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A Global Approach to Teacher Development

Lessons from effective professional development programs around the world
digital map of the world

Today’s students — no matter where in the world they live — will need to solve problems that loom on a global scale. Poverty. Climate change. Terrorism. But to do so, they’ll need an education that is equally global in scope, delivered by educators who are prepared to focus on the whole child. They’ll need teachers who think about these global challenges and who know how to help children draw connections and use their knowledge to find innovative, cross-border solutions.

That kind of excellent teacher requires excellent professional development, according to Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers Fernando Reimers and Connie Chung. A new book edited by the pair, Preparing Teachers to Educate Whole Students: An International Comparative Study, takes a close look at professional development programs across the globe that are training teachers to help children prepare for the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.

Effective professional development should include the entire social context in which teachers exist, allowing them to reflect on and change not only their individual practices, but whole school communities

In this new era, students need to do more than master content, Chung and Reimers say: they also need to be able to collaborate, problem-solve, and self-assess, among other things. Such an education, focused on the whole child, involves the whole community.

Here are some common features of strong professional development programs from across the world that focus on promoting cognitive and social-emotional growth in the classroom. These shared strengths can serve as lessons for effective professional growth for educators everywhere — and benchmarks for professional development in a changing world.

Effective professional development for 21st-century educators is:

Not just for teachers. Teachers don’t work in isolation; their roles often intersect with guidance counselors and administrators in and outside of the school building. So — professional development for teachers who are focused on the whole child should include the entire social context in which teachers exist, allowing them to reflect on and change not only their individual practices, but whole school communities. In one chapter, researchers describe how, at schools that use the Escuela Active Urbana program in Colombia, all teachers and administrators learn alongside one another, recognizing their overlapping roles and sharing information and lessons accordingly.

Not one-and-done. The professional development programs that Reimers and Chung highlight go beyond a single workshop, spanning long portions of teachers’ careers — from an entire school year to several years. In programs in Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and the United States, an emphasis on continuous learning allows for coaches and teachers to develop fruitful relationships built on trust and respect. Such programs adapt to teachers’ changing needs and challenges and, therefore, become part of the fabric of teachers’ working lives.

Good professional development must be tactical. It should focus on teacher autonomy and professionalism, but it should also give educators specific tools to draw from and adapt to their particular context. 

Focused on the relationship between social-emotional skills and cognitive skills. In order to educate the whole child, it’s helpful to know how cognitive schools more commonly associated with academic success work in tandem with social-emotional skills like cooperation, discipline, self-regulation, and empathy. Suchetha Bhat, the CEO of Dream a Dream, a professional program in India, sums it up like this: what good do high test scores do students if they still aren’t prepared to face life’s challenges?

Tactical and specific. The programs highlighted by Reimers and Chung go beyond theory to give teachers concrete takeaways — in the form of routines, protocol, and toolkits — that they can apply into the classroom. They focus on teacher autonomy and professionalism, while giving educators specific tools to draw from and adapt to their context. In Chile, teachers struggled to synthesize the kinds of 21st-century science skills promoted by a program founded by Chilean scientists with their national curriculum. Lesson plans and toolkits they received in professional development sessions made it easier for them to do so.

About more than can be measured by a test. Educating the whole child often means transcending what formal accountability structures – which, across countries, tend to rely on standardized tests in core academic structures – deem important. For that reason, effective professional development programs encourage and support teachers in imparting knowledge and skills that aren’t necessarily assessed by a test. In some countries, the highlighted professional development programs were well-aligned to policy, while the programs in the United States, India, Chile, and Mexico had to reconcile their own improvement priorities with policy demands.

Preparing Students (and Teachers) for 21st-Century Challenges

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