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Simultaneously reinventing the education of teachers and students

How can we combine theory and practice in teacher education – as well as in the classroom?


How can we combine theory and practice in teacher education – as well as in the classroom? Sitra’s Justin Cook explores what we could learn from examples abroad on our Weekly notes blog.

Among the widely divergent approaches to accrediting educators – especially in the United States – teacher education and student education have remained largely separate enterprises. With a few exceptions, most teachers’ pathways into a classroom are through a traditional university. Theory and practice are separated in both time and space.

But for a rapidly evolving field that is being challenged by technology, uncertainty and resource constraints, among other trends, perhaps this separation limits innovation, efficacy and responsiveness of the system. In order to advance the education of students, perhaps we must simultaneously reinvent the education of teachers and restructure the relationship between higher education and primary and secondary school. This is the logic behind High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education.

As part of Sitra’s Education for a Changing World research project, we are researching and writing several case studies that examine in detail examples from today that can serve as prototypes for the future of education. As the great American philosopher John Dewey noted in 1915, “The conception of education has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind”. This notion guides the exhaustive process of selecting each case study. In other words, our selection criteria demand that each case has taken a profound position on the formation of society in the future and has designed its approach to teaching and learning accordingly.

In addition, for each case study, we examine how the example interacts with our principles of sustainable well-being in practical terms. Not only does this help us form a richer understanding of each case, but it also helps us understand and advance the myriad ways in which society will need to transform itself for a sustainable future.

I would argue that this is the unique value of Sitra’s research capability. Not only can we ask questions that may not conform to a more traditional research environment, but we can also entangle Sitra’s societal advancement mission in an analysis of the international landscape of ideas and solutions. Just like the topic of this post, this approach to research narrows the gap between thinking and doing – theory and impact.

With this background, I packed my bags earlier this year and travelled from Boston to San Diego to spend the better part of a week at High Tech High, to learn from teachers and students, and engage its leadership structure. Why High Tech High? The charter school network is widely known (it receives thousands of visitors/delegations each year, similar to Finland) for its holistic approach to project-based learning, extremely effective teaching and success with a highly diverse student body. But I was interested in examining the unusual relationship between the thirteen kindergarten-through-12th grade (K-12) schools and its Graduate School that was born out of the K-12 schools in 2007. What I found in San Diego was astounding and inspiring.

A much longer analysis will be provided in the forthcoming case study, but here are a few key observations about the benefits of embedding a graduate school in a K-12 school system.

  • Tying an institution of higher learning directly (under the same leadership structure) to a field of practice provides an unmatched continuum between theory and practice.
  • The advancement of theory increases in both speed and responsiveness to a changing world.
  • The focus on the purpose of teaching and learning does not drift from the students and their current and future roles in society. Theory and practice advance according to purpose and vision, not systemic artifacts such as tenure-track publishing expectations for professors.
  • Teachers learn and advance their careers in full view of the students, modelling in real time what is expected of the students.
  • Students have access to the Graduate School to participate in focus groups where they provide feedback about experimental pedagogy and practice. In other words, the role of students in teacher training is continuous – not partitioned into internships.
  • Teachers are part of learning community, not just service delivery providers. The learning community includes professionals in the High Tech High schools and a broader group of practitioners from outside the schools attending the Graduate School.

As one teacher told me, “The Graduate School of Education helps me to think about the bigger picture of education.” The value of the possibility to reflect on purpose, especially in education where the demands are immediate and profound, cannot be understated. As such, we believe the structural innovation of the Graduate School at the High Tech High network of schools is a prototype for the future of education for both teachers and students.

As part of our research project, our global team of thought leaders, who are providing the philosophical foundations for the future of education, include two experts from High Tech High. Rob Riordan is the President Emeritus of the Graduate School and Stacey Caillier is the research director. Their article, along with 10 others, will form the backbone of our publication due to be launched in 2017.

In the meantime, we invite you to attend a screening of the amazing documentary Most Likely to Succeed, being shown in Finland for the first time. The film looks at the history of education and asks why schools have gone so unchanged since their invention. High Tech High is featured as an example of how to do things differently. This event is open to the public (with limited space) and will take place on the afternoon/evening of 17 March 2016. After the documentary, we will hold a panel discussion with experts from Finland and the US (including Rob Riordan from High Tech High and Irmeli Halinen from Finland’s National Board of Education) to understand what the film means for Finland. More details can be found here.

Join us!

Weekly notes is a series of blogs offering insights into the topical issues being discussed each week by Sitra’s research and strategy team. Our Weekly Notes are gathered together here.

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