Future Preschool Teachers and Online Learning
Can the warm and sensitive interpersonal skills necessary to encourage young children’s social and academic development be acquired by preschool teachers on a mass scale via an online training course?
This is the challenge facing a team of researchers, early childhood specialists, and technology experts at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) as they develop a web-based course called Effective Classroom Interactions.
“We know from a number of research sources that interactions matter most for preschool children in terms of their academic, social and emotional development,” says Allison Leach, an instructor featured in the initial online modules developed for the course. “And we know they aren’t getting enough high-quality interactions with teachers, regardless of the level of preparation teachers have received.”
By interactions, Leach is referring to students’ daily experiences with teachers and peers. High-quality interactions include, for instance, positive relationships between teachers and children, sensitivity to children’s needs and concerns, and instruction that fosters children’s reasoning skills and engages them in understanding new concepts more deeply.
The goal of the Effective Classroom Interactions course, Leach says, is to help teachers be more intentional in their interactions with children and to reflect regularly on their own practice.
More traditional options for teacher professional development on this topic have been developed by CASTL. They take the form of both a traditional face-to-face college course—which has even been packaged and tested across multiple institutions to examine whether the curriculum is transferable—and a one-on-one remote coaching system called MyTeachingPartner ™. With MyTeaching Partner teachers video themselves in the classroom and send in their footage to be analyzed by trained consultants. The consultants then provide feedback and advice. However, both of these options require extensive human and financial resources, says Jennifer Locasale-Crouch, a lead investigator on the project.
“Head Start serves approximately 850,000 three- and four-year-old children living in poverty, and over 1 million children attend state-funded preschools,” Locasale-Crouch says. “With the trend across the nation for increasing access to preschools, there will be a need to prepare 200,000 new teachers in the next five years, and all of these teachers need to be capable of fostering high quality interactions with the children in their classrooms.”
Thus, the CASTL team is searching for ways to reach many more teachers with fewer resources and, at the same time, ensure that the course consistently incorporates the instructional principles espoused in the course content. That was no easy task, according to Kathy Neesen, who leads the project technology team, but one she feels confident that they are achieving. The instructional modules reflect the principles of creating a positive learning climate, demonstrating sensitivity to learning needs, and engaging learners with instruction that encourages them to think, she says.
They also include a variety of instructional styles: brief informative segments, high quality illustrations, video clips from real classrooms, and debriefings of video observations. The modules also include activities that invite teachers to apply new observation skills in multiple contexts, quizzes to check understanding, and opportunities for self-reflection (such as, “Think about a time when you had that experience.”). Homework assignments ask teachers to videotape their own teaching, observe themselves, and analyze their interactions with students based on the course framework.
Although the vast majority of online courses are constructed and implemented without any data to support their effectiveness, development of the Effective Classroom Interactions course is funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences. Thus, the project includes several rounds of development, field testing, and refinement.
Last spring the first two course modules were piloted with 15 teachers in remote locations. “The teachers found the chance to analyze and interact with video to be one of the most helpful aspects of this course, and they wanted more,” Neesen said. “They wanted opportunities to not only observe many different teaching practices and activity settings, but also more opportunities to get better at identifying high quality teacher-student interactions.”
They also asked for more of a sense of community and a chance to share ideas and strategies about teaching in the preschool classroom with their peers in an online community setting, she said. The team will add some type of discussion board capability in the next round of development in response this request.
The basis for the course framework is the findings gleaned during the development and testing of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System ™ or CLASS. The CLASS instrument was originally developed at CASTL for research projects led by Curry School dean and CASTL director Bob Pianta.
The tool guides observers in evaluating the quality of a classroom. The preschool version of the tool describes multiple dimensions of classroom interactions, including the degree to which positive relationships exist among teachers and children (emotional support), the level at which the teacher manages the classroom well and provides frequent, engaging learning activities (classroom organization), and the teacher’s efforts toward encouraging children to think, providing feedback, and facilitating language and vocabulary growth (instructional support). The CASTL researchers have found that effective interactions in these areas can be directly linked to improvements in children’s academic achievement and social skill development.
From this line of research, CASTL turned its attention toward using its findings to improve teacher practice. A number of research studies have shown that their highly trained coaches and course instructors can help teachers become better observers of other teachers’ classroom interactions by watching video and discussing what they see.
“We give them a lens through which to view what’s happening in the classroom, which may be different from the one that seems intuitive to them,” Leach said. Then the focus turns to self-reflection, analyzing one’s own practice, and finally, improving practice.
The CASTL team is currently developing additional instructional modules for the course, which will be piloted with 100 teachers in fall 2012. The final set of modules will be developed by summer 2013.
by Lynn Bell