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Dean Larry Flick

Do Teachers and University Faculty Learn from Teaching Experience?

October 13th, 2015

I am proposing three issues that are of central concern if we are to become better educating students and move away from the repetitive churn of reforms and worn out language that masks the reality that little change is taking place.

What follows are three principles for impacting change culled from experienced observation of school reform by teachers, administrators, researchers, state leaders, and university faculty. Each category implies changes in the way that professional development and professional discourse has been carried out in the past. The first principle is the mechanism for carrying out the other two.

Collective Responsibility & the Individual Educator

Teaching is typically thought of as a solitary profession. The teacher or college faculty member enters his/her classroom and closes the door. It is a time-honored model with the expectation that the individual teacher will develop an inspiring relationship with students producing effective learning. But with student performance flagging this is pressure to examine other models. It also raises the question how do we get better with practice? Research suggests that improving instruction is more of a collective venture involving groups of professionals working together to learn from practice.

For classroom instruction to become more accountable to a professional collective means making the work of teachers and university faculty more public. To get better, teachers need to be seen and provided with feedback. Think of how a coach provides feedback for performers and athletes. To learn from feedback the coach and performer need goals and the ability to see incremental improvement. Groups of professionals can provide this for each other. Productive group work requires time and records of successes and failures so that learning is accumulated, recorded, summarized, communicated, replicated, and tested. Finally group work requires acceptance of risk-taking among diverse professionals leading to a substantive dialogue using language that has operational meaning to everyone.

To be sure, learning, innovation, and change require individual thinking and reflecting. While a characteristic of collective responsibility and collective accountability makes teaching practices more public, individual teachers and university faculty need time to personally reflect and critique the collective work. Central to improvement is the commitment by individuals to engage in the common goals of the group. Most attempts at reform fail because individual teachers and instructors do not agree with or understand the new ideas and do not change instruction in substantive ways. It is the responsibility of each professional to find their voice and assert their point of view for the benefit of the group, be it for or against the anticipated course of action. A point of view also requires support from evidence that meets the standards for evidence the group has agreed upon.

Curriculum & Instruction

Once educators have agreed to accept collective responsibility and hold each other accountable for improving instruction, other matters become possible.

Any attention to curriculum automatically means addressing instruction. These are two sides of the same coin. Reforms often fail because teachers and faculty “align” new expectations of students with current teaching practices through bookkeeping or mapping exercises. Innovation is recast in old ideas and innovation is never adequately implemented. For example, efforts to “align” current curriculum with new curricular material principles means critically examining instructional practices that are required to teach to the curriculum and achieve new curricular goals. If a university teacher education program revises course curriculum to include new research on classroom instruction, then this automatically brings university instruction into critical relief. A similar argument can be made for K12 teachers and new curriculum. Curricular and assessment objectives are achievable only if instruction makes them so.

Research & Practice

Too often in education circles research is to practice as oil is to water. If they remain immiscible then reform remains impossible. Professional educators have well developed knowledge about panoply of situations that they confront on a daily basis to make a system of curriculum and instruction work. The real-time, discretionary, decision-making based on accumulated skill and expertise in the dynamic circumstances of instruction virtually defines educator professionalism. But professionals improve based on new knowledge from research and from practice. There is a necessary symmetry between research knowledge and professional knowledge that makes it possible to scale up improvements. Teaching professionals vet and adapt research across variable settings. Researchers seek to change teaching practices based on theory and data to improve outcomes. Together they learn what makes a difference across varied educational settings.

We can be effective if we learn how to learn from practice.


Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (1996). What’s worth fighting for in your school? New York: Teachers College Press.


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