Anyone who has ever stood looking out at a room full of students will tell you that nothing beats actual practice when it comes to mastering the art and skill of classroom teaching.
Research has borne this out, and many teacher preparation programs have lengthened required student teaching from a few months to a full school year, recognizing the value to teacher candidates of extended immersion in a classroom under the supervision of a skillfulentor teacher.
As teacher preparation programs turn their focus to measuring demonstrated competency rather than time on task, simulations have begun to supplement, even surpass clinical hours as opportunities for structured, supervised practice. In many cases, these simulations — which can replicate a range of familiar situations as well as interactions with students, colleagues, and parents — are remarkably realistic. They have the complexity to challenge the teacher candidate on multiple levels. And, particularly in the case of video-based interactions, they can even give the teacher candidate an excellent sense of a classroom setting’s anxiety, tension, and variety of results and responses.
Simulations are well established in training for other professions — think flight simulators and healthcare avatars — and more and more widely used in teaching. They can be remarkably realistic, like FIFA soccer or Madden NFL.
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Still, even today’s most realistic simulation technology has limitations: a football player can plausibly make only a finite set of moves, and only 11 players an take the field at any one time. The average public middle school teacher would be lucky to face only a quarter of that number of variables.
There are four broad areas in which simulated teaching environments still must evolve in order to give candidates the rigorous teaching practice that could make clinical immersion unnecessary.
First, programming must become more complex by several orders of magnitude to recreate real students’ reactions.
Any one student in a classroom, no matter how attentive or well prepared, has the potential to understand and misunderstand, and to respond to instruction or to another student or to something happening at home, in any number of ways.
Today’s simulations are not yet sophisticated enough to challenge a teacher candidate to merge content knowledge, appropriate questioning, culturally sensitive pedagogy, and attention to individual students’ needs. Simulations can go a long way toward this; presenting a virtual classroom that has a half dozen student avatars, each exhibiting complex but finite sets of responses, will prepare a teacher far better than a textbook or lecture. But nothing can yet replace the real thing.
Second, simulations do not (yet) have the power to replicate the cumulative effect of interactions that creates relationships. They can help teacher candidates to develop and hone instincts and responses. They can give candidates practice in intervening, engaging, rewarding, encouraging, and disciplining. But only true interactions, among real people, can lead to the formation of personal relationships between teacher and student.
Teachers must rely on the bonds they form with their entire class and with individuals in the class. Mutual respect and sense of shared purpose are among the most effective strategies in dealing with any situation, and teachers need real interactions to learn the art of navigating and negotiating these sometimes fragile treaties with their classes.
Third, a simulation can begin to introduce the subtle interventions that take place in a skillfully supervised clinical experience, which are invaluable in teaching resourcefulness and developing stamina. But a simulation can be paused or replayed as needed. It can end badly, even catastrophically, with no real harm done. It can feel urgent and demanding without exposing the participants to real risk. It is necessary to be in a clinical setting, however, to test these skills in a high-stakes environment that still leaves room for instructive failures. A good clinical supervisor will choose the appropriate level of intervention or correction, from a gentle suggestion to fully taking over or redirecting the lesson.
Finally, simulations have yet to reach the point where they can create a real sense of teachers’ responsibility for the real students whom they are entrusted to teach. Teachers genuinely come to care for their students and want them to succeed; they cannot rewind when they fall short of their aspirations.
A real-life setting ultimately teaches and tests the resiliency to persevere and keep playing, along with the wisdom of when and how to hit the “pause” button.
The kind of high-level interactive simulations that will address these needs are no doubt coming soon, but for now, nothing prepares classroom teachers like actual time in the classroom.
Stephanie J. Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.