Add-on vs. Redesign – some thoughts on teacher training in the digital age

When it comes to reacting to the undeniable requirements of teaching in the 21st century, many of the common formats in teacher training and initial teacher education aim at an add-on approach. A statements that somehow reflects this idea could read like: ”Don‘t worry about your basic approach in the classroom, you don’t have to change that much. Just find some opportunities to work a few digital tools into your lesson plans here and then.”

Many trainers argue that they have chosen this approach to make their colleagues feel more comfortable about the upcoming change and to open a window to let a few new ideas slip into their mindsets. 

Others are more reluctant or sceptical towards “digital” concepts and learning scenarios. Some say that studies and their personal experience show that “classical” teaching approaches are still (more) successful. Often they quote extracts from a study, showing that students are more effective in note-taking when using pen and paper compared to laptops. I wasn’t surprised at all about the findings. Most students aren’t really trained for note taking using a keyboard and a screen and reprocessing them  afterwards. It takes skill do to that effectively. A different set of skills. The approach of simply bringing a laptop to class could also be seen as an add-on. It is about classic lectures, about note-taking while watching talks or clips, about a one size fits all approach. So it seems rather logical that students trying to cope with this specific situation using a “highly familiar” set of tools (pen / paper) work more efficiently here. It would be interesting to run a similar study with learners trained for using mobile devices (not necessarily laptops but devices offering the use of a good pencil, like the iPad) effectively and all the additional chances these devices offer in tackling a topic of a lecture. An idea that is also mentioned by P. Mueller, who ran the study mentioned above. And it would be even more interesting, to run the study with a “lecture format” taking full advantage of digital chances and offerings. Using feedback-loops, varied input and media formats. Then it would be really interesting to compare the studies and the findings. 

But still, I think it is true that for many teachers the “new” tools, models and chances offered by the digital age are somehow a bit frightening and often hard to understand. It is difficult to get a mind around new concepts when basic information or knowledge is lacking. And I don’t mean to look down on these colleagues or to blame them. Not at all. It is absolutely necessary to take their needs and maybe even fear for real and to design training according to that. It seems absolutely ok to walk on the common paths of training by adding ideas and concepts, to make them appealing to these colleagues. It still might be a learning curve too steep, too challenging or too demanding for some. But many use it as a starting point. Sure, we shouldn’t expect that colleagues throw everything overboard happily and start rethinking their work and their approach towards learning from the scratch. Of course, if they did, it would still allow them to re-use (or find useful variations of) things they love and have used successfully for years. (One  keyword in successful teaching  and teaching is and will be  authenticity ;-)). So why not encourage them? What about changing the point of view or offering different approaches? Best-practice, micro-teaching, bar camps … there are many ways of doing so.

But let’s think one step ahead, about the future. What about all the young teachers starting their professional careers right now? What about all the students at the universities these days, who are going to be teachers within the next few years? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to make a splash with them? To redesign their training, their education? Now? Still this would be ambitious. And of course not easy. But why wait? 

Action is somehow urgent. Let me illustrate this with the description of a common situation: One of the first things many trainers do when a new group of trainees starts their education is to take some time to reflect about their expectations, their hopes and fears. And amongst the FAQs or most common statements in these discussion you often find something like: “I would like to learn how reading is taught.” Or something like: “Can you show me the lesson plan to teach vocabulary effectively?”

It’s just an observation, but to me it reveals a lot about a certain mindset: The years the trainees attended school as pupils or students are often dominated by conformity, by standard lessons plans and standard approaches to topics. At the start of their training these “concepts” are deeply rooted. Of course it is fair to say that “these concepts” also work in some ways. We do have good teachers, we do have successful students, we have them in bunches. And yes, being functional is ok. But why not aiming at being even more exciting? At being sometimes thrilling? At achieving more? At offering more individual and more personal ways of learning to our students? At shifting the focus? At bringing more real life tasks to the classrooms? If we want to achieve that, we do have to start with the teachers of the (near) future. Many ideas, many tools (personal learning environments, video coaching, brilliant innovators and inspiring early adopters, …) are already there. 

To sum it up, a kind of add-on approach is necessary to meet the needs of a huge number of teachers, who sometimes lack experience or / and time to cope with all the changes and chances on their own. To make them gradually (or faster) move their teaching into the 21st century.

But it is high time for a redesign of initial teacher education, trying and implementing ideas and profound concepts that take full advantage of learning technologies and the pedagogy behind.