In a fragmented world, education can build bridges across oceans, mountains and deserts; it can draw connections between cultures that seemingly have little in common; and it can break the knots of tightly bound prejudices through shared experiences and mutual concerns. For these reasons, Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development has embarked on a journey of robust international exchange.
For more than a decade, Peabody faculty members have been crisscrossing the globe to study and teach best educational practices. They have invested in programs to bring teachers and education leaders from other countries to the Vanderbilt campus to investigate and learn new teaching techniques and models for school leadership. And they have collaborated with education researchers abroad to craft and compare solutions to the most impregnable problems facing schools today.
“We are living in a global society, and education and human development are global issues,” Camilla Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development, said. “It used to be that educators were focused on a region or a nation, but now there are no boundaries. We see our international efforts as an opportunity to learn, collaborate and work together. We can learn from what other nations are doing well and they can learn from us.”
Many Peabody faculty members have been working on projects or initiatives that have an international component—from East Tennessee all the way to the Middle East.
Ventures in Abu Dhabi
One of the most striking examples of Peabody’s global reach is a project, now in its third year, in which Peabody is helping improve teaching and education leadership in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates. Driven by the nation’s top leadership, Abu Dhabi’s education system is being reformed to support the knowledge-based economy needed in its future. A few years ago, Abu Dhabi officials approached Peabody to develop leadership training pipeline programs as well as training programs for preschool, special education and elementary school teachers.
“Education leaders in Abu Dhabi know the oil economy will eventually run out or be replaced by alternative energy sources, so they are trying to build new industries like aerospace or microchip technology, and to do that successfully they need a 21st century workforce,” Benbow explained. “We are helping them make their education system more effective by developing leadership capacity and by helping schools move toward strategies that encourage problem solving and critical thinking.”
Patrick Schuermann, research assistant professor of educational leadership and public policy, directs the Vanderbilt Abu Dhabi Leadership Development Project. Because the project requires a deep understanding of the real-life practices of principals and vice principals and had to be developed within the context of a modern Middle Eastern society, Schuermann traveled regularly between the United States and Abu Dhabi for the first two years of the project, logging more than 500,000 air miles. He would spend one week in Abu Dhabi facilitating group learning sessions among principals and vice principals, then fly back to Nashville to meet with an education team at Vanderbilt to strategize. A week later, he would return to Abu Dhabi to share new lesson plans and other materials.
“The reason we did it that way rather than planning out the entire curriculum in advance was because we wanted to stay responsive to the challenges that the Abu Dhabi principals were facing in real time,” Schuermann said. “We wanted to build resources that could be used within a specific context and pull resources to help them immediately tackle these challenges, adjusting the program to suit their needs as we went along.”
The cultivation of international ties is not a one-sided investment. The partnerships yield an important benefit to Peabody faculty: the chance to expand their lines of research beyond the United States, to test the applicability of their models in other countries and to learn from effective practitioners around the world.
Peabody’s learning support and coaching model for improving and developing leadership capacity are expanding from an initial cohort of 18 Abu Dhabi schools to include a specialized leadership development program for a newly identified group of aspiring school leaders.
“By refining and applying this tool in a new setting and a different culture, we are coming to understand how to coach leaders to work with teachers when teachers are new to the profession and when teachers have less formal training than they have in the U.S.,” said Ellen Goldring, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor and chair of the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations. “This is helping us think about some universal problems which we’ve been able to see in the Abu Dhabi context.”
Schuermann noted that women are playing an increasingly important role in Abu Dhabi’s rapid-paced education reform movement, one of many exciting developments that have occurred over the course of the international partnership. “Women are tremendously powerful leaders, advocates and implementers of this education movement,” he said. A case in point: Of the 18 schools where Peabody is present, 16 of them now have leadership teams entirely composed of women, and all 25 of the recently identified aspiring leaders are women.
Another cultural distinction is that in many classrooms lessons are taught in both Arabic and English. Most of the English-speaking teachers are on contract from Western countries, while most of the Arabic-speaking teachers are native to the U.A.E.
Professor of Education David Dickinson oversees the Atfal Abu Dhabi kindergarten project (which equates to a two-year preschool program for 4- to 5-year-olds in the United States). “Our primary mission is to help establish a kindergarten that is effective in providing a solid education while maintaining the cultural integrity of the country and educating children in basic skills in English and Arabic,” Dickinson said.
Initially, this duality posed challenges for Vanderbilt faculty who were working in the schools to develop best teaching practices. Over time, however, they have adjusted to this challenge, and now two of the 13 English-speaking teachers in the school are graduates of Peabody. Another sign of success: Two of the most skilled local teachers have risen to become instructional coaches for other teachers.
While the programs have faced significant challenges, the Vanderbilt presence in Abu Dhabi appears to be getting results. The Atfal school, which had trouble filling its classrooms when it first opened two years ago, is now considered one of the premier kindergartens in the country and has a waiting list of more than 70 for its 250 seats.
Peabody faculty also are seeing positive outcomes at Mubarak bin Mohammed Cycle One elementary school, which serves almost 900 first- through fifth-graders. MbM is a mixed-gender school, which is uncommon in Abu Dhabi. Boys and girls in grades 1 through 3 learn together in the same classroom, while grades 4 and 5 are separated by gender. According to Research Assistant Professor Tamra Stambaugh, who directs the MbM project, the most pressing challenges for teachers are language and time. Elementary students spend half a day in English-speaking classes and half a day in Arabic-speaking classes—even though many have never heard English spoken before coming to school.
“It is difficult to teach higher-level concepts in a foreign language when students are trying to learn not only high-level content and specific vocabulary, such as scientific words, but also learning basic communication skills and common phrases,” said Stambaugh, who travels to MbM every four to six weeks for a week at a time throughout the school year. “We have to be flexible in our approaches and remember the context in which we are working.”
At the end of year two, MbM appears to be hitting its stride. Emirati children and teachers are adapting to new learning tactics, while Peabody instructors are honing their own skills and developing innovative systemized teaching instruments. The program struggled to find its footing in year one, but now students’ reading scores are surging.
“I enjoy seeing students who couldn’t read or write in English at the beginning of the year engaging in conversations with me by midyear and writing sentences,” Stambaugh said. “I also enjoy working with instructional coaches as they help teachers incorporate new strategies and ideas with success and excitement.
“Change takes time. We are still learning and have a long way to go. We are better today than yesterday—and so are our teachers and students,” she said.
Lessons learned in China
Peabody’s collaboration with Chinese universities started in 2005 with the Educational Leadership Learning Exchange for school principals in Nashville and Guangzhou, a city of 15 million in southern China. In an ongoing exchange, the principals have been visiting each other’s host country to participate in a reciprocal professional development program for learning and sharing best practices.
Working with South China Normal University, and with the support from Nashville Metro Public Schools and Guangzhou Bureau of Education, ELLE has so far provided rich cross-cultural learning experiences for eight cohorts of principals from Nashville and Guangzhou.
“ELLE offers a rigorous learning agenda that is aligned with the standards and goals of professional development training for principals within their own contexts, but challenges the leaders to solve local issues with a broadened perspective,” said Xiu Cravens, associate dean for international affairs and one of the designers of the project.
Building on this reciprocal learning partnership with Chinese educators, a new collaboration between Peabody and China’s Shanghai public schools—some of the top achieving schools in the world—was launched in fall 2013.
The success of Shanghai’s school systems is largely linked to a unique teaching style in which teachers collaboratively deliver lessons, observe and learn from each other and offer feedback as part of their daily routine. This differs from the typical American teacher’s work environment, which tends to be less collaborative, with relatively little observation and feedback amongst peers.
“There’s this reverence and recognition of experience and expertise that is more prevalent in Asian cultures; there’s a hierarchy in the mastery of teaching,” Cravens explained. “A lot of the lesson planning groups are led by master teachers who pass down their skills and lead novice teachers to the next level.”
The Tennessee-Shanghai Partnership Collaborative kicked off with a cohort of 18 Tennessee school principals visiting Shanghai at the start of the fall 2013-14 school year. The principals selected to participate represent a wide range of school districts in Tennessee, including large urban and small rural districts in the Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville areas. The program is supported by Race to the Top funds from the State of Tennessee’s Department of Education.
Before leaving for China, the American principals created two separate teaching teams at their schools—one focused on math and a second focused on a topic of the teacher’s choice—that would carry out the models adapted from their Shanghai exchange. The principals, along with members of Peabody faculty and staff, traveled to Shanghai to learn about lesson planning and peer observation. Peabody faculty will be testing theories about the efficacy of these teacher peer excellence groups and document how they translate into Tennessee classrooms.
“The norm for American teachers is to teach in relative isolation,” said Schuermann, who is a co-director of the initiative. “Instead the schools in Shanghai have a pervasive culture of collaboration. Instead of people coming in to classrooms to observe and evaluate, they’re coming in to inform and improve practice.”
Cultural practices prevent the program from being implemented seamlessly in the United States, however. Teachers in Shanghai teach larger classes of students and their school days are longer; they teach fewer hours apiece and are given more time for common lesson planning. That means the instruments developed by the Tennessee-Shanghai partnership will have to be molded to fit the circumstances of American schools, where the school days are shorter, the classes smaller, and teachers teach all day, nonstop.
But participant Robin Newell, principal of the Mitchell-Neilson Schools in Murfreesboro, Tenn., believes the collaborative approach has strong potential in Tennessee classrooms. Upon her return, she began sharing what she learned with teachers, and is receiving positive feedback.
“This was truly a life-altering trip for me,” Newell said. “In American schools, the only feedback teachers usually get is from their administrators during evaluations. When I told one of the Chinese teachers that we didn’t give our teachers the opportunity to observe each other, she said, ‘Well, how do they get better?’”
She added that in Murfreesboro there is already an established culture of collaboration, so the techniques she learned in Shanghai are a good fit for the school district.
“We already participate in professional learning communities, and so I feel this will be the next step for us at the Mitchell-Neilson Schools,” she said.
Other participants are reporting that teachers are enthusiastic, enjoying collaborating and seeing success. In spring 2014, educators from Shanghai will come to Nashville to meet with the principals and teachers and visit area schools, deepening the connection between countries.
Goldring emphasizes that Peabody’s partnerships in Abu Dhabi, China and other countries are not the usual one-shot professional development workshops, brief student exchanges or faculty lectures, but rather long-term investigative projects based on data gathering, experimentation and critical analysis. “The synergy between research here and the work being done internationally is unique,” she said. “We are in schools learning and studying and continuing to probe at the depth of understanding some of the most intractable problems in education. It’s intellectually challenging and intellectually rewarding.”
For Dean Benbow, there’s no looking back. “Increased knowledge and increased collaboration can lead us to a safer, more secure world,” she said. “People who have common goals are less likely to find themselves in conflict. When you think about education and parents’ aspirations for their children, people are not that different. We all want what’s best for our children.”