A Critical Evaluation of an International Professional Development Trajectory: Changing Beliefs and Practices of Kazakh Academics.
Professional development (PD) trajectories should provide a transformative experience in order to have a sustainable impact on academics educational beliefs and their teaching practices. Immerging university teachers in an unfamiliar international context and unknown university system might help academic to re-evaluate their educational beliefs.
Any educational reform that is inconsistent with the beliefs of those responsible for its execution will be unsuccessful (Verloop, 2003). Therefore educational professional development of university staff is a critical element of success especially of the reforms in Kazakh higher education system. Since independence in 1991, Higher Education in Kazakhstan has been developing rapidly from a highly centralized Soviet system to what is called a ‘world class system’. Current reforms aim to increase the autonomy of universities, improve the quality of teaching and research, and to internationalize education. The Bologna process has been adopted and is being implemented (OECD, 2007). This large scale and long-term national educational reform is still an ungoing process in which academics are challenged to re-evaluate their educational beliefs and re-negotiate their teaching practice.
The Bolashak International Scholarship program, funded by the Government of Kazakhstan, provides a wide range of scholarships, including grants for academic staff to participate in professional development trainings at Universities outside Kazakhstan. In this study we systematically evaluated the professional development of Kazakh academics as a result of a three months international PD trajectory in The Netherlands.
Design of a transformative learning experience
At the start of the PD trajectory an assessment of learning needs and wishes took place. Main topics of interest as formulated by the participants include: modern teaching methods in their subject areas, IT in education, how to teach critical thinking and research, improving own and students English proficiency, academic writing, and how to publish in international research journals. Additionally participants indicate their desire to build relationships with Dutch colleagues in their subject areas.
Through an activating teaching approach during the PD trajectory participants were engaged in educational training, collaborative learning and joint curriculum development for the training. The trajectory consisted of five topics: educational methods, action research, academic English, project management and networking (including guest lectures and site visits). As an outcome of the PD each individual participant wrote an action research proposal to be implemented in Kazakhstan after return. Furthermore project proposals were prepared as group work. These consisted of a variety of educational topics and methodologies. In some groups educational design projects were produced and in other groups review articles or outlines for an educational research project.
During the PD trajectory in The Netherlands, the participants were immerged in a new cultural and academic environment. For them that acted as an opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills and to re-evaluate educational beliefs. According to ongoing evaluations almost all our Kazakh colleagues embrace these opportunities with enthusiasm. Most often the training products were of high standard.
But does their professional development last beyond their training period?
Does an international Professional Development trajectory for Kazakh University teachers in the Netherlands change the participants’ educational beliefs and teaching practice?
Guskey developed a model for professional development evaluation (Guskey 2000). It consist of five hierarchical evaluation levels. These are:
1. Participants’ reactions
2. Participants’ learning
3. Organization support and change
4. Participants use of new knowledge and skills
5. Student learning outcomes.
Our research methods cover evaluation levels 1 to 4.
During the training reports were collected of participants evaluations. A variety of evaluation methods was used to collect evaluation data: open group discussions, ‘snowball’ evaluations and questionnaires at the beginning and end of the training. The data thus collected refer to level 1 of the evaluation model.
Level 2, participants’ learning is measured using the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’. Results of the inventory usually show that a teacher focused approach is linked to an information transfer intention of the teacher. A student focused approach is linked to a conceptual change intention (Trigwell & Prosser, 1996). This questionnaire was filled in at the beginning of the training by more than 30 participants and individually labeled with their name. Five months after the training (April 2015) the participants will be asked to fill in the questionnaire again. As a result of our training, we expect to measure a shift from teacher focused to student focused approach. For our purposes the English version of the Inventory was translated to Russian (the main academic language in Kazakhstan). The Russian version was back-translated to English by a second translator. On the basis of this translation and the original English version the translators compiled a final version in Russian.
In addition to filling in the Inventory, all participants wrote a short essay about ‘My Best Teacher’, also labeled with their name. These essays provide personal accounts of what participants consider exemplary teachers. These essays were analyzed using Lowman’s two-dimensional model of effective college teaching (Lowman, 1996). These outcomes will be correlated with the outcomes of the Teaching Inventory and its shifts.
At the end of April 2015 we will conduct about six structured interviews with participants in Kazakhstan. These interviews will enable us to deepen our understanding at levels 1 and 2 of Guskey. We also will acquire a qualitative picture of levels 3 and 4: ‘Organization support and change’ and ‘Participants use of new knowledge and skills’.
Anecdotal evidence shows that most participants consider the training as “a professional and personal experience of a lifetime”. After analyzing our data we expect to see an clear increase in practical educational knowledge and skills and an attitude shift towards student centered teaching.
At the beginning of the training the ‘tailor made’ approach was surprising and challenging for the participants, as was inferred from the evaluations. One reason for this might be the limited practical autonomy university staff in Kazakhstan has when it comes to the centrally set curriculum and teaching methods (Sagintayeva & Kurakbayev, 2014). Furthermore, teachers have heavy teaching loads (up to 800 contact hours per year) and much pressure to produce research articles. Therefore the “conceptual unreadiness for new ideas and practices”, needed for assimilation and accommodation of new teaching and learning methods can be quite high in daily practice (Bridges, Kurakbajev & Kambatyrova, 2014).
To what extend participants will be able to implement their enhanced professionalism in daily practice will depend on several factors, such as perceived support of superiors and the level of peer collaboration. Some participants came in groups from the same university. They recently reported us to have had collective sessions with colleagues on how to apply new knowledge and skills to their educational programs.
We expect a mixed picture, because these and other factors (personality, work load, private circumstances, rapport with students) can vary considerably.
Through this research we expect to gain a deeper understanding of our target group, resulting in practical recommendations on how to improve the educational approach and the program of our training. The findings will help us to formulate design principles for international PD trajectories which provide academics with transformative learning experiences, and support them to grow as academics in an ever changing world.
Bridges, D., Kurakbayev, K. & Kambatyrova, A. (2014) Lost - and Found - in Translation? Interpreting the Process of the International and Intranational Translation of Educational Policy and Practice in Kazakhstan. In David Bridges (editor), Educational Reform and Internationalisation. The Case of School Reform in Kazakhstan. Cambridge University Press.
Guskey, T. R. (2002) Professional Development and Teacher Change. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 8, 381-391.
Lowman, J. (1996), Characteristics of exemplary teachers. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 33–40.
OECD (2007) Reviews of National Policies for Education: Higher Education in Kazakhstan 2007. The World Bank, Washington/OECD Publishing, Paris.
Trigwell, K. & Prosser, M. (1996). Congruence between intention and strategy in university science teachers' approaches to teaching. Higher Education 32, 77-87.
Sagintayeva, A. Kurakbayev, K. (2014) Understanding the transition of public universities to institutional autonomy in Kazakhstan. European Journal of Higher Education.
Verloop, N. (2003) De leraar. In N. Verloop & J. Lowyck (Red.), Onderwijskunde, een kennisbasis voor professionals (pp. 194-249). Groningen/Houten: Wolters-Noordhoff.