Academy of Teaching and Learning Aims to Provide Open-Source R&D Lab for Teacher Prep

Games, simulations and competencies will play a major role in a graduate program set to start in summer 2017.

by / August 17, 2016
Educators gather at the Summer Design Program to help build a new graduate teacher preparation program. Rupal Jain

A group of education leaders across school districts, universities and foundations are working together to reinvent teacher preparation programs.

Last week, teachers from five Boston-area school districts collaborated in a summer design program with the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation designed to change teacher education. As the new academy prepares to accept its first class of graduate fellows in summer 2017, it's looking to current educators for help creating a teacher preparation program that will meet school districts' needs for qualified employees.

Many schools of education are not as strong as they should be and do not always adequately prepare teachers for today's technology-rich learning environment or for future learning environments, said foundation president Arthur Levine. After hiring new teachers, school districts spend a lot of time and money training them so they'll be ready to teach — but that's not something they should have to do. States also don't take advantage of their ability to kill weak teacher preparation programs and strengthen mid-level programs. 

"Our goal is to change teacher education not simply by creating this joint project called the academy, but by taking what we create and making it open source," Levine said.

The foundation is working with the MIT Teaching Systems Lab led by Justin Reich to develop tools including games and simulations. In the academy, educators will test out ideas and technology tools, and a research and development lab being created simultaneously will study their effectiveness.

"What we're trying to do is really be an R&D lab for other schools of education," said Deborah Hirsch, executive director of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning.

Levine described the new academy as the West Point of teacher preparation and a resource for other education schools — not a competitor. This academy is taking a fresh look at how to prepare teachers in a graduate program that includes mostly online learning along with some face-to-face components. Students can take a full load and finish the program in one year or spread the classes out so they can fit around their work schedule. Once they graduate, academy leaders will mentor them through their first three years of teaching so they will be supported as they apply what they learn. 

One of the key differences with this program is that it doesn't measure student learning by the amount of time they spend in class, but on how competent they are in each skill they're supposed to learn. Some students may move quickly through the program as they demonstrate what they know and can do in real classrooms, while others may move more slowly and need more time to hone some of their skills.

It also creates a safe space for students to practice teaching in a simulated environment where the academy decides what situations they will face. In typical programs, future teachers may practice in a classroom with their peers acting as students and in a real classroom with actual students. 

"We're trying to create third spaces that have some of the authenticity of real-life practice situations, but do it in lower-stakes ways where they can practice more of what they're doing," said Eric Klopfer, professor and director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program.

Next summer, a small class of fellows will enroll in the program as students and testers of the academy's design. They'll attend tuition free and receive a stipend as they provide feedback on what works and what doesn't. Then in summer 2018, the academy's official class of non-tester students will enroll in the program.

Benjamin Riley, the executive director of a group of education school leaders called Deans for Impact, said he hopes that this academy will provide an example for other schools of education to follow and is excited to see the energy being poured into this project from both MIT and the foundation.

"The relationship that they have there is very encouraging," Riley said.  

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.