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Training the Teacher of the Future

January 28, 2020

“To stay alive professionally, teachers must keep learning; once they stop learning, they die as teachers”, wrote Konstantin Ushinsky, the nineteenth-century founding father of scientific pedagogy in Russia. The teaching profession has changed dramatically since his time but, now more than ever, it calls on its practitioners to constantly improve their skills by mastering emerging knowledge and techniques.

School teachers have a critical role to play if Russia is to meet the goals of its National Project for Education and train the human resources needed to implement its S&T Development Strategy through 2024. There is an expert consensus (backed up by the findings of multiple studies, including PISA tests) that teacher professionalism largely determines the quality of general education which, in its turn, has a major influence on a country's progress.

New challenges mean new requirements for teachers that reflect their broadening functions and a change in emphasis within their field. Today, they can no longer get by with merely teaching a subject but must act as learning managers, working with each child to design personalized educational pathways. This clearly calls for greater personal involvement and constant skill honing driven by professional self-reflection.

According to Antonida Lukina, general and social education chair at Siberian Federal University's (SibFU) Institute of Education, Psychology and Sociology, teachers must learn to understand children and their developmental mechanisms. They should seek not so much to get information across as to create a stimulating environment for child development. Antonida Lukina deplores that teachers in Russia are still largely expected to play a dominant role in the education process, whereas children are, as she puts it, “smarter than us in many ways” and only need to be gently and considerately guided.

Rather than crammed with ready-made knowledge, schoolchildren should be taught to find and use information. Therefore, teachers must stay on top of new technology, including online educational resources, electronic devices and applications.

The teaching profession is changing, says Oksana Martynenko, head of the School of Education at Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU). With modern technology offering personalization opportunities that generations of educators have yearned for, today's teachers should be thought of as 'organizers' of each child's individual learning experience. Gone is the talk of computers ousting teachers, as the realization sets in that IT is not here to replace human-led instruction but to endow it with a new tool. Admittedly, teachers are now obliged to acquire a set of unfamiliar, largely managerial, competencies, and this poses is a big challenge to Russia's entire teacher training system which (as Oksana Martynenko concedes) is hardly prepared for such a new departure.

Those in the field believe that the new generation of teachers will have to be strongly proficient in soft skills. These are emotional intelligence, teamwork, communication and leadership skills, including a capacity for quick decision-making.

Anastasia Tabolina, a lecturer with the Higher School of Engineering Pedagogy, Psychology and Applied Linguistics at St Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU), is convinced that the teacher of the future will have to show a good command of soft and hard skills, state-of-the-art interactive content delivery methods, presentation techniques, etc.

Can universities help secondary schools to meet these challenges? They can, if Project 5-100 institutions' experience is anything to go by. A good case in point is Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University (IKBFU) that set up an education institute as a separate division in 2017. The institute, which enrolls some 1,400 students in a total of 23 educational programs, will be turning out graduates in Education and Pedagogical Sciences to fill the region's need for such specialists.

Professor Anna Budarina, head of IKBFU's Institute of Education, points out that the university has never before operated a teacher training unit of such size and complexity. The institute is pursuing research in a wide range of fields, from professional and further education to language education to special education and psychology to cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics and general pedagogy. Built on the internationally successful 'university of education' model, the institute looks to become a cross-regional center for designing up-to-date, world-class educational technology and content. Here, learning is viewed as a basic civilizational activity that is capable of becoming a key driver in constructing a region's social and educational ecosystem.

Some of Russia's leading universities have been acting on experts' recommendation that would-be teachers should receive initial training while still at school. SPbPU is running a vocational orientation program for high school students. South Ural State University (SUSU) is also implementing career orientation schemes for secondary education institutions. Importantly, Russia has its version of specialized advanced placement (AP) classes. Thus, the University of Tyumen's Institute of Psychology and Education supervises Psychology and Education AP classes in high schools in its home city of Tyumen. Designed to provide early vocational guidance to school-goers, their educational programs consist of basic courses and electives that take the form of Teaching master classes, creative workshops and psychological coaching sessions as well as social skills activities, community work, etc.

Existing teachers' needs are also being attended to. SPbPU, for instance, is launching courses aimed at enhancing educators' communication competencies. Linguists have collaborated with educational psychologists and corporate trainers to develop an integrated, multilevel program. Speaking about it, Anastasia Tabolina highlights the importance of devising a one-of-a-kind, carefully crafted educational product, with workbooks presenting new information in a succinct, well-structured way, to help teachers master advanced interactive techniques as one step towards professional growth.

Experts strike a reassuring note: teachers will remain in demand. The teaching profession is not moribund, agrees Anna Budarina. She sees the modern-day teacher as a “reflecting practitioner” capable of creating a modern learning environment. Self-reflection, she believes, is what distinguishes the human profession of teaching from those activities that can be reduced to an algorithm.