Understanding pupils and learning are at the core of teacher's work

Changing teaching facilities and increasingly diverse learners are transforming teachers’ work and teacher education.

Unlike in almost all other countries, Finnish teachers train for their profession at a university. This has been the case for over 40 years.

“University-level teacher education ensures that teaching is linked with the most up-to-date research results,” says Professor of Higher Education Auli Toom.

She manages the Centre for University Teaching and Learning at the University of Helsinki and during her career has studied university pedagogy particularly from the perspective of the learning and education of teacher students.

“Since pupils, society and schools are changing, teacher education is also continuously changing.”

In addition to societal changes, teaching is governed by curricula applying to all schools in Finland drawn up by the Finnish National Agency for Education. Among other things, they determine what should be taught to each age group.

Changes made to the curricula affect the content of teacher education as well as working methods. However, the basis of teacher education remains the same: it is the understanding of learning and teaching.

“Even though subject-specific expertise is important, teacher education especially emphasises the core questions of pedagogy and educational psychology, such as how to teach and how learning occurs.”

Teachers must possess as comprehensive an understanding as possible of pupils, learning and teaching in order to know how to teach mathematics, native language studies and new skills well. Research information helps in acquiring this understanding.

“Throughout my career, there has been an increasing focus on utilising research results in higher and teacher education as comprehensively as possible. We use and teach teaching methods that we know to be effective based on research, we engage students in research projects and give them the opportunity to try out research tools and in this way observe learning and teaching.”

In their studies, teacher students use glasses that track eye movements and rings that measure stress levels, among other things. Research tools help in making various dimensions of teacher work and learning concrete.

When pupils change, teacher work changes with them

What do diverse pupils need in order to learn? This is something researchers have been studying for decades. The answer has changed over the years and keeps on changing.

Nevertheless, understanding pupils and learning are at the core of teaching.

“In teacher education, we discuss carefully and thoroughly what is important with regard to pupils, their learning and backgrounds. These are things teachers need to know about in order to be able to support pupils.”

At the moment, schools are diversifying at a rapid rate. This is partly due to internationalisation, partly to better recognition of pupils' differing needs as learners.

Differences between pupils mean not only teaching in various languages, taking into account various cultures and beliefs but also varied teaching methods and understanding the various challenges to learning. The more diverse the pupils, the more teachers have to take these differences into account.

Challenges to learning, multiculturalism and varied teaching methods are evident in all teacher education courses, but some modules especially emphasise them. These include special education, religion, ethics and philosophy, and languages. 

“Since the pupils are changing, the school will change with them.”

In changing schools, basics of pedagogy still apply

The lessons and facilities of Finnish basic education have changed a great deal in the last 10 years. Pupils no longer always sit at their desks and teachers do not always teach alone. Tablet computers, virtual learning environments and programming are all part of everyday life at schools.

Teacher education studies and participates in the latest changes in a variety of ways. For example, current courses take into account that teachers no longer hold all their lessons in their own classes to 25 pupils, but may join groups, halve lessons or teach more than one class at a time.

During their university studies, students in teacher education have the opportunity to try out various teaching methods and environments. They use various digital learning tools and methods, such as problem-based learning, progressive inquiry, and invention pedagogy.

Especially practical training periods, which are completed at various stages of the studies, familiarise prospective teachers with varied work methods and learning environments at schools.

“Practical training is one of the most important stages in learning to become a teacher. During it, students plan and implement their own teaching and test what they have learnt.”

However, Toom states that the university cannot teach all the operating methods of every school or the use of every technical gadget.

“Nor should it. The basics of pedagogy apply in all environments. The basic issues related to learning and teaching apply everywhere. Pupils and learning are at the heart of both teacher education and the future working life of teachers.”

Teachers burdened by demanding work and responsibility

In Finland, teachers participate in the development of the school as a whole in addition to their teaching duties. This brings a great deal of responsibility and power, since an individual teacher can influence the pedagogical policies of the school as well as pupils’ overall image of their school and studies.

“We shed light on the social role and responsibility of teachers on many courses through both teaching and discussing these issues with students. Understanding responsibility is a thread running through the studies as a whole,” says Toom. 

At times, newly graduated teachers may experience working life as hard, since there is so much responsibility and work.

“In the beginning of a teaching career, the reality of the profession may seem hard regardless of its rewarding nature. The work requires long-term planning while also being very hectic in the everyday life of the school.”

Teachers think about what pupils will learn during the year and in what order. They plan comprehensive modules and evaluate progress. For pupils, teaching appears as separate moments with their concomitant successes and failures.

According to a doctoral dissertation by Lauri Heikonen, interaction between teachers and pupils affects teachers in the early stages of their careers. If they do not get along, a new teacher may start thinking about changing occupation.

This is the reason why the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Teacher Education Forum have studied various opportunities to support teachers who are just starting their careers.

According to Toom, new teachers require systematic mentoring - peer support from other, more experienced, teachers.

“Continuing education should also be made more widely available for teachers. It is important to ensure that nobody is left out.”

On average, teachers are keen to learn new things and participate actively in continuing education organised for them. However, a national continuing education system would guarantee that everyone participates in this education. This would, moreover, ensure that the most recent research results could be utilised.

Right now researchers are studying how large masses of data could be utilised in teaching.

“In our dLearn.Helsinki research project, we are developing a digital application for learning generic, in other words non-subject specific, skills in cooperation with teachers. We are considering how teachers and schools can utilise in their teaching the large mass of data accrued through research.”

Once someone figures out a way to use the data, nationwide education can be used to spread these skills to all schools.

Auli Toom is the professor of higher education at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning.

She completed her master's degree in education and her PhD at the University of Helsinki.

Toom commenced her researcher career in a research group studying teaching led by Pertti Kansanen. She has since continued her research on the same themes.

Toom currently engages in research on all educational levels: university, general upper secondary and basic education. With regard to teacher education and teachers, her research focuses especially on how teachers learn to be active participants in their profession during teacher education and the early stages of their careers.

In university pedagogy, Toom and her colleagues study the learning and teaching of generic skills and knowledge-intensive practices of critical thinking in various disciplines.