Virtual teacher development

Still on the topic of thinking virtually, here's an interesting project led by in the US, called simSchool. I came across it when reading an article in the recent edition of the Educause Quarterly titled Next Generation Learning Challenge: Simulating Teaching (the article provides an excellent overview of the projec which I won't replicate in this blog).

I was originally put off by the "kids-in-rows" portrayal of the classroom scenario – something I still find troublesome – but managed to get over that to explore a little more of what this project is about. 

The information provided about the project describes it thus:

simSchool is a classroom simulation that supports the rapid accumulation of a teacher's experience in analyzing student differences, adapting instruction to individual learner needs, gathering data about the impacts of instruction, and seeing the results of their teaching.

simSchool is like a "flight simulator" for educators – a place where instructors can explore instructional strategies, examine classroom management techniques, and practice building relationships with students that will translate into increased learning.

Results of teachers experience are real, measureable, and include:

  • improvement in general teaching skill
  • improved confidence in using technology
  • increased belief that the teacher has the skills and ability to make a difference in a child's life
  • improvement in pre-service teachers' performance in teacher preparation courses and attitudes toward inclusion of special needs students
  • significant positive impact on the mastery of deeper learning capacities that comprise the readiness to teach
  • increased "staying power" on the path to the field of teaching acquired through rapid development of strong self-efficacy and resilience

In these ways and more, simSchool enables transformational experiences for teachers to help them become more effective leaders in their classrooms and learning communities.

It's the concept of attempting to simulate the compexities of the classroom-based environment that intrigues me. While there can (and will) be endless debates about the appropriateness of the model in replicating the range of pedagogical approaches and how these impact on things like the layout and organisation of the physical teaching space for instance, this similation focuses more specifically on the nature of the interactions and teacher interventions taking place. The aim is to improve the knowledge and skill of teachers in dealing with a range of scenarios they may be presented with. 

According to the Educause article, simSchool project…

…addresses key systemic challenges of teacher education including:

  • Fundamental conceptions of teaching and learning
  • Organization of knowledge, assessment practices, and results
  • Engagement of a global community of practice in teacher education

It offers a new paradigm for teacher education based on self-direction and personal validation in a complex yet repeatable practice environment. It is supported by emerging interdisciplinary knowledge concerning the unique affordances of digital media assessment and social media. Here, we briefly review the rationale and approach taken by simSchool.

The question remains, "Can someone learn to teach by practicing with a classroom simulation?" The team at Educause believe the answer is a definite "Yes", and they've backed that up by granting the project an award to further its development.

I'm sure noone will be so naive as to assume this might be a complete replacement for any face-to-face mentoring in the development of teachers, but it certainly creates an interesting option to consider in overcoming so many of the difficulties faced with traditional teacher education programmes and approaches.

The project appears to have support from a number of universities around the world, so will be interesting to see where it might develop to as both the technology and our conceptual understandings develop, particularly with regards the applicability and use in country-specific contexts where curriculum, pedagogy and notions of classroom space may vary. 

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