Dylan Wiliam on the Shanghai Model for Improving the Practice of Teachers

Cross-posted from Education Week

In this interview, Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education at the University of London, shows us the Shanghai model of school organization and management can provide an environment in which teachers are both motivated to continuously improve their practice and supported as they do so.  To read the paper that led to this interview, look here.

Marc Tucker: The authorities in Shanghai have focused hard on developing the content knowledge of their teachers, including their primary school teachers, rather than their craft knowledge, while they are in college.  But they more than make up for this when the teacher enters the workforce, by creating an environment in the school that motivates teachers to get better and better at the craft of teaching, and provides a lot of support for them as they do this.  They’ve shifted the way time is used in their schools to give teachers much more time than American teachers have to work with each other.  They work in groups to make lessons engaging.  They work together to develop what can be asked of the students during a lesson so that they know in detail where those students are on the lesson being taught, minute-by-minute, throughout a lesson, so they can constantly course-correct.  When we visited a K-8 school in Shanghai, they had rearranged the school physically so that they had teachers from the same grade level sharing an office so that they could easily work together throughout the day and week.  Teachers were always observing others.  We were told that throughout the system, every teacher has a mentor except for the master teachers who were at the top of the career ladder.  This system was designed to send the message that not only is it possible for you to get better, it is your job to get better and it never ends.

Dylan Wiliam: The Shanghai career ladder is the key to their system in which expertise is constantly improving, providing the motivation for that improvement and the means by which teachers can improve their own practice, through observation and feedback.  In Shanghai you can’t get to the top of the career ladder until you spend time in hard-to-serve schools.  They have thought about what they want people to do and they have completely aligned the structure of incentives with their aims.

MT: Your analysis of teachers’ motivation to improve and of the feedback systems teachers need to get better at their work was not written with the Shanghai structure in mind, but that structure seems to be nicely lined up with your findings.

DW: Yes, that’s true.  The Shanghai system is the obvious response to how learning takes place and how hard teaching is.  If we know that what children actually learn is not easily mapped to instructional sessions, then the teacher needs to check regularly what is going on in students’ heads during a lesson.  The way to do this is not by asking and getting answers from one or two volunteers.  In teaching, asking the right questions is the starting point for effective feedback.  Teachers should spend a lot of time working on questions to determine where students stand.  The amount of time teachers spend with students in Shanghai is short compared to the amount of time teachers spend with students in the United States.  But the data on performance suggest that less time in front of bigger classes of students might produce more learning and the time released for teachers to work together results in better planned lessons.

I have heard that in some schools in Shanghai, the students are given feedback on the same day.  We should find out if this is true.  If students show immediate improvement in their performance as a result of quick feedback, we need to know that.

MT: How does Shanghai’s aggressive use of career ladders and mentors relate to your findings?

DW: The term mentor needs some unpacking.  It can simply be a wise person, but the crucial thing is that it be someone who has done the job of the person being mentored.  It is very much an apprenticeship model.  What Shanghai has done is separate the formative and summative part of the evaluation.  The mentor has a coaching relationship, so the job of the mentor is to get you the best rating on the summative assessment.  They have been very smart in aligning incentives for mentors who are rated by the people they mentor.

MT: In Shanghai, the mastery of content in math is not new and neither is focusing on understanding the concepts, not just procedures.  The spirit of work organization is new.  In the school that I spent the most time in the last time I visited China, the principal was adored but she didn’t say much, she turned her meetings over to the teachers.

DW: When I’m working with school leaders and ask them to draw a picture of themselves in relationship to their school, I know I’m in trouble when they draw themselves at the center of the school.  A principal has two jobs: to protect teachers so they can focus on the long-term learning of students and to create an environment where the teachers learn.

I worked with a school in London on rescheduling time for teacher learning.  You can only do it if you embrace the idea that a school needs to do better and everyone needs to up their game.  Shanghai tied the advancement of teachers in their careers to things that matter to students.