Global Perspectives: The Public Nature of Teaching in Shanghai & The Private Practice of U.S. Teachers

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by Jackie Kraemer

Jackie Kraemer of CIEB interviewed Mistilina Sato of the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development about the difference in teaching in the United States and Shanghai, specifically how teaching is a more public and collaborative profession in Shanghai than in the U.S. Dr. Sato is part of the team of researchers led by Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University who studied teacher development in top-performing jurisdictions funded by NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking. Dr. Sato wrote the Shanghai case for the study, and, as part of her research, spent several months talking with teachers and visiting schools in Shanghai. The final report from that study will be released later this year. You can read more about Shanghai’s Teaching and Research Groups in this month’s International Spotlight

JK: What do you mean when you say teaching is a more public profession in China than in the U.S.?

MS: In the U.S., we use metaphors like the “self-contained classroom” to explain that the classroom is the domain of the teacher. In educational research, we use the term “the privatization of practice.” Essentially, teaching happens behind closed doors to a great extent in the United States. For teachers to watch each other teaching takes a lot of trust and negotiation. We’ve tried to do inclusion models for special education students and English language learners for a long time and it’s always a tricky process to get teachers to work together. But when you walk into a Shanghai classroom, it’s not unusual to see many adults in the back of a classroom. It’s regular practice for teachers who are designated master teachers to schedule a demonstration lesson that other teachers watch in order to learn.ShanghaiClassroom

JK: How do teachers in Shanghai feel about being observed and receiving feedback?

MS: There are cultural differences. In the U.S., giving feedback can feel oppositional, even if it was meant with good intentions. We coach our teacher coaches to ask “what” questions and not “why” questions, because a “why” question in American culture feels like you are putting someone in a defensive position. So feedback is more of an expectation within the Chinese culture. Teachers want feedback so that they can improve.

JK: In U.S. schools, is the fact that teachers do not observe one another due to culture entirely or are there other barriers?

MS: In the U.S., I think it’s primarily a structural issue. There’s simply no time in the day. So this gets to the question of how teachers spend their time. Elementary teachers in the U.S. are with their students almost the entire day. But in China, half of a teacher’s day is dedicated to professional activities other than teaching students. This gives teachers time to work together, to observe each other’s lessons, to co-plan lessons, to grade student papers, and to meet with students as well. There’s a lot of student-teacher interaction that happens outside of the teaching time.

JK: This sounds like teaching is a very different kind of profession in Shanghai than in the United States.

MS: In the U.S., we think about the work of teaching as work with students. Grading papers and doing lesson planning is work that teachers take home and do in the evening or over the weekend. The work of teaching in Shanghai is teaching students but it also is working with other teachers. And this collaborative work with other teachers is structured into the day. Teacher study groups meet at regular times each week and teachers work together to design lessons.

We do have professional learning communities in many schools in the U.S. But these are very different from teacher study groups in Shanghai — not just in what they focus on but how they work. In Shanghai, the teachers are in control of and responsible for what they do during that time. In the U.S., administrators often control the professional learning communities. They develop an agenda and they have a protocol. Teachers need to look at district data sets and district learning targets. Even when U.S. teachers are given time to work together, outside forces like administrators and district mandates still control their time.

JK: I suppose that’s done because people worry that teachers won’t know what to do with that time in a professional learning community.

MS: Yes, I think there’s a lack of trust that teachers would know how to do it. There’s also not a professional memory for how to work together. The trust, I think, is not unwarranted, but then the response is, “Well, let’s manage it for them” rather than “Let’s teach them how to collaborate.”

JK: And teachers in Shanghai know how to collaborate because they watch it happening?

MS: Yes. Teachers apprentice into the collaborative groups. It is a “watching process” and a “learning from elders” process. It is the older, more experienced teachers who are in the center of the work. They literally sit in the center of the table. And the younger, less-experienced teachers are on the periphery of the table. In some cases, they’re even serving tea to the elders. It’s culturally hierarchical, which gives it a series of routines. There’s a routine for it, an expectation for what’s going to happen. People know what their position and place is.

JK: And they’ll move up, as they gain experience?

MS: Exactly, they know that they can move up. And they know that the person who is leading the group is a master teacher. It’s not someone who is there just because they are older. It’s because they have demonstrated their ability and they have a reputation for being good at what they do.

JK: So teachers collaborate in these structured settings, but are there informal settings in which they collaborate as well?

MS: Yes, the physical structure of the school is different from most schools in the U.S. The classrooms are where the teaching happens, but it’s not where the teacher spends most of the day. Teachers have communal workrooms where their desks and files are all located. The workroom might have, for instance, the whole science department or it might have a grade-level team. This is where teachers go after they teach a lesson. And it is in those spaces that there are opportunities for informal talks among teachers. Students come and meet teachers in that space and get a one-on-one tutorial or pick up homework. So that’s an informal space for teachers to work, but it’s formally structured within the physical space of the school.

JK: What is discussed in the teacher study groups other than lessons?

MS: There are two kinds of groups. There are research groups where teachers are actually doing research together. They might have a problem of practice that they are working on or something that the whole school is working on together. And they are a research group. It’s an action research model. And then there are groups that do lesson designing and these tend to be grade-level groups. In the high schools, it’s sometimes the subject-matter groups. And that’s where the lesson planning happens. That’s another aspect of the public nature of teaching, the lesson plan doesn’t just belong to that one individual teacher; it’s a school lesson.

And then some of these lessons go outside of the school. One way is that there are lesson competitions at the district level. A teacher teaches a lesson and it’s scored on a rubric of the quality of the lesson and that becomes a real point of prestige for the school to have teachers who win a lesson competition. And the other way that the lessons travel outside of schools is one of the hallmarks of Shanghai school reform. Shanghai pairs lower-performing schools with a higher-performing school and creates a contract for the higher-performing school to provide guidance and leadership so the lower-performing school can get better. And part of that work is sharing teacher expertise and lessons.

JK: What is the role of the principal in supporting teacher collaboration?

MS: The principal has come up as a master teacher and has been acknowledged for his or her expertise in teaching in most cases. The principal spends much of his time managing the school, making sure it follows all the rules and laws; there’s a strong compliance model culturally in China. The principal does not regularly attend the teacher meetings, but when he does he has the most prestige in the group. So, after a lesson is presented, the principal would have the final comment about the lesson and would have a very strong position on his or her feedback. I think part of it is that the principal is at the top of the hierarchy in the school, but part of it is also that the principal really has something to say about the quality of instruction because he is known as a master teacher with expertise and experience to share.

The principal also has a governing cabinet of leading teachers. So the principal does turn to the teachers for advice, but the principal is absolutely the school head. Shanghai schools are not teacher-run, but the teachers do have an advisory voice.

JK: How does the emphasis on collaboration affect how teachers move up the career ladder in China? How they are evaluated and promoted?

MS: There is a rank system for teachers to move up a ladder. But I just want to be clear on the word rank. Sometimes when we use the word rank, it’s a sort of who-is-best-and-who-is-worst, numbering people in an ordered sequence. In China, it is a series of levels, so you move up from a beginner teacher to a level one teacher then a level two teacher then a master teacher. So it is a formalized career ladder. Teachers have to get permission from the principal to apply to move up a level. They put together an application packet: there are forms to fill out and materials to submit. And the materials they put together include all of the demonstration lessons that they’ve done, if they’ve been identified as the teacher to do demonstration lessons or if they’ve done the lesson competitions. They also list all their published research that has either come out of their own work or their collaborative work. And they’ll also list any kind of awards that they might have gotten. And all of that is taken into consideration by a district-level committee to move up the career ladder. There is a sense that the more people that know the quality of your teaching, the better you can advance.

JK: So the more public your teaching, the higher you’ll rise on the ladder?

MS: Yes.

JK: Do parents give feedback to teachers?

MS: There is a lot more input from parents and the community through surveys and through parent advisory groups. These groups tour the school, going into classrooms and giving the teacher feedback on lessons. Parents might give feedback about the pacing of the lessons or ask the teacher why they chose to use a particular example.

JK: In the U.S., there’s a sense that parents wouldn’t have the expertise to give that kind of feedback.

MS: I don’t think that parent feedback in Shanghai is coming from a position of expertise or of critiquing the teacher. Instead, it’s more like: “Here is what we saw. Tell me more about what you’re doing.” It’s a sense-making process.

JK: Are there some takeaways in terms of what teachers in the U.S. can learn from the system of collaborative teaching in Shanghai?

MS: This is one of those situations where you can’t just import practices because there are many elements that are cultural. But I do think the emphasis on understanding teaching as a joint or collective enterprise is a powerful way for the U.S. to think about teaching. Teaching in the U.S. has a tendency to be idiosyncratic. Each teacher has to independently invent their own pedagogy in a classroom space that feels private. So, more collective, collaborative work around teaching and learning, I think, is a positive way to think about how teachers could engage with each other. In the U.S., we get on a slippery slope when we start talking about collective practice. It’s easy for administrators or policymakers to slide into a discourse where they say, “Well, let’s just make sure that everyone is teaching the same way and teaching the same thing and then all the kids will perform the same way.” We tend to think that we can create equality for all students through scripted curriculum and we get outside experts designing instruction with teachers as the implementers and we call that “collective practice.” In Shanghai, teachers control their teaching, and they control it collectively.