Better In-Services for Teachers Will Help Students Learn More

December 6, 2020 Updated: December 14, 2020

Commentary

Imagine going to the dentist for a root canal. Shortly before the procedure begins, the dentist says she doesn’t really know much about root canals, but she looks forward to figuring it out while performing the treatment.

How confident would you feel?

If you are a normal person, you wouldn’t feel confident at all. The last thing you need is to be operated on by a dentist who doesn’t know what she is doing. Obviously, dentists should be well-trained, experienced, and confident in their knowledge of dentistry. If they aren’t, then they shouldn’t be seeing any patients.

While dentists receive significant and important training in dental school, they cannot simply rely on what they learned there. That’s because their knowledge would quickly become outdated. To keep abreast of the latest advances in dentistry, they attend regular professional development sessions with other dentists. This is necessary for them to keep their licences to practice.

The same is true of other professions such as medicine, law, engineering, and pharmacy. It makes sense for professionals to spend a few days during each year learning from each other and then using this knowledge to improve their practice. No one begrudges professionals for taking time to improve their skills.

However, things are quite different in the education profession. The sad reality is that teachers are regularly forced to sit through professional development sessions delivered by consultants who have little to no classroom teaching experience. To make matters worse, they peddle misguided theories that do nothing to help teachers improve their practice.

For example, a well-known American educational consultant charges as much as $50,000 to deliver a speech at a professional development session. Ironically, he has never even been a public-school teacher. To make matters worse, his ideas are hopelessly impractical. Among other things, this consultant says teachers should never praise students for doing good work and argues that students shouldn’t receive any grades in school.

No wonder teachers complain about their professional development sessions.  Being forced to listen to such “experts” drone on and on about ridiculous things does not help teachers get better at their job.

In fact, following this consultant’s advice makes things worse. Clearly, paying him to speak to teachers is a poor use of taxpayers’ money.

Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic brought traditional teacher professional development sessions to a screeching halt. Suddenly high-priced consultants and speakers are no longer able to travel across the country (or come from the United States). It also means that school boards needed to change their focus.

After all, it seems rather silly to promote progressive, student-centred teaching methods while teachers are required to enforce strict health protocols every day. The most practical way to keep students two metres apart from each other is to seat them in individual desks and arrange the desks in rows facing the front. This looks strikingly similar to a traditional classroom setting.

To be clear, no one is happy that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, nor should we be. Keeping students physically apart throughout the day takes a herculean effort. Of course, this is far easier to do in classrooms where teachers remain firmly in control and when they provide lots of direct instruction to students.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence that traditional teaching methods are beneficial for students—and not just because these methods help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not only do traditional classrooms make it easier to keep students safe, they are also better for student learning.

Instead of flying in high-priced consultants to peddle impractical theories to teachers, school boards would be wise to focus on the things that really matter. According to education author Mike Schmoker, schools need to focus on three simple things to be successful: a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons that are well-presented, and purposeful reading and writing in every subject.

These are things that don’t cost a lot and don’t require the support of high-priced speakers. Let teachers spend more time collaborating with each other on ways to improve their lessons and ensure that reading and writing is taking place during every class period. Invest in resources that focus on these three basic things and students will be the prime beneficiaries.

Professional development sessions that focus on the essentials would make teachers much happier, and this would be a huge benefit for students, their parents, and taxpayers. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school boards to make significant changes. Let’s make sure that at least some of these changes are for the better.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.