High-quality teachers are a crucial part of a good education.41 Caring, capable teachers understand their students’ individual strengths and needs, and can tailor their guidance accordingly, giving each student the direction, motivation, and instruction they need in order to succeed. This will continue to be true under our vision for education in 2030.
However, teachers’ roles will need to change in response to the other changes we propose to the educational system. As the high school curriculum moves away from a fixed set of factual content toward a more flexible set of project-based studies, teachers will less often be in the position of knowing ahead of time what students will learn. Instead, they will become co-discoverers with their students. Even today, teachers engage in much less “chalk and talk” than they once did; in the future, though it will not disappear entirely, they are likely to spend even less time at this activity. Sometimes a concise explanation from a knowledgeable teacher will still be exactly what learners want and need at a particular stage in their learning journey.
As teachers spend less time in the role of information providers, they will spend correspondingly more in other, equally crucial roles as learning coaches, learning role models, and researchers. We will briefly discuss each of these roles in turn.
Teachers as Learning Coaches
The essence of a teacher’s job is to support, assist, and encourage students in the process of learning. In the high schools that we envision, this will not often involve simply giving information to the learners for them to memorize. Instead, teachers will invest most of their time and energy in creating the optimal conditions in which students can do their own learning. This is a subtle, but important, shift that is already taking place in many classrooms, but which should become the norm.
In essence, teachers will be taking on some of the same challenges as coaches of elite athletes. Athletic coaches need not just a deep understanding of their sport, but – perhaps more important – a knowledge of how to motivate their athletes to commit to the persistent, hard work needed to succeed. Similarly, teachers will need to understand the goals and aspirations of each of their students as individuals, and will need to help them develop the resiliency they will need to overcome the obstacles that arise in every learning endeavour. Indeed, this persistence in the face of difficulty is itself an important goal of learning, and a teacher must build this in every student. Only then can teachers apply their expert knowledge of the learning process to coax the most from each of their students.
Each learner should have a specific teacher who serves as his or her “learning coach” during the high school years. Learner and coach should meet one on one at the beginning of the school year to establish individual learning goals for the year, and prepare a study plan to attain those goals. Learner and coach will then meet periodically during the school year to review the learner’s progress and refine goals and plan as need dictates. Lumiar School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, already uses teachers primarily as experts in the art of learning, and brings in community members to serve as content experts.42
Many school systems already require detailed individual study plans for gifted students and for special-needs students. Every student should have such a plan and, crucially, that student should have a leading voice in setting the goals and creating the plan. Indeed, high school students should take most of the responsibility for generating their plan under the teacher/mentor’s guidance. This coaching/ mentorship system gives every learner an advocate within the system – an adult who cares about the student as an individual with unique interests, abilities, and ambitions. All students will benefit from having such an advocate, but it will be especially important for those who lack a stable, supportive home environment.
Teachers as Role Models
The best teachers have always been role models for their students: caring, supportive, open, and enthusiastic. As high school education moves away from standardized knowledge toward a more open-ended exploration through projects, teachers will have the opportunity to model another very important role: that of an active learner.
In the standard school system of today, this opportunity is not easily available. Usually, teachers come into class already knowing the material to be covered, so students rarely get to watch them in the process of discovery and learning. Under our model of learning for 2030, on the other hand, teachers will often find themselves facing questions to which they do not yet know the answers, and even addressing whole subjects they know little about.
This is a strength, not a weakness, of this approach to learning, because students will have the opportunity to see how experienced learners – their teachers – handle the process of gaining new knowledge and skills. They can watch as teachers demonstrate that good learning is always difficult, full of trial and error and blind alleys. Teachers can show by example that persistence and a positive attitude – what psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth refers to as “grit” – are key components of success. Learners can participate with their teachers, in the process of formulating hypotheses, testing them, and making new hypotheses that fit the data better.43
Throughout this process – indeed, throughout the entire educational system – educators should encourage learners to treat learning as a set of skills to be developed gradually. Learners are engaged in a long-term process of developing their “learning muscles.” Teachers should continually stress that students can improve their learning skills, and they should be explicit about the skills that are being developed by particular classroom exercises. When teachers model learning as something to be built over time, like an athletic skill, this helps students focus on the process, and on their own progress, rather than treating education as a race to a fixed goal line. This parallels Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” – an important contributor to success.44
In their lives after high school, learners will often find themselves needing to start from the beginning in learning a new subject or set of skills without a knowledgeable guide to lead them. They will be better equipped for this challenge by being able to draw on the example of their teachers.
This is not to say that background knowledge is unimportant. A good teacher should still have a deep understanding of and passion for some particular field of knowledge. Precisely what that field is may vary depending on the individual teacher and the social context: farming techniques, perhaps, for a part-time teacher in rural Tanzania or software design for a teacher in Singapore or Silicon Valley. Students may not choose to develop their own depth in these same subjects, but they will see how their teachers create, maintain, and use their expertise. The students can use this as an example as they develop their own expertise.
Teachers as Researchers
One area in which every teacher should develop expertise is the subject of learning itself. As part of that process, we recommend that teachers be strongly encouraged to experiment with innovative teaching methods, topics, and resources. The ideal teacher should be the educational equivalent of the clinical researchers who apply basic medical research to find better treatments for patients. In a similar way, teachers are perfectly positioned to translate research on teaching, learning, and cognitive science into the classroom.
Forward-thinking principals are already encouraging teachers to do this in some schools, of course. At Ngee Ann Secondary School in Singapore, for example, principal Adrian Lim (an Equinox Summit participant) encourages his teachers to interact often with faculty at teacher-training schools who suggest ideas in need of testing. The teachers do the tests as small-scale research projects in their classrooms, and more than half of the teachers have presented their results at international education conferences. Teachers meet regularly for “Fail-forward Fridays,” where they share results, discuss their successes and failures, and plan ways to improve the next time.
High schools should strive to make this “innovation by design” the norm. This will pay off in more effective teaching techniques, in ensuring engaged teachers equipped with the latest knowledge, and in enhancing the atmosphere of learning that should be the lifeblood of every school.
Selection and Training of Teachers
The kind of education we envision calls for teachers who are caring, empathetic, intellectually nimble, enthusiastic, persistent, and skilled at getting the best from their students. These are precisely the qualities already displayed by many excellent teachers around the world and they will be even more essential in the future.
To ensure a continued, or even enhanced, supply of high-quality teachers for our schools, we recommend that every jurisdiction review and update their teacher-training practices and selection policies, responding to the findings of research into what is working best in current systems. In particular, we recommend that teacher-training programs should draw on candidates who have strong academic records combined with a proven set of skills and aptitudes. To the greatest extent possible, all high school teachers should have a university degree in an academic subject in addition to training in education. This content knowledge provides them with depth of understanding that students can draw on during their projects, and serves as a base from which teachers and students can launch further explorations. It also demonstrates a proven facility with project-based study, research and persistence skills, putting the teacher in a good position to facilitate the development of those skills in students.
We note that Finland already requires high school teachers to have a master’s degree in an academic subject, in addition to specialized training in education.45 Singapore is now moving toward a similar system, with two-thirds of incoming teachers now having a master’s degree in education to supplement an undergraduate content degree.46
This move will enhance the status of the teacher, an important aim of a successful education system. It is worth noting that some societies already regard teaching as a high-status profession that attracts the best and brightest young people. In Finland, for example, teachers have the same social prestige as doctors, and teaching was the top-rated profession in a survey of college students, despite paying only average salaries. As a result, Finnish teacher-training programs can be highly selective, requiring not just excellent grades but also strong personal skills and a commitment to teaching.47 Singapore’s education system similarly recruits candidates from the top third of potential applicants.48 In both places, this selectivity is regarded as one reason the educational systems are so successful.49 As teachers gain more autonomy and all learning partners become more engaged in the learning process, teaching should become a more desirable career, allowing all educational systems to become more selective in teacher recruitment.
Finally, all school systems should pay close attention to continuing education for teachers. For example, teachers just entering the profession might be paired with more senior ones. Such pairing can have benefits for both parties, with the senior teacher mentoring the junior in classroom techniques and the junior helping the senior stay up to date in technology and educational research.
Another powerful way to enhance teachers’ continued development is to provide opportunities for networking, particularly online, with other teachers facing similar challenges, so that they can share best practices and research results as they learn. Some such forums already exist, such as WIDE world at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and Pedagogy Unbound, although the latter is focused on college teaching. We encourage school systems, teachers’ organizations, and third-party developers to produce better systems that are easier to navigate and more effective for teachers’ needs.50,51
41. We recognize that the education ecosystem contains other learning professionals in addition to those formally trained as teachers: teachers’ aides, librarians, computer technicians, and others. All of these members of the school community serve essential roles, though each differs in their precise responsibilities. for convenience, we will usually refer to all these professionals as “teachers,” making distinctions only as necessary. We are also aware that there is some resistance to the use of the term “teacher” in our new educational system, because it implies an old-fashioned reliance on one- directional information transfer that we no longer endorse. We will, however, continue referring to educational professionals as teachers, with the understanding that their role in the classroom is changing.
42. Luminar. See also “Microsoft Innovative Schools Program Year 1 Evaluation Report,” 2009, p 32.
43. Perkins-Gough, D, 2013.“The Significance of Grit: A Conversation With Angela Lee Duckworth.” Educational Leadership, vol 71, p 14 44.
44. Dweck, C, 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books
45. Darling-Hammond, L & Rothman, r, 2011. “Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems”
47. Sahlberg 2011 in Darling-Hammond, L & Rothman, r, 2011. “Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems” p 14 48.
48. Choo and Darling-Hammond, 2011 in Darling-Hammond, L & Rothman, R, 2011. “Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems” p 34 49.
49. Darling-Hammond, L & Rothman, r, 2011. “Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems”
“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”