15 February 2023
Hong Kong SAR
Supporting teachers in a world of change

As the world changes, and as the pace of that change accelerates, the role of teachers becomes more challenging, and more important than ever.

At the 2022 Yidan Prize Summit, held in December, education experts came together to discuss ways of empowering teachers as they ready the next generation for a fast-changing future. Here’s what we learned.

Teachers have to prepare students for a world that doesn’t exist yet

The building blocks of our world—the environment, society, the economy—are shifting. As 2022 Yidan Prize laureate Dr Linda Darling-Hammond puts it: “Our children will work with knowledge that hasn’t been discovered yet, using technologies that haven’t been invented yet, solving major problems that we have not been able to solve.”

The question facing teachers is: how do you prepare students for an unknown future?

What it means to be a teacher is changing

In a world where knowledge quickly becomes outdated, education is more than passing on information. It’s about instilling students with skills and qualities that will help them throughout their lives. As educator Zachariah Mbasu puts it, we need “teaching that is focused on students’ learning, rather than just transferring knowledge.”

Meanwhile, teaching resources are moving beyond textbooks, as tools like PhET Interactive Simulations unlock new ways of conveying ideas and information. In PhET’s case that means “making the invisible visible” by showing students how things like atoms, electrical charges, and magnetic waves move and behave.

Teachers are as important as ever

Education may be changing, but one thing remains true: teachers are crucial for students to thrive—academically and emotionally. According to the United Nations, they are the “single most influential variable” in a child’s education. As research reveals the link between good mental health in youth and success in later life, there’s a growing awareness that wellbeing and academic outcomes go hand in hand.

Already, initiatives like Hong Kong’s Future Education in Action (FEiA) project are harnessing that insight. The project rethinks how teachers are trained and treated, with the hope of creating a ripple effect: capable, motivated teachers helping students develop into productive, fulfilled adults. By broadening their focus to include teacher and student wellbeing alongside test scores, schools are redefining what a successful education looks like.

What teachers learn is as important as what they teach

According to Professor LOW Ee Ling, “we need to reimagine, restructure, and streamline our current teacher education offerings”. This reshaping of teacher training is essential if educators are going to keep up with evolving methods and a changing world.

As a first step, we need to bridge the gap between education theory and practice. The New Education Initiative (NEI), led by Professor Yongxin Zhu, 2022 Yidan Prize laureate, shows us how we can bring research off the page and into the classroom. The NEI approach keeps teachers up to speed with the latest education research throughout their careers. This doesn’t just give educators fresh, evidence-based knowledge, but what Huifen Zhuang, Principal of one of the participating schools, calls “a strong sense of mission”.

Teachers need systems of support

To truly contend with these changes and challenges, teachers need support from all sides.

They need innovation to be accessible: technology and tools that work where they are, and open up new approaches to learning. PhET Interactive Simulations, for example, give teachers and students a way to conduct experiments without costly laboratories or equipment. The hands-on simulations work offline and can be easily shared, and are available in 110 languages. Importantly, the PhET team works with educators around the world to tailor the simulations to local contexts.

Partnerships are also key. And they start with the school. Educators need both supportive colleagues and invested leaders. Vice-Principal Brian Wong, whose school is part of the FEiA program, described a model of leadership based on “compassion for teachers”, where schools are run with and for their educators, as well as students.

Beyond the school, philanthropic organizations can be valuable partners. The knowledge, funding, and support offered by organizations like The D. H. Chen Foundation and the Bei Shan Tang Foundation can make all the difference in getting projects off the ground and into the classroom.

The final, vital ingredient is partnerships with policymakers. It’s only with their support that approaches and methods can move beyond test cases and be scaled, so that they make a difference to the working lives of teachers and students across countries and continents.­­­­

Protecting education’s most valuable resource

The 2022 Yidan Prize Summit was a timely reminder that, as Professor Yongxin Zhu says, a “school’s most important resource is its teachers”. Around the world, experts are developing initiatives and innovations that give teachers and their students the potential to thrive.

Speakers underlined the need to rethink training, so it becomes an ongoing process that refreshes knowledge, and reinforces teachers’ sense of identity. And they stressed how important support is—on the ground and at a systemic level.

To set a generation up for a world of ever more rapid change, we need to place teachers at the forefront of education.

Watch the summit.