Dr. Asmaa Al-Fadala of WISE tells conference “teacher learning” is crucial if education strategies are to work.
School leaders and teachers must be allowed to take more risks and “fail well” if education systems are to see genuine improvement, a Qatar Foundation educator has told an international conference.
Dr. Asmaa Al-Fadala, Director of Research and Content Development at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), told policymakers, researchers, and education experts from more than 80 countries that many plans designed to raise the quality of learning in schools are not working – because schools themselves are removed from the process.
Speaking at the 33rd International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement in Marrakesh, she said this means that strategies intended to drive up school standards “do not make sense to the educators in the frontline”, and that teachers need to be involved in developing them and given the freedom to decide how they implement them – with enhancing teacher expertise being vital to improving education systems.
“What policymakers often miss is the key element of working with schools and educators,” Dr. Al-Fadala told the conference’s keynote session, The Global Future of Education Change. “Educators – whether they be school leaders, teachers, or administrators – play essential roles in every level of reform.
“To have sustained improvement, we need to revisit the design of professional learning. We need to invest in teacher learning. We need to shift the discussion of what educational change we want to introduce to how to design professional learning in complex organizations like schools.
We need to invest in our teachers; not just tell them to teach this way or pick up this program, but rather enhance their expertise.
“We know that the quality of teaching is the number one factor in implementing successful plans. And so, if we believe in that, we need to invest in our teachers; not just tell them to teach this way or pick up this program, but rather enhance their expertise – their capacity to make the right decision at the right time – to help their students make progress in learning.”
In front of an audience including Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani and His Excellency Dr. Mohammed Abdul Wahed Al Hammadi, Qatar’s Minister of Education and Higher Education, Dr. Al-Fadala said teachers must be able to discuss and debate the impact of improvement plans within their specific school, and “challenge the current practice and beliefs”.
“Whether you want to get better at piano, surgery, or football, there’s only one way to develop expertise,” she explained. “It’s called deliberate practice.
School leaders need to provide the time, resources, and support necessary for teacher learning to be most effective, and create a culture that is open to more risk-taking.
“In education, teachers work in teams on a specific area to build their expertise. They practice in their classroom over 1-4 weeks and they try out that new approach, then they review the evidence of their impact as a team, and discuss and reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. Teacher learning is where teachers are engaged in deliberate practice.”
Outlining four steps for enhancing teacher learning, Dr. Al-Fadala – whose role at WISE, a Qatar Foundation member, includes working with schools to build their capacity as learners and designers for learning - said: “School leaders need to provide the time, resources, and support necessary for teacher learning to be most effective, and create a culture that is open to more risk-taking, where teachers and learners can try new ideas and test new models.
Some of the best, most effective learning comes from efforts and plans that were unsuccessful.
“Any improvement agenda cannot be meaningfully implemented without creating an enabling culture, where schools need to start small, learn fast, and fail well. Some of the best, most effective learning comes from efforts and plans that were unsuccessful.
“Finally, policymakers have a key role in this. It’s not just about thinking about the capabilities for educators, it’s about how we set up an enabling and supportive system. We need a system that says ‘We’re open to you demonstrating your performance in different ways, as you start to articulate the evidence you can share about what’s working and what’s not working. We’re open to you iterating and adjusting your plan even halfway through a school improvement cycle. And rather than sticking with the plan, we’d love you to update it based on what you’ve now learned’.”
Dr. Al-Fadala – who was joined in the session by Professor Andy Hargreaves, Visiting Professor at the University of Ottawa, and Dr. Santiago Rincon-Gallardo, Chief Research Officer at education consultancy Michael Fullan Enterprises – told the conference that “the capacity to continuously learn, to continuously improve” is key to future-proofing education.
“If the future’s going to keep changing on us, I don’t think it’s a matter of saying ‘These are the three things that our teachers and leaders need to know and let’s train them for it’,” she said.
“Keep the focus on the student learning. They are at the center of what we do. But we also need to build organizations and processes that put a real focus on adult learning – helping adults to learn about their practice. The best long-term hope we have for sustained improvements is to systematically enhance the expertise of our teachers, so we have experts who make the right call at the right time in their unique context.”