We don’t teach teachers to teach in the manner that we know learners learn. It reads like a typo, but the problem is as simple as that.
Cognitive psychology is clear about the manner in which children and adults learn. Humans are not blank slates, as was once argued. Rather, we know that individuals reflect on confusing phenomena they observe. They gather data, form hypotheses and test those hypotheses. They discuss their observations and ideas with others to gain multiple perspectives. When a hypothesis checks out, they adopt it as a theory and begin to build schema and conceptual frames that explain how related phenomena function. As their expertise grows, they form linkages between those conceptual frames.
Yet, we still teach as though individuals learn by listening to lectures. We teach as though all students have experienced the same things at the same time, and in the same ways. We still teach as if all the learners in a classroom are there for the same reasons and need the same knowledge.
Learning is more effective and fruitful if we take the lessons of modern cognitive psychology, and teach students they way they naturally learn, customizing lessons to the needs and experiences of individual students.
The currently emerging online platforms are poised to enable a revolutionary change in the ways we implement teacher education. It is for the first time in my decade and a half as a classroom teacher, teacher educator, and education researcher, possible to optimize the learning experience to not just match what is possible in a conventional classroom, but actually surpass it. In my experience, when taught with these methods, students respond with engagement and curiosity, and learn more effectively.
Using these methods I have seen students take risks, and feel ownership for their learning in ways that are unparalleled in the traditional high school or college environment. My students have reported that they are intrinsically motivated to participate in online coursework. While they may not use terminology like “intrinsic motivation,” what they describe about their learning experience conveys precisely that. When reflecting on a well-designed hybrid online course, students describe their desire for knowledge; the clarity they gained about the applications of knowledge; their total loss of a sense of time while they followed a thread of thought around curated sources on the internet for hours on end.
My ambition is to extend these online learning techniques to current classroom teachers. It is a professional and personal goal of mine to prepare teachers to recognize the individuality of students in their classroom, and to aspire to be more than lecturers. Yet, the obstacles to achieving this goal are numerous and deeply entrenched.
In various roles in multiple organizations I have witnessed two different avenues of teachers’ professional learning, and I see a clear path for a third way. Here, I lay out the challenges in these two conventional avenues of professional learning and development, and describe how they will be eclipsed by a high-quality, online microcredentialing environment.
In my role as a faculty member at Saint Anselm College, where we prepare teachers for the classroom, I have used flipped classroom environments to train preservice teachers to design curriculum and assessments rooted in an inquiry approach to learning. Students understand that a foundational objective of the class is to design student-centered curriculum, in which teachers’ set goals and objectives for students that require individually tailored activities and assessments. This approach to curriculum design requires teachers to meet students where they are in the classroom, and to scaffold learning experiences that will allow students to realize his or her particular ambitions while simultaneously demonstrating mastery of clearly defined competencies.
When students leave the class, and the program for that matter, they are prepared to teach ambitiously and with individual students’ needs in mind. However, the dominant teaching culture – to which those novice teachers were exposed through their own P-12 experience, and into which they will return as practicing professionals – is saturated with a traditional, transmissionist pedagogy. Studies of the socialization process for novice teachers demonstrate time and again that the pressure to return to a transmissionist stance typically overwhelms even the most ambitious graduate.
To exacerbate the situation, the typical “in-service,” professional development model can replicate this transmissionist stance. Workshops follow a predictable approach: Teachers gather in the audience where they remain seated throughout the day to listen to presenters describe their experience in the classroom. While nearly 100% of teachers engage in up to 30 hours of professional development a year, only a small minority of those teachers report satisfaction with development workshops (Grunwald Associates, LLC & Digital Promise, 2015).
In this fully uninspiring environment of teacher socialization and professional development, it doesn’t take a leap in logic to understand why teaching practices have changed so little over the last 150 years.
In my role as an inaugural trustee for the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education and as the principal investigator for a community grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, I have had several opportunities to design and execute professional development experiences for local history, social studies and civics teachers. We have worked hard in planning sessions to create experiences that break that mold, and which allow teachers to engage with and explore new material. To assess the quality of the workshops, teachers are asked to design lesson plans, in which teachers illustrate how they will integrate these new activities in their practice. A simple guideline for the lesson is that it must include the content of the professional development, and it must include inquiry-based activities that students can engage in. (Read: NO lecture!) The ultimate performance assessment for teachers is to actually observe teachers applying new learning in practice. This assessment model does not reach that gold standard, but it does provide an example of a promising practice that comes close.
Still, even in light of our efforts to have teachers apply new learning in practice, we also know that in service days like ours have a short shelf life. This is due to the “drive by” nature of the workshop. In other words, teachers come and go from these “one-off” development workshops. Without networking the teachers, without creating a community of inquiry, without follow-on communications and designing subsequent development opportunities with feedback from prior participants in mind, the new strategies gained in the workshop quickly fade with time.
We cannot logically demand access for students to a tailored education that meets their authentic and individual needs without first revolutionizing how teachers are trained, and how they think about teaching.
Geographically independent, asynchronous online microcredentials offer a third avenue for professional development and will mitigate many of these problems by providing lasting, meaningful content. Critical to this effort will be engaging leading thinkers in education who can consolidate knowledge from the fields of cognitive psychology, curriculum design and assessment, and instructional technology including digital platforms. An effort like this must also harness the content knowledge and expertise of leading teacher educators in critical shortage fields as well as those dedicated to working with high need populations. A leader on this project must also possess a deep and integrated understanding of the structures higher education and professional development, and local, state and national policies that govern teacher learning and licensure. In my analysis of this fluid but rapidly expanding industry, I have not identified an existing model for online microcredentialing that meets this high bar or integrates knowledge from these divergent fields.
Certainly, we know of several interfaces that provide online learning opportunities at low or no cost including Kahn Academy, Udemy, Lynda.com, EdX and Coursera. A survey of the MOOC offerings through these well-known platforms will quickly generate the conclusion that these spaces aren’t designed for educators who wish to improve their pedagogical practice. Rather, these sites largely serve the scientific and technological industries. Digital Promise and similar organizations are building a comprehensive and diverse online platform, but the buy-in from teachers hasn’t been significant. Something is missing.
In a recent study of a representative sample of teachers, Grunwald Associates, LLC and Digital Promise found that early adapters of online microcredentialing are open to using this system as a way to improve their teaching. However, their findings also suggest that teachers question both the credibility of the staff that design the curriculum as well as those evaluating the teachers’ work. Participants in the study, though intrinsically motived by the desire for more knowledge and better teaching, wondered how “badges” and “microcredentials” displayed on their LinkedIn and Facebook pages would garner the recognition the teacher desires and deserves for their efforts. State credentialing agencies in New Hampshire and other New England states have yet to respond meaningfully to the call to formally recognize teachers’ work on microcredential programs. Digital Promise is on the leading edge of the work to consolidate learning tasks, but we can also learn from the challenges that this business has faced and seek innovative ways to address those challenges.
First, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to standardize the language of “microcredentialing.” In traditional teacher education programs, the coursework and clinical hours required to earn an endorsement for a teaching credential are relatively uniform. By referencing a “credential,” whether “micro” or otherwise, the online microcredentialing industry is promising something that it seems ill equipped to deliver. The online microcredentialing industry must network with state education agencies to determine what commitment and what display of competency should be required of teachers to earn a “microcredential,” and this “microcredential” must translate to something meaningful and more precise with the credentialing agency. For example, to earn a teaching credential, typical teachers must complete an accredited teacher education program, pass the requisite state sanctioned high-stakes exams, undergo a background check and complete an application with the state. The component that calls for a completion of an accredited teacher education program alone requires several semesters of coursework where one course typically implies 120 hours of student work. Meanwhile, the “microcredentials” offered on Digital Promise take fewer than two hours to complete. There seems to be a mismatch in work demand and measures of mastery.
Second, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to diminish the variability in quality in the coursework offered. In my market research, I dug deeply into online offerings of various institutions and online companies that are gaining traction in my home state of New Hampshire. In my quest to determine who was designing and executing these online microcredential and professional development opportunities, I was surprised to discover that I could rarely determine who authored the content. In the instances where I could determine who authored the content, I was similarly surprised to find that it was not authored by teacher educators or education researchers. In other words, while the authors of this content may be highly regarded practitioners in classrooms, there was little to suggest that the pedagogical techniques they conveyed are evidenced-based. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire alone I could name highly regarded teacher educators who have been designing inquiry-based, evidence-driven coursework and training programs for teachers for decades. Why are these expert faculty members not solicited to generate content for online microcredentials?
Third, a robust online microcredentialing program must offer module templates that reflect what we know about how people learn. As detailed at the outset of this letter, cognitive psychologist and education researchers know quite a lot about how people learn – despite what we typically see in classrooms. We know that best teaching begins with the teacher identifying what his or her students already know, and then using students’ prior learning and experiences as a springboard to further learning. The teacher can curate sources of new information that provide scaffolds for students to acquire new knowledge and demonstrate new competencies. Students’ capacity to transfer and enact that new knowledge must be assessed by the teacher. My traditional and online course design has followed these guidelines for years. Yet in an examination of the assessments of current models of online microcredentialing, the assessment process appears quite uneven. While I commend current models that require participants in the module to demonstrate their knowledge on performance assessment, a lingering question for me is, “Who is determining what mastery looks like for this assessment?” To put the question in the language of a student, “Who is correcting my work, and how do I know they know what they’re doing?” This model goes beyond the transmissionist, one-way-street model of platforms like Lynda.com (which only provide the content to students) by trying to mimic the dialogical nature of the teacher student relationship. However, it stops short of more ambitious models in the sense that these offerings are unable or unwilling to guarantee the credibility of the assessor. Additionally, we know that when a teacher provides timely, direct and standards based feedback students have more opportunity to reach mastery. No models exist online where the back-and-forth conversation between student and teacher are present and sustainable.
Finally, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to leverage existing educator networks to identify common challenges with professional learning, and to develop innovative solutions which address those challenges and work to scale the service. Teachers want professional development that helps them answer the question, “What can I use in my classroom right now strengthen my content knowledge and enhance my pedagogical technique?” When teachers find professional development offerings that work for them, they naturally return to those sources for more, and the word spreads. Currently, New Hampshire finds itself in a position unlike any other state. All of the institutions of higher education that prepare teachers have voluntarily joined forces with the aim of improving teaching quality, and the equitable distribution of quality teachers in the state. During my time as the Secretary of the New Hampshire Institutes of Higher Education Network, it has become increasingly clear that this network needs an institution-independent platform to serve as a warehouse of content, training and resources for our region’s classroom teachers. Many of the teacher educators in this network have been training teachers for decades in the state. Their professional networks of practicing classroom teachers are experientially varied and geographically vast. Classroom teachers in New Hampshire are loyally connected to the programs that prepared them. Leveraging these existing networks through an online microcredentialing program is a first step to expanding these programs to scale.
It will take significant resources to realize these short and long term goals. A successful initiative must acknowledge the ongoing technological requirements for hosting a healthy online microcredentialing environment including costs to host the platform, the platform itself (e.g. Moodle or Coursera), the requisite storage for multiple media sources like video, infographics, sound and image files; and plugins to enhance user experiences and interactivity (e.g. Zoom, )
Though these technological costs are diverse and revolving, they are minimal compared to the investment an initiative like this requires in people power. Short-term goals like developing an interface with user experience design will require contracts with graphic designers and instructional technology experts. Developing a single module, stack and microcredential series requires contracts with experts in course management systems to ensure that course designers will be able to sequence their content and customize their modules with standard and emergent technologies contemporary students have come to expect.
Long-term goals including building and diversifying microcredential offerings require contracting with content area experts including course buy-outs or stipends for university faculty by module. Videographers will need to be hired and software procured (e.g. Camtasia or Canvas) to enable content authors to establish an online presence with their students. Administrative costs for this endeavor are extensive and include everything from pulling copyrights for supporting course texts to issuing acknowledgements that participants in the modules have demonstrate competencies. Leadership on this initiative will require at the very least summer salaries for professors, consulting costs to exchange ideas about design and development with intellectual property and contract lawyers (whose content is this?), business consultants (how do we market and scale our site), state education policy actors (how can we get teachers the recognition they deserve through the credentialing process).
Support from foundations to achieve these short and long term goals is crucial. In the absence of this support, individuals, agencies and businesses will continue to shape and define the nature of online professional learning opportunities for teachers. What is missing in this equation is the input, guidance and innovation of education researchers and teacher educators who have the content knowledge, the pedagogical expertise and the established networks to bring demands of high quality to this initiative. In the industries of higher education and online learning, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can continue to reproduce online faulty assumptions about how people learn and, it follows, how one should teach online. Or, we can recognize the convergence of research and capacity to scale online is presenting us with an opportunity to not just replicate what we have always done, but to surpass that work in a virtual environment. With help, we can work to teach teachers to teach in a way that reflects what we know about how learners learn.