“The biggest obstacle in the US is the single-minded obsession with testing and accountability with little or no effort to help teachers improve.” – USA

According to Les Foltos, improving student outcomes happens when teachers are prepared to offer 21st century skills. How do we do this? Collaboration. “Teachers work largely in isolation, so innovation doesn’t spread from classroom to classroom,” says Les Foltos. “Peer coaches use skills in communication, collaboration, lesson design, and ICT integration to help peers offer innovative learning activities to their students.” Foltos and his team at Peer-Ed have created a program focused on training teachers to collaborate with each other: “peer coaching.” They have implemented peer coaching in more than 40 countries worldwide.  “It has this reach because it is effective professional development,” says Foltos.

In a recent TEDx talk, Foltos emphasized that teachers in the US are not focusing on the 21st century skills students so badly need today simply because they are focused on things that don’t make a difference: standardized tests, length of school year, etc.  But helping educators work together, providing training BY teachers rather than TO teachers, Foltos is determined to change all that.

Here, Foltos gives us his thoughts the best tools for teachers and students to use in the classroom, and what teachers can do each day to improve their student outcomes.

What has changed as a result of your efforts in education?

Teachers in these 40 countries routinely report that they are willing to take risks to try innovative practices, to routinely use ICT, and to offer students learning activities that emphasize critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.  They say they are making these changes because they have someone they trust who is just down the hall when needed.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology is a powerful learning tool that few teachers use routinely, and an even smaller number use effectively.  Coaching helps educators focus on creating powerful learning activities, and emphasizes the tasks they want students to perform.  After they have defined these learning activities Coaches ask colleagues to think about what tools would help students reach their goals.  This process of putting pedagogy first makes it far easier for teachers to define ways to use ICT to enrich and enhance learning.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

In general it is the fact that teachers work in isolation and there is little in school cultures that encourages or supports collaboration.  The biggest obstacle in the US is the single-minded obsession with testing and accountability with little or no effort to help teachers improve.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

It isn’t happening quickly, but there is more recognition in the US that improving student
learning means improving the quality of teaching and learning.  Some schools and districts are finding ways to promote collaboration among teachers, collaboration that is focused on
improving student learning.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

We have to focus on the fact that improving teaching and learning is the only thing that will produce the kind of results we want in our educational system. Accountability, charter
schools and merit pay are all distractions, if not counter-productive.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Helping teachers develop the skills they need to collaborate to improve instruction, changing the culture of schools to focus on a culture of collaboration and making sure there is a catalyst for innovation — a coach, available to support innovative practices.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Make it part of your daily practice to talk to colleagues about the practice of teaching and what you are doing to improve teaching and learning.  Make time to visit peers’ classrooms and after observing your peer, discuss what they did, how it affected student learning, what they would do differently next time, and how you might use what you observed.  Then invite them to observer you and reflect afterwards.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Helping.  Collaboration among teachers.  Getting in the way: accountability and testing with no reciprocal commitment to help educators improve.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Teachers who understood powerful pedagogy, and how technology enriched and enhanced learning.  Then, a mobile learning device – like a laptop – that students could use 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

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About Les Foltos
Director of Educational Innovation, Peer-Ed, Seattle, Washington, USA

Birthplace: Batavia, Illinois
Current residence:  Mill Creek, Washington
Education:  Ph.D. in American History
Website I check every day:  Facebook to check in on my friends from around the world.
Favorite childhood memory:  Playing ball, baseball or football, with kids from the neighborhood.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure):  San Diego.
When was the last time you laughed? Why?  Last night.  A couple of months ago my 16-year-old daughter “trimmed” my eyebrows. Afterwards half of one was missing.
Yesterday I showed her that it was still largely missing and we laughed.
Favorite book:  Essays of E.B. White
Favorite music:
  Sunshine of Your Love.  Cream
Your favorite quote or motto: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Phil Condit.

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