Anyone who wants to teach schoolchildren needs to go back to school themselves from time to time. But what makes for good continuing education? What can it actually achieve? And how is continuing education changing in the digital age? We put these questions to education expert Frank Lipowsky.
Mr Lipowsky, when you look back at your time at school, which subjects were you particularly good at?
I was probably best in PE, maths and chemistry.
And was that because of you or thanks to your teachers?
I’m sure it was down to my teachers to some extent, though it was partly because those were the subjects I was interested in. However, I also remember having an English teacher who rather spoilt my enjoyment of and success in the subject.
So to what degree does a teacher’s competence influence the success of learners?
To a comparatively large degree. Obviously what learners bring with them in terms of prior knowledge or motivation is also important; however, among those aspects that can be influenced in the educational domain it is teachers and the way they design their lessons that have the greatest influence. By contrast, those aspects that differ from school to school, such as the school’s climate or the management style of its headteacher, have less of an impact on what pupils actually learn. A major meta-analysis found that the proportion of impact accounted for by teachers and their lessons is 30 to 35 percent, which means that 30 to 35 percent of the differences in pupil performance can be explained by teachers and their lessons.
Why is it important for teachers to undergo regular continuing education themselves?
For one thing, the phase that follows their actual professional training is the longest phase in a teacher’s career. Naturally a lot happens during this time, both in terms of society and technology. Continuing education helps teachers keep up-to-date. On the other hand, professional competence – that is to say what teachers know and how they behave in the classroom – does not depend on how much professional experience they have. It would therefore be wrong to sit back and relax, assuming that teachers will automatically become better and better just because they have five or ten years of experience.
What makes for good continuing education?
Continuous education should cover an extended period of time. It should combine phases of input, practice, reflection and feedback. Teachers must be able to apply what they have learnt in the classroom, and should also be given feedback. As a rule, it is also better when continuing education is more in-depth rather than attempting to cover too broad a spectrum, probably because both the course instructors and the teachers themselves will then be better able to engage with and analyse the specific processes by which pupils learn and understand. From this perspective it thus appears to make better sense for example for continuing education to focus on “improving reading fluency” rather than to explore the subject of “pupil coaching” without any subject relevance whatsoever, as coaching of pupils presupposes good and constructive feedback, which in turn requires subject relevance. Another feature of successful continuing education is that it addresses and picks up on lesson topics and characteristics that are known to play an important role in learning. This is why course instructors also need good knowledge of the current state of lesson research. Furthermore, teachers will be given feedback in good continuing education courses, and will be encouraged to engage in intensive teamwork.
Is it in fact possible to measure the success of a continuing education course?
Yes. Teachers who have undergone effective continuing education are able for example to describe the difficulties faced by pupils in a significantly more nuanced and accurate manner, and to propose appropriate remedial measures. To determine whether the lessons have improved, the pupils themselves can be asked or the lessons can be monitored – before and after the continuing education, and ideally compared with a control group.
Feedback phases and teamwork play an important role in good continuing education. | Photo (detail): © Woodapple – Fotolia.com
How can teachers themselves best discover the impact of their own actions?
Video recordings are a good way. Not only are they a useful aid to memory, they also help one gain some distance from one’s own actions and allow one to view certain scenes multiple times. Teachers should not be left to do this on their own, however; they need the support of the course instructors so as to be able for example to recognize the correlation between their own actions as teacher and the reactions and learning progress of the pupils.
And how specifically can such video recordings be used to improve a lesson?
There are for example “lesson studies”, a professionalization concept that originated in Japan. In teams, teachers prepare a lesson. One teacher from the team then gives the lesson while the others sit in, make video recordings and take note of pupil contributions and how they react to the tasks and questions set by the teacher. Afterwards, the videos and transcripts are analysed and the lesson is redesigned. The goal is to run through this process several times so as to develop a “perfect” lesson that will work well in any class.
But that sounds very time-consuming.
True, but it is worthwhile in the longer term, especially if one shares the lessons planned in this way with one’s colleagues and can in turn also take advantage of lessons planned by one’s fellow teachers. What is more, one’s professional satisfaction and the experience of one’s own impact are likely to increase significantly if one works in a team and discovers what one really can achieve as a teacher.
Which particular features need to be considered when designing continuing education courses for language teachers?
Interestingly, there is less research on this than in the area of maths and sciences. In principle, however, many of the characteristics that make for good continuing education in general are likely to apply to foreign language teaching, too. Particular features will probably come into play when it is a question of exploring specific work approaches in and ways of accessing foreign language teaching in continuing education; for example when the continuing education course is to focus on promoting reading comprehension in the foreign language. In this case, it will no doubt be important for teachers to be confronted with strategies and methods that will increase the likelihood of their pupils learning effectively.
Digitization presents all kinds of new possibilities for continuing education. How do you view this potential?
Very positively. Online courses will certainly not replace classroom-based events entirely, but they are definitely a very good way of complementing them. One example may perhaps illustrate their potential: there is an American continuing education programme that aims to improve interaction between teachers on the one hand and pupils on the other. The participating teachers are asked to make a video of a lesson every two weeks and send it via a secure platform to a coach. The coach then selects a few brief sections from the video that relate to the subject of the continuing education course, and asks the teacher to comment on them. The two then speak on the telephone and devise a plan for future lessons, based on what has been observed. The process is repeated every two weeks. This kind of continuing education could of course offer particular opportunities for a decentralized institution like the Goethe-Institut.
Frank Lipowsky | Photo: © Frank Lipowsky
Frank Lipowsky is a qualified primary and secondary school teacher. He decided to return to university after five years in the classroom, and since 2006 has been a professor of educational science at the University of Kassel. The professionalization of teachers is one focus of his research.
Lipowsky, Frank (2016): Unterricht entwickeln und Lehrpersonen professionalisieren. Ansätze und Impulse aus der Fortbildungsforschung. In: Pädagogik Volume 68, Issue 7‐8, p. 76‐79.
Lipowsky, Frank/Rzejak, Daniela (2015): Wenn Lehrer zu Lernern werden – Merkmale wirksamer Lehrerfortbildungen. In: Lin‐Klitzing, Susanne/Di Fuccia, Daniel/Stengl‐Jörns, Roswitha (Ed.): Auf die Lehrperson kommt es an? Beiträge zur Lehrerbildung nach John Hatties “Visible Learning”. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt, p. 141-160.
Lipowsky, Frank/Rzejak, Daniela (2015): Lehrerfortbildungen lernwirksam gestalten – Ein Überblick über den Forschungsstand. In: ZfL Magazin Volume 1, Issue 1, p. 5‐10.