Technology for a 'very different kind of contemporary professional association' – Angela McFarlane
If the starting gun for the College of Teaching, the new chartered professional body for the teaching profession, has not actually been fired, the finger is firmly on the trigger.
There is widespread and rapidly growing support from the profession, with more than 60 per cent wanting to join and pay their annual subscription, and five major unions and more than 450 individuals and organisations backing the proposal.
What everyone wants to know now is who will fund it and exactly how will it work? What follows is a purely personal muse on what a College of Teaching might be, how it might operate and particularly how technology can support a very different kind of contemporary professional association, building on the best traditions of chartered bodies.
Technology has already influenced the financials via 'Hubbub'
Let’s start with funding. Traditionally, professional bodies are formed by a group of leading practitioners coming together and funding the setting up of a legal entity.
In establishing a new College of Teaching, we are not simply seeking the support of a small number of wealthy practitioners. By using the charitable crowdfunding platform Hubbub, a very specific form of social media, we offer every teacher the opportunity to be part of this historic process if they choose.
Crowdfunding enables supporters to pledge donations to found the new college. If the campaign achieves its target, the college will have the funds it needs for the start-up phase. If not, the pledges will not be taken – this is a major strength compared with traditional fundraising methods.
The platform also helps supporters to spread the word and recruit friends and colleagues to join the campaign. The College of Teaching will be the first Chartered College to use 21st Century communications and e-payment technologies to establish its founding support.
Moreover, we have been able to test the appetite of the profession for a new college robustly. But will the 50 per cent of our survey respondents who said they would be prepared to match-fund a startup donation actually ‘walk the talk’? Indeed, would we ever have known support was so high if we had not been able to use electronic communication and social media to get direct responses from more than 13,000 teachers?
A different structure for the new age of professional bodies
Once established, the model of the college is unlikely to be a large staff in an iconic building. Its heart and soul will be in its members – connected to each other through a range of networking technologies, plus the latest knowledge and research they need in useful and relevant formats. How will this differ from current networks through social media and various online fora?
It would be madness to try and establish new forms of communication tools, but what the college can offer is quality assurance, provenance and the privacy to ask questions without fear of an avalanche of responses.
Currently there are a number of ‘gurus’ on social media, giving advice and making pronouncements. Many have tens of thousands of followers, some have more than 100,000. But truth is not the sum of collective belief; just because I follow you does not mean I believe you. So other than deciding if what is being said seems sensible, or I agree with it, how can I be sure that the advice and comments I am reading are truly credible and backed by a robust evidence base?
After all, as Jeff Hawkins (neuroscientist and founder of Palm Computers) said, "If you look at the history of big obstacles in understanding of our world, there’s usually an intuitive assumption underlying them that is wrong."
This is where a college can play at least two roles – in bringing to bear the voice of the genuinely disinterested expert who can offer a view on where the weight of evidence lies (rather than the latest report or opinion piece) and offering a refereed forum where the implications and nuances of the evidence base can be debated and shared.
This is not about offering the one right answer – which rarely, if ever, exists – but developing the professional judgement needed to understand which practices work best in which circumstances and how you can tell the difference.
Another area where technology could really be a game changer for the college is in accrediting teachers with chartered status. In line with other professions, this must recognise current, high-quality practice. Moreover it must involve a process that adds value for teachers and derives from their day-to-day work in classrooms. This is important both for the validity of the accreditation and the practicality of working toward such recognition, while working every hour under the sun!
Technologies that capture events in the classroom have been powerful research tools as well as being used in professional development for decades. Elizabeth Goldman at Peabody College in Nashville pioneered the use of video analysis in helping beginning teachers understand and improve their management of learning.
You had to be really keen to persevere with the temperamental, costly and cumbersome technology. The results were powerful but confined to a privileged few.
Today, there are two strands of technology enhancing teacher development that resonate with Goldman’s approach; the use of video or audio recordings that can then be analysed with a mentor. Both approaches mitigate the inevitable ‘observer’ effect of having another adult in the classroom.
Mentors can spend their time with teachers doing the analysis rather than sitting in lessons. But most powerful is that there is a shared record of what happened, diffusing any tensions arising from differences in recollection of what happened. There may also be a transcript - which can be coded in advance – so that the whole lesson does not have to be reviewed in real time and the key elements can be highlighted and analysed.
In schools where this approach is already being used, it is easy to see how this could culminate in a short collation of recorded practice and the commentary on it to evidence the skills of reflection, use of an evidence base to inform lesson design and evaluation of learner experience. Moreover, a sequence of work over a term or year could show how practice is evolving.
Aren't these the sorts of evidence a college should be looking for to validate an effective teacher who is self-critical, evidence-informed and driven by the outcomes for learners? Moreover the process of working with a mentor in this way over the first years of your working life is the sort of development opportunity a professional should be entitled to in their early formation.
So how might such a professional record of work-in-progress and achievement be handled? Again, networked technologies offer solutions that take such content management to a new level. Each member can have an online, secure space in which they store the most relevant examples of their development practice.
This stays with them across their career, managed by the college, and they access it as long as they are current members, although the content itself is always theirs. They can choose when it can be accessed and by whom – perhaps for a job application, performance review, application for chartered status or fellowship of the college or even evidence of effective practice to an external reviewer. The important thing is that the portfolio remains the property of the member to be accessed only with her or his permission.
'The profession will not be vulnerable to the latest guru'
So in my world, the college will be a series of powerful networks, of people, content and communications. It will be technology enabled in the best sense of that term – using content management and networking tools to share and store powerful knowledge and ideas. Most important, it will offer support and bring rigour to the practice of all teachers who take part.
No-one will be left wondering if the latest blog, book or report should guide their decision-making because it seems popular. The profession will not be vulnerable to the latest guru, but shielded by a powerful quality-assurance network, which will differentiate between the noise and the signal. And that will be true no matter how impressive the noise maker.
Professor Angela McFarlane is chief executive of the College of Teachers. A former school teacher, she went on to design and direct a number of highly successful educational research and development projects over thirty years. She was head of the Graduate School of Education at Bristol and director of public engagement at Kew Gardens.
Angela’s research addresses the role of digital technologies in education, and has included the development of commercially successful software tools including online assessment products. Authentic Learning for the Digital Generation was published in August 2014 by Routledge.
She joined the College of Teachers as chief executive and registrar in June 2014. She was an expert contributor to the Nordic and Baltic Prime Ministers’ Northern Futures Forum.