Tucker’s Lens: An Interview with Ben Jensen on Teacher Professional Learning in Shanghai

Marc Tucker 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.

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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: It sounds somewhat semantic to differentiate between professional development and professional learning but it’s an important difference.   Professional development is usually thought of as courses, workshops, training days, etc.  These activities are often ineffective and costly and most significant, they are commonly separated from the actual work of teaching—what teachers do every day.  In Shanghai, they incorporate professional learning into a teacher’s everyday working life; it is an integral part of the way teachers work.  In addition, of course, they also have the usual sort of professional development requirements  actually a lot of it, a minimum of 240 hours in the first 5 years of their careers and then an additional 540 hours for promotion  and they have some of the same issues with this professional development, especially with respect to quality, that other systems have.  But what I find fascinating in Shanghai is not that 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 it look like to have professional development totally integrated into the school day?

Jensen: There are considerable parts of each school day that are devoted to these opportunities.  At the core, it is about helping individual teachers and teachers working together to improve student learning in a disciplined way.  The best professional development that teachers can receive is direct, personalized help in teaching their students.  In Shanghai, much of this is done with intensive mentoring. The mentoring programs are incredibly intensive.  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.  The collaboration rate is very high.  The objective is always improving the learning of students.  In other systems, there is too much focus on paperwork and bureaucracy.

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, but in the poorer schools these things don’t work as well.

Tucker: In the United States, experienced teachers would say they don’t need a mentor.  Why don’t teachers react that way in Shanghai?

Jensen: Well, there is always the cultural element, but more to the point, a lot of other organizations or industries embrace the idea that someone who is in their mid- to late-career should have a coach to help them out.  I think it fits in absolutely perfectly with the idea of lifelong learning, which we often struggle to define in practice.   If you say that teachers should have mentors in the United States or Australia, there would be push back, but if you argue for lifelong learning, everyone will support it.

Tucker: In Shanghai, do mentors have mentors?

Jensen: It goes up the tree.  Once you reach the very top, it’s more about collaborative learning.  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.

Tucker: How are mentors chosen?

Jensen: Usually the school head manages this process in the fall.  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: This is how the U.S. military works.  In the military, you go up the ladder based on the decisions by a promotion board, which takes into account your performance in the job you are in as well as your performance in the courses you are taking, which are designed to prepare you for the next step in the career ladder.  In the military, unless your unit is in combat, it is training, so training is a big part of the work. You are expected to supervise your subordinates and help them get to the next level so when it is time for you to get promoted, your ability to do these things is an important part of what the promotion board takes into consideration.

Jensen: That’s really interesting.  Professional service firms are doing this, too. That is certainly true in the consulting world but in other industries as well.

Tucker: You talked about the importance of the professional learning system in relation to collaboration.  Is it 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, they might be more formal, scheduled for an hour a week and likely to include things like observing a particular classroom or particular students who are falling behind.

What we call professional learning communities in Australia, Shanghai calls research groups.  But there are important features of research groups that one does not find in the typical professional learning community. In Shanghai, for example, 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 a typical initial teacher education program, are prospective teachers taught the skills that you are describing?

Jensen: Yes but at a pretty low level: basic research and methodology techniques. However, young teachers are on a steep learning curve once they become involved in a research group.  Older teachers share their experiences and train younger teachers.

The Singaporeans, recognizing how important the Shanghai approach to professional learning is, and wanting to catch up, asked the National Institute of Education—the institution responsible for teaching training in Singapore—to develop a very clear list of what constitutes good research.  They then trained one teacher at each school in this methodology and that teacher was responsible for training other teachers.  They have had such a system in place in Shanghai forever and a day, but the Singaporeans saw that they could use it to begin their journey towards adoption of the whole Shanghai system.

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.

SHANGHAI-articleLargeJensen: Yes, there is also an emphasis on the work a teacher does in their office, rather than in the classroom.  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.  In no way are all of these research projects going to result in huge effects.  Many are going to show no impact at all or a negative impact.  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.

Tucker: In the United States, professional development is usually workshops that teachers go to that are largely chosen by others.  Is that still the case at all in Shanghai?

Jensen: Yes, that is still part of professional development in Shanghai.  I think even in Shanghai where the quality of these workshops is higher, they still experience the same fundamental problems; for example, the workshops are not specifically suited for individual needs and the quality is not evaluated well.  When I talk about Shanghai having the best professional development in the world, I think that the formal professional development programs still suffer, though perhaps to a lesser degree, from the problems that plague the United States and Australia.

Tucker: How did this system evolve?

Jensen: Well, when I ask that question, the answer I get is that it has always been this way.