Teacher training course goes back to basics


A course at VUB looks to challenge future teachers’ perceptions of classroom life, through bringing parents, students and schools together

Teacher as innovator

Teachers were not always teachers: They were also students at some point. And no matter what they teach today, they most likely completed a degree that focused on teaching methods. The Free University of Brussels (VUB) is offering training that takes a fresh look at teachers’ assumptions.

Anyone who has a master’s degree and wants to teach in their field in the final years of secondary school needs to complete a teacher-training course. At VUB, where the course is equivalent to a year-long university degree, future teachers can choose from several clusters, one of which is ”teacher as a researcher and innovator”.

Nadine Engels, head of VUB’s department of educational sciences, believes that cluster makes sense in a teacher-training curriculum. “In the classroom, teachers need to constantly analyse the effects of their practice. They need to validate it, or not,” she says.

Even so, she found it frustratingly hard to bring this mindset to the classroom. She wanted teachers to “adopt enquiry as a stance and do more work based on evidence, rather than prejudice”.

She also hoped to bridge the gap between the research that was being done at university and everyday practice in the classroom. Yet she noticed that students would see the cluster as just one more task – something they had to complete before they could finally get their degree.

Breaking the hierarchy

And there was one image that was deeply ingrained in people’s mentalities: A teacher is a solo player, the one who knows it all. So Engels decided to tackle those blockages.

Teachers are often expected to be the only ones in the classroom with knowledge, but Engels wanted to “break the hierarchy and find solutions together”. With that aim, four years ago she set up a collaborative space populated by teachers, students and parents.

All the stakeholders were involved in what was meant as a more practical approach to teacher training, using teams composed of five to 10 working teachers, three pre-service teachers studying at VUB, educators, parents and students.

We often rely on beliefs, but once we do the research, we discover different things

- Nadine Engels

Schools hosted these teams and submitted a research question for the stakeholders to address, including “how can we improve the relationship between students and teachers in our school?” and “how can we get our pupils to read in Dutch?”.

Teams would go through an entire research cycle, starting with gathering data through surveys and other methods, with results that were not always what the teachers expected. Engels: “They believed, for instance, that students didn’t care about the feedback they received, but research shows that, on the contrary, students care a lot.”

Another team tackled the problem of students apparently not wanting to read in Dutch. The plan the team came up with was for students to read aloud in Dutch to younger children. Serving teachers were convinced it would never work.

“In fact, pupils from the fifth and sixth year of secondary schools were very motivated about reading to younger kids,” Engels says. “We often rely on beliefs, but once we do the research, we discover different things.”

Indeed, none of the teachers would have believed that their own pupils would enjoy reading to younger children.

At capacity

After analysing the data, the team were able to design actions and help solve the problem. In some cases, parents were involved in interpreting the data and coming up with the actions.

Students sometimes worked as “reporters”, interviewing parents and focus groups. “Students took a central role in improving communication with the parents,” Engels says. “We want to encourage that even more next year.”

With 15 teams, Engels is at maximum capacity, but she is looking to expand. She will soon be working with Erasmus Hogeschool and two adult education centres. Next year, she plans to work at the level of primary schools, with pupils aged from six to 12.

That might still not be enough, as about 30 schools are waiting for Engels’ services, hoping to host the collaborative experience. It’s not just about learning to teach, Engels insists; it’s also about inclusion and social justice: “We want a good education for all students.”

This style of “community-service learning” allows students and community to learn and solve their problems together, across a wide range of disciplines, and the VUB is very supportive of it, Engels says. “Such initiatives should be even more encouraged in Brussels.”