The interview was originally published at Valu.Enews
An important international mission visited the University of Kazan, Russia, made by INVALSI's researcher Donatella Poliandri, Head of the Schools' Evaluation cluster of the National Institute for the Evaluation of Education System and of the Valu.E PON Project, and Graziana Epifani, researcher at the Institute in the same areas. The two researchers represented INVALSI at the Third International Teacher Education Forum at the Federal University of Kazan from 22 to 28 May 2017, co-chaired by Professor Roza A. Valeeva, Head of the Pedagogy Department of the Kazan University. The prestigious international conference was divided into fourteen introductory lectures, and countless thematic symposia and paper sessions in which latest international research on teachers' education was presented. The research mission in Russia, which also touched the city of Samara, embodied an opportunity for INVALSI's researchers to take part in a reflection symposium chaired by Professor Tatyana A. Baklashova of the Higher School Pedagogy Department of the Kazan University, where they presented an essay on The Italian Education System: A Focus on Teachers, but, above all, to debate with colleagues from all over the world working on teachers' professional skills. Poliandri and Epifani also had the opportunity to study in depth the Russian teachers' education system: a significant experience, according to the two Italian researchers, fascinated by an educational model aimed at unifying disciplinary training with the steady updating of the most relevant skills for teaching. “Russia is an extremely interesting case, incredibly innovative and still focused on the relevance of pedagogical disciplines” said both Poliandri and Epifani, returning from their research mission. Valu.Enews Editorial Board interviewed the two researchers to discuss Conference's main topics.
Donatella Poliandri, can you share with us your impressions of the International Conference and the lessons that the Italian system should learn in the light of recent international trends?
«The conference represented an extraordinary experience of intellectual and cultural exchange as well as giving valuable time to learn about and deepen the study of best practices at international level. Although teaching contexts are often profoundly different, there is a perceived need at international level to find a common ground of comparison, enhancing the peculiarities of each individual educational experience. In this light, the professional figure of teacher should regain its social status founded on the centrality of its work for both individual and collective growth: for instance, Ian Menter, the Deputy President of BERA, the British Educational Research Association, and Professor at the Department of Education of the University of Oxford, in his lecture on The Importance of Teaching in the XXI Century. Some lessons from research, underlined how important it would be to work in a common way in order to equip teachers with both disciplinary as well as relational competencies, i.e. ranging from the ability to know their own subject in depth, to the ability to guide the class' learning process, where school classes around the world are increasingly characterized by the diversity of students' social backgrounds. At the same time, as Menter pointed out, one has also to be able to value the identity of each single context of affiliation as each educational system is the result of a strong relationship between history, culture and the specific policy systems of each country. These are qualities of the various local contexts that enrich educational systems worldwide. The role of teacher is one of clear social responsibility: despite the contexts of swirling change in the global age, in fact, teachers have indeed the task of preparing the citizens of the future. In this international aspiration to work on a common vocabulary of teaching, which at the same time cannot afford to ignore the relevance of local contexts, I think we can identify one of the most important lessons to take home from the Kazan conference.
And research must take this lesson seriously as well, Graziana Epifani?
«Of course, because the world of scientific research, just like educational systems, is strongly related to the peculiarities of culture, history and politics. Especially in the methodological and social field of research, we can observe a theoretical/practical endowment: we have, in fact, to elaborate policies, but we must also be careful as public policies should not be confined to ‘good' theory, but they should find fertile soil and then become something very ‘practical', i.e. oriented to ‘practice' and above all oriented to the change and improvement of each specific context. Hence, improvement is possible when one realizes that the world of learning and training, including the education of teachers, is a world that has to be understood as ever-evolving and not firm and static in its established practices and experiences.»
Epifani, can you describe how the core-topic of the conference, i.e. teachers' education, was developed?
«I really liked the inaugural lecture of EERA's President, the European Conference of Educational Research, Theo Wubbles, on Realistic Teachers' Education: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice. This speech seemed to me capable of transcending the theory of education of teachers in order to point out elements that characterise everyday work. There were three keywords in his presentation: trust, impact, and experience. First of all, trust, intended as the confidence that teacher has to gain day by day in a process of interaction and interchange with his or her main interlocutors, namely the students. Then, impact, which is so important in determining the progress of each lesson and to hold the attention of learners: in this sense, the very first minutes of the lesson will be incredibly important, especially in the light of a good communication strategy. Finally, experience, which should become a real milestone in the learning process and which is an element far too often overlooked: it is necessary to become more and more aware of how, alongside the knowledge of disciplinary programs that the student must demostrate having mastered at the end of each year, knowledge also consists of many incidental elements that cannot be rightly predicted before the beginning of the learning process. On the other hand, knowledge today appears too transmissive as characterised by a loss of power of experience in the relationship between teachers and their students. The process of structuring experience, therefore, can only emerge in the light of a strong relationship between pupils and their teacher: only in this very sense, the teacher can become a true experiential training promoter.»
Donatella Poliandri, what has emerged on the relationship between teaching and the professional figure of the teacher?
«This is another crucial topic that has characterised all the conference as a red thread, and that was raised in particular by the Portuguese researcher Maria Flores, President of ISATT, the International Studies Association on Teachers and Teaching. His lecture on Standards, Professionalism and Teacher Education: Critical Issues and Opportunities, has all been aimed at demonstrating that most of the time only a good teacher can promote good teaching in a virtuous relation between individuals' qualities and learning outcomes' impact intended in collective terms. Hence, teaching's theoretical framework, the so-called “framework for teaching”, incresingly developing in many countries, should be accompanied by the building of a framework of teachers' education, the so-called “framework for teachers”, even if we should be aware of the difficulty of assessing not only theoretical but also relational competencies of teachers. Defining what should be intended as the ‘key' skills for the teacher, in fact, is an action that is far from any easy definion. But here is the real challenge! Because we should not forget that today's teacher is also assigned with the task of practicing soft skills as relational ones, or empathising with the students: these skills are indeed considered the very crucial elements that let teachers convey knowledge, skills and competencies to the class as a whole. In conclusion, as Flores has pointed out, there is a whole range of indirect externalities between the time the teacher teaches and the way knowledge is taught and perceived, simply because between the teacher and every single student we find a class in the middle, which is a collective, a group of very different individuals with its own dynamics that must be respected. As the Conference has shown, latest international research is going in the direction of defining not only a framework for ‘quality teaching' but also to develop a new framework aimed at becoming a ‘quality teacher'. This figure should regain its role as the protagonist of the school world. Nevertheless, Flores could only but complain about the increasingly narrow perspective of teachers' professionalism, which she called the “technicization of teaching', as we often tend to forget how each teaching/learning process is a process of relationship and not just one of acquisition of the sense of the word ‘educating', then the element of standardization should be used not that much as a ‘end', but as a ‘medium' to lead to teaching improvement by checking, at the end of the learning process or at regular intervals, how things are going and what is actually working with the class and what is not. In this sense, it is also mandatory to reaffirm the role of teachers as the earliest creators of tranformation of educational contexts as well as to study those ways in which teachers are promoters not only of a system of knowledge's and values' transmission but also of change and improvement.»
What was the topic of your intervention at the Conference?
«First of all, in the name of the specificity of each national context we have just mentioned above, in our paper The Italian Education System: A Focus on Teachers, we started with a contextualization of the Italian national school system in order to present it to our foreign colleagues and we focused on teachers' education in our country. We then presented a proposal for a ‘framework for teaching' developed under the Evalutation and Improvement Project, a strategic project that our INVALSI area has coordinated within the European Union's National Operational Programmes (Italian Acronym: PON) for the School: Skills and Environments for Learning 2007-2013. There are four pillars underpinning our research under the acronym SSGC (Strategies, Support, Guidance, and Climate). First, didactic strategies, i.e. the ability to transmit knowledge and skills and to foster learning. Then class support, which also calls into question the spatial organization of classrooms as well as time management and the teacher's relationship with his students. Again the theme of guidance that refers to how teachers are able to meet the individual needs of each student, especially those with special educational needs, through proactive measures. Finally, the theme of learning climate that looks at the interpersonal relations that arise in the classes and at the ways of involving students in the learning process. The class observation visits of this project, carried out with the Giovanni Agnelli Foundation involved more than two hundred Italian schools, involving a team of 172 observers selected by INVALSI who observed more than 1,600 teachers in their class for a total of nearly twenty thousands hours.»
What perceptions did you gain of teachers' education in Russia?
«What is surely surprising in the Russian system is the stimulus to continuous learning updating and professional development which every single Russian teacher is encouraged to undertake. Teachers of every grade are selected when they are still students, before starting high school. Once at high school, students who intend to become future teachers begin a volunteer but curricular apprenticeship course aimed primarily at defining their relational and communicative skills: they spend, in fact, many hours in support of classrooms, they attend summer schools and summer camps that allow them to have a lot of contact time with children and teenagers. The system is also characterised by a very strong, direct, relationship between future teachers and their high school's teachers and university professors: even once at university, in fact, the former high school does not abandon future teachers, rather it maintains them via a dowry consisting of methodological and psychological support providing continuous competencies' updating on learning methodologies. Once they conclude University programmes and they specialise in education (four-year Bachelor and two-year Master, largely consisting of in-the-field apprenticeship and with a fixed presence of philosophical as well as pedagogical disciplines in each study programme), one third of teachers get the qualification of ‘expert teacher', becoming a reference point for younger colleagues by supervising them in the tutoring activities they have to perform; another third on the other hand,enters into a narrow scientific community that maintains relationships with those high schools that specialize in teachers' education, representing there the school in which he or she serves. In such an environment, with such a high level of professional competence, the figure that corresponds to our School Manager has a leading role in management and operational supervision.»