Harry Fletcher-Wood looks at new evidence about how to educate teachers when face-to-face contact isn’t possible

One problem schools face on reopening is how to help their teachers to keep improving. This is particularly acute for trainee and newly qualified teachers, both of whom have suffered from truncated training and school experiences this year. With disruption to travel, limitations on face-to-face encounters and many teachers and teacher educators looking after their own children, traditional teacher development may prove more difficult than previously. Very few research studies have tackled the online teacher education directly, but the handful that have offer promising avenues for teachers and teacher educators to explore.

One study offered teachers a maths professional development programme and set out to directly compare “the effects of online versus face-to-face courses in which the goals, content and activities are kept as comparable as possible”. The teachers read the same material, tried the same classroom activities, and completed the same assignments across an eight-week period, with the same teacher educators leading the programme.

The study showed that what teachers thought about maths teaching had changed, and students had noticed changes in teachers’ practices, such as being asked to come up with more ways to solve maths problems. When the researchers compared the online and face-to-face groups, the effects where practically identical on the two groups. Teachers in the face-to-face version of the programme felt they’d had a slightly better experience, but the biggest difference between the groups was about their future preferences: given the choice between online and face-to-face learning in future, teachers who had experienced online teacher education were more likely to choose it again.

Reflection alone led teachers to become more frustrated

Another study reveals one of the most powerful approaches available for teacher educators. It is a randomised-controlled trial of My Teaching Partner – a coaching programme that helps teachers to improve classroom climate and their interactions with students through video-based coaching. The teacher submits video recordings fortnightly: the teacher educator reviews them, highlighting particular segments which form the focus of a phone conversation about students’ reactions and possible teacher actions to address them.

This approach has a lasting impact: students gain substantially better results in teachers’ classes the following year (after coaching has stopped). The same approach has been tested in other studies in a variety of schools, for longer and shorter periods, and has continued to demonstrate positive impact, suggesting that coaching can work even when teachers can’t meet their coaches in person.

Finally, a very recently released study looked at teacher development and coaching using simulations: teachers interact with a group of students on screen who are voiced and characterised by a trained actor. In this study, trainee teachers taught a simulated class briefly and were supported to improve through either independent reflection, immediate, structured coaching (while interacting with students) or subsequent, structured coaching.

Both immediate and subsequent coaching helped teachers to improve their classroom management. They addressed problems more quickly, more succinctly and more effectively; since they were able to manage the challenges they experienced, they were less likely to seek further punishments for minor incidents of poor behaviour.

Reflection alone, however, did not help them to improve and instead led them to become more frustrated. The authors conclude that “immersive virtual environments create fairly authentic ‘field-like’ spaces to approximate practices with feedback and support from expert teacher educators”, demonstrating that teachers “do not have to learn ‘on the job.’” While the coaches were working face-to-face with teachers in this study, this need not be the case: it suggests that simulations can help teachers to improve, even if they can’t get into the classroom.

Effective remote teacher education clearly still faces barriers. A meta-analysis of teacher professional development suggests that online elements tend to be associated with lower impact for teacher development approaches, though its authors aren’t able to identify why with the data they have.

Nonetheless, the studies described here suggest that when teacher educators focus on the most important aspects of teaching and provide the most promising forms of support, they can help teachers improve even if they can’t meet face-to-face.