The Challenge of Teacher Development

by: Steven Sofronas

Here at HGSE and at educational institutions around the world, there is a lot of talk about providing adequate structure in order to promote student agency. It is an issue that educators at all levels and contexts grapple with when designing learning experiences for their students, and it is as important to professors at graduate schools of education as it is to elementary school teachers across the country.

As the field of education continues to move away from memorization-based pedagogy in favor of strategies that promote personalized learning and increased metacognition, educators are facing challenges in implementing strategies that encourage their students to think critically, collaborate with others, and solve real world problems. Many educators have little experience in moving beyond traditional instructional strategies. This lack of experience and training poses a formidable barrier to significant change.

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

Over the course of the last eight months, I have had the opportunity to involve myself in many moving parts of this issue. Through my coursework in the TIE program at HGSE, I have reflected on research and theory through the lens of an experienced classroom teacher, and I have had opportunities to work with educators ranging from K-12 teachers to graduate students and faculty. Much of my work has involved assisting them in designing and achieving learning goals by integrating technology and innovation.

Aside from their passion for education, one of the most common threads linking the diverse educators with whom I have worked is their personal educational experiences. The majority of these educators spent much of their academic lives learning and teaching in traditional didactic environments. It is not uncommon that these experiences inform their current instructional strategies. Even many graduate schools of education courses and professional development opportunities that focus on innovative pedagogy mirror passive, “sit and get” classes.

This presents an important question: How can we empower educators to become agents for change in a system so entrenched in traditional pedagogy?  Are today’s teachers  equipped with the skills necessary to help their students succeed in our rapidly changing world? Are pre-service teachers who are investing in graduate programs being adequately prepared for one of the most challenging and important jobs in the world? What about career changers? Are they more or less equipped to become successful educators as a result of (or in spite of) their former work experience? Not surprisingly, one way to address these issues is through relevant, transferable learning opportunities for pre-service and practicing educators.

Pivot Point

My own desire for learning opportunities that provided strong experiential components led me to the Teaching and Learning Lab at HGSE. The decision to pivot my career by taking a year to study and work at HGSE and the TLL has provided me with the kinds of opportunities that I believe would be beneficial to educators in both pre-service preparation and on-the-job professional development training.

Through coursework, I have been encouraged to learn how research and theory can inform practice. As a busy teacher, I simply did not have the luxury of taking time away from my practice to familiarize myself with research in my field, no matter how relevant it was to my profession. Reflecting on my experience now, I see the value in being able to speak the language of both the researcher and the practitioner. More importantly, I have been able to apply theory and research to my learning design work at the TLL and other organizations. Working on the Certificate for Advanced Education Leadership (CAEL) modules has allowed me to collaborate with learning designers and Harvard faculty to craft powerful learning experiences for school leaders. Curating, organizing, and editing course assets has given me unparalleled access to experts in my field. Through working on CAEL, I have had the dual opportunity to learn from Professor Elizabeth City and her colleagues about education leadership and the TLL team about learning design. I have come to believe that at the core, working on this type of project at HGSE is leveraging one’s own passion for learning to provide a successful learning experience for colleagues in my field. The skills I am learning are relevant for virtually all educators as the field continues to capitalize on the value of combining face to face, blended, and online learning strategies. Admittedly, there are some teachers who will never become involved with online courses, but the likelihood that their students will is high. Therefore, the ability to understand their place in the educational landscape is relevant to all educators.  

Graduate Programs in Education: The Vision and the Outcome

As part of our approach to strategic teaching and learning support, the TLL collaborates with faculty, teaching teams, students and staff from across HGSE to advance innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Through these collaborations, we continue to improve current practice and learn strategies that we hope will make lasting contributions to the educational landscape. Consequently, we have been framing many of our weekly discussions around what a graduate program in education should look like. Three important questions we have considered are:

  1. What are the transferable skills that our students should take with them upon completion of the program?
  2. What is the appropriate balance between academic and experiential work?
  3. How much structure do we need to provide for our students to learn the skills that will make them successful in this rapidly evolving field?

As a veteran educator, current HGSE student, and aspiring learning designer, I believe I am in a unique position to comment on the questions posed above. Here are are my thoughts:

  1. My experience at HGSE, specifically my coursework and professional contribution to the TLL, has provided me with transferable skills that I have already put to use in current roles at HarvardX, the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and EdTechTeacher.
  2. My academic coursework in T127 has provided me with a strong foundation to engage in experiential work at the Teaching and Learning Lab and HarvardX. These experiences have provided me with a perspective I would not have gained through academic experiences alone.
  3. As a graduate student, I have enjoyed taking the responsibility of crafting an experience that provides the structure necessary to guide me in a career transition. Like my colleagues, I have relied heavily on the support of faculty, staff, and academic advisors to assist me in this process.

While these questions are clearly important in the context of the TLL and HGSE community as a whole, they extend far beyond the walls of this institution. Discussions around these questions will continue to inform important decisions about what a graduate school of education looks and feels like to students and faculty. There is much work to be done in designing systems that allow all aspiring and current educators to access programs that clearly address the questions that I was able to answer as a result of my HGSE experience.

This takes us back to the initial question of structure and agency. I find myself contemplating how much of my own experience was structured by the institution and how much was designed by me. The very fact that I cannot answer the question succinctly leads me believe that I was able to achieve the appropriate balance.

See also: Course, Organization