TALIS reportThe 2013 TALIS report has just been released and makes for some interesting reading in light of the work I'm currently focusing on regarding modern learning environments and modern learning practice. 

This is the second cycle of the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey. The first survey was conducted in 2007/2008.

The main focus of TALIS is on the learning environment and working conditions of teachers in schools. It offers an opportunity for teachers and school principals to provide for education analyses and policy development in relation to the issues being studied in TALIS.

I always find this sort of 'meta-level' research of interest, as it provides an opportunity to verify – and dispel – many of the myths that exist about teachers today. In addition, it then provides the opportunity to look specifically at comparing the cross-country data with what is happening specifically in my own context. From my initial read of the report here are some of the things I think are relevant to what's happening currently in NZ…

Class Size

This issue reared its head a couple of years ago when the NZ government announced a policy of increasing class size (albeit incrementally), based on research that suggests this isn't the most significant factor influencing student achievement. When teachers in the TALIS survey are asked about class size and whether it has any detrimental effects on their job satisfaction or feelings of effectiveness as a teacher, their responses reveal that it is not the number of students in a class but the type of students (such as students with behavioural issues) that has the strongest association with the teacher’s job satisfaction and feelings of self-efficacy.

Workload

Workload is an increasingly 'hot topic' among teachers in NZ schools – many of those dedicated to their profession that I know are working well in excess of the 40 hours a week that might be considered a 'normal' working week. Yet teachers in the survey report that they work an average of 38 hours per week across countries, which could be considered an average work week for many fields. On average, half of teachers’ time is spent teaching and half is spent on all of the other daily tasks that are required of teachers.

A key issue affecting workload that emerged in the report from my perspective is that more than a third of teachers work in schools with significant staffing shortages of qualified teachers, teachers for students with special needs, and support personnel. This inevitably puts a greater strain on the other teachers in the school, and may be linked in part to the teacher responses to the class size questions. 

Collaborative teaching practice

A key feature of modern learning practice is the emergin emphasis on collaborative teaching. The TALIS data indicates that most teachers are still teaching largely in isolation, as over half of teachers report very rarely or never team-teaching with colleagues, and two-thirds report the same rates for observing their colleagues teach.

As we move into teaching in more open, flexible and dynamic learning environments, understanding how to work effectively as a part of a team and to demonstrate collaborative teaching practices will become a requirement of being a teacher. 

In the TALIS study teachers who work collaboratively with their colleagues report a stronger belief in their ability to teach (self-efficacy), as do teachers with more than five years of teaching experience. In almost all countries, teachers who report participating in collaborative professional learning at least five times a year report notably greater self-efficacy.

Professional Development

Professional learning and development has been a key focus of my work for more than 20 years, and in that time I've seen all sorts of 'fads' and emphases come and go – but nothing changes the fact that it is one of the most essential parts of maintaining a vibrant, current and self-renewing education system. In NZ we've been pretty well served in this area, with a sizeable amount of money being invested annually by the MoE for PLD in a variety of areas. 

Yet despite this, the data the MoE use suggests the impact is minimal in terms of raising student achievement – and so we're seeing a move towards channeling the money allocated for PLD towards school-level activity, including teaching as inquiry and clusters of schools working together to address identified achievement challenges

To be honest I see great value in the underpinning intent of encouraging teachers to be more critically reflective of their own practice, and also of the principle of incentivising teachers to work with other teachers in sharing effective practice and seeking solutons to common problems etc. TALIS teachers who reported participating in professional development activities involving individual and collaborative research, observation visits to other schools, or a network of teachers are also more likely to use these practices.

I do have some serious concerns, however, about how and where in this process we get sufficient impetus to drive innovation and to introduce new thinking – transformative thinking, as distinct from simply improvement thinking.

Relying solely on the injection of new ideas from within the circles that teachers operate is fraught with difficuty – surely we need a dual approach that supports and incentivises both ends of the spectrum. 

The reasons most often cited by teachers in the TALIS report for not participating in professional development activities are conflicts with work schedules and the absence of incentives for participation. In general, teachers report higher participation rates in professional development in countries where they also report higher levels of financial support. In some cases, even when monetary support is not offered, teachers who are offered non-monetary support, such as scheduled time for activities during the school day, report participating in professional development.

Distributed leadership

There's plenty in the report about school leadership – such a vital influence of change, at the school and system level. There's been much criticism recently about the level of leadership in our schools, despite considerable investment in professional learning in this area. The NZ government is currently looking at esablishing a new approach to developing leadership in our schools – from induction through to experienced principals. 

A reason that I feel we're waning in this area is that so much of what we do is focused on developing the individual leader, creating a sense of self-sufficiency in leadership and building 'iconic leadership' models. In my view there isn't enough emphasis on the practice of distributed leadership – including how it is modelled at the top level of our system.

It is pleasing therefore to read in the TALIS report that principals are increasingly distributing leadership and decision-making tasks, which can benefit both the teachers and the principals themselves. Principals with heavy workloads who distribute tasks and decision making less also report lower levels of job satisfaction.

Distributing leadership also saves principals valuable time for what some consider the most important task: instructional leadership. Principals who report more instructional leadership tend to spend more time on curriculum and teaching- related tasks and are more likely to observe classroom teaching as part of the formal appraisal of teachers’ work. In some countries, these principals more often report using the results of student performance and evaluations to develop the school’s educational goals and programmes.

Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction is a critical element of teacher recruitment and retention. Workload, support, PLD etc, are all contributors to this. 

TALIS findings show that, in nearly all countries, when teachers perceive that appraisal and feedback lead to changes in their teaching practice, they also report greater job satisfaction. When teachers believe that appraisal and feedback is performed only for administrative purposes they report less job satisfaction. In addition, teachers who report that they participate in decision making at school also report greater job satisfaction.

Indeed, although fewer than a third of teachers believe that teaching is a valued profession in their country, those teachers who report that they can contribute to school decisions are more likely to report that teaching is valued in their society.

Teacher-student relations have an exceptionally powerful influence over teachers’ job satisfaction. In almost all countries, when teachers have more students with behavioural problems, they report significantly less job satisfaction.

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So there it is – a quick summary of key thoughts aligining the TALIS report with the situation in NZ. As the report authors suggest, their data helps to support or debunk many of the myths that exist in our teaching profession. There may be some here that you want to explore further and I encourage you to download the report and read it for yourself, for these are purely my opinions. The most important thing, as with any of these reports, is 'so what'? How will it now inform what each of us does in our practice? How might this data inform changes in our schools or in our education system?

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