on school improvement, teacher effectiveness and how to measure school performance. You can find a longer version of this interview here.
Marc Tucker: When we were together in Washington, you told us that you thought that the professional development you saw in Shanghai was the best in the world. What did you observe there that led you to this conclusion?
Ben Jensen: What I find fascinating in Shanghai is not the usual array of courses and workshops--which they certainly have--but rather the professional learning activities that are built into the teacher’s regular working day, and the abundance of energy and resources devoted to it.
Tucker: What does that look like?
Jensen: Every teacher has a mentor, regardless of his or her level of experience. Each new teacher has two mentors, one is subject-based and one is general pedagogy-based. So the mentoring system provides frequent classroom observation and feedback. The mentors will watch a teacher’s class and then provide feedback at a meeting later in the week or day. For new teachers, especially the younger ones, it is very common for them to watch their mentors and ask them how and why they are doing what they are doing.
Tucker: So experienced teachers who have been teaching for 15-20 years can be expected to have a mentor, just like those who are new to the occupation?
Jensen: Yes. It goes up the tree. Only .2 percent of teachers reach the “master teacher” level and then they don’t have mentors, but they will still work together and have their work evaluated and appraised.
In Shanghai, you will struggle to get promoted if you receive poor feedback from the people you mentored. That means the people who get promoted are collaborative and committed to helping teachers, and they have a proven track record in this area.
Tucker: Is this aspect of professional development in Shanghai limited to the mentor relationship or is there more to it than that?
Jensen: There is much more to it than that. There are two main formal programs that operate in most schools in Shanghai: lesson groups and research groups. The lesson groups are similar to what we have in a lot of our schools in the United States and Australia, where you get people of the same year level working together and discussing their students’ progress from time to time.
In Shanghai, you don’t get promoted as a teacher unless you are also a researcher. You have to have published articles, not in academic journals but in professional journals or even school journals. In fact, one of the first stages in a promotion evaluation is to have one of your articles peer reviewed. Every teacher will work in a research group with about half a dozen other teachers, often of the same subject area but not always. If there is a young teacher, that teacher’s mentor will often be in that group as well. They will meet for about 2 hours every 2 weeks. At the start of the year, the group choses a topic—a new curriculum or pedagogical technique or determining how to help out a particular student—and the principal will approve that topic. The first third of the year is spent on a literature review. The second third of the year is spent trying out strategies in the classroom that the group identified as promising during the literature review. As they try these strategies in the classroom, other members of the research group will observe. The principals might set the agenda by giving them broad topics they are interested in, but the groups are organized in such a manner that there will be teachers who are senior enough in each group with the necessary research skills to lead the project.
Tucker: In Singapore they have a specific research track for some teachers but I take it that in Shanghai it is an important part of the job for all teachers.
Jensen: A principal once told me that it is in their offices that teachers become better. In the last third of the year, the research groups are evaluating what worked and what didn’t. Good teaching is to look at practice and ask what works, what doesn’t and how do I get better? I think they are doing very well in terms of pulling from the best of these research groups and disseminating what they have learned. But overall they are focused on professional learning because they are devoted to getting teachers together to determine what works and what doesn’t.
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