Lesson plans: A technological wonder

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Aug 16, 2016

When most people picture world-changing technologies, they immediately conjure mental images of automobiles, airplanes, computers, and smartphones. But when the word “technology” is too closely associated with machines and devices, we can easily overlook powerful technologies of a different sort.

In The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen and his colleagues define technology as “the process that any company [or individual or organization] uses to convert inputs of labor, materials, capital, energy, and information into outputs of greater value.” When we broaden the term “technology” to this definition, we start to see that many important advances do not have screens, buttons, or mechanically motivated parts. New test procedures for quality control technicians, new surgical techniques for cardiac surgeons, and new lesson plans for teachers are all valuable forms of technology.

Last month, a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that giving middle school math teachers access to lesson plans from the company Mathalicious resulted in a statistically-significant increase in student achievement. Moreover, the lesson plans had the greatest impact in the hands of weaker teachers. Similarly, a 2012 study published by the Brookings Institution found that upgrading teachers’ curricula had a substantial effect on student learning. Although not viewed as very high tech, lesson plans and curricula are nonetheless valuable technologies for improving teacher effectiveness and student learning.

These types of technological advances follow a familiar pattern: they turn the complex work of experts into rules or practices that are easy for non-experts or novices to follow. In the earliest stages of most professional fields, the extent of understanding is little more than an assortment of observations collected over many generations. Only skilled experts can effectively tackle the problems to be solved, and their work proceeds through intuitive trial-and-error experimentation.

For example, prior to modern advances in medicine, the medical field had scant understanding of the causes of conditions such as dropsy (swelling) or palsy (tremors or paralysis). Doctors, therefore, treated these conditions by drawing on their wealth of experience from treating patients with similar ailments; and the best doctors were often those who had experienced the greatest number of cases.

Over time, however, patterns emerge that correlate actions with outcomes of interest. The discovery of these patterns enable professionals to develop practices and procedures based on correlations between actions and outcomes. By using documented practices and procedures, both professionals and new classes of non-professionals can solve the problems of their field with a greater degree of predictable success. Eventually, circumstance-based scientific theory supplants these patterns of correlation with a solid understanding of causality, such as when germ theory revolutionized the medical field’s understanding of a wide array of diseases. Formulating rigorous theory makes the results of given actions highly predictable. Accordingly, intuitive and complex work becomes routine. Abilities that previously resided in the intuition of a select group of experts ultimately become so explicitly teachable that people with less experience and training can carry out rules-based work with a reliable level of success.

In education, we expect teachers to have wide-ranging expertise—from content knowledge, to pedagogical knowledge, to curriculum design, to classroom management, to designing and administering assessments, to managing relationships with parents, to overseeing non-academic activities. With so many complex tasks falling in teachers’ domain of responsibility, it’s no surprise that there is often wide variation in teachers’ skills and expertise and, as a result, in their impact on student learning.

But simple innovations that codify complex and intuitive teaching skills into simple instructions for teachers to follow can go a long way toward improving teacher effectiveness and student outcomes. As the authors of the Mathalicious study noted,

In our model, lessons designed to develop understanding substitute for teacher effort on this task so that teachers who may only excel at imparting knowledge can be effective overall–simplifying the job of teaching. … Benefits were much larger for weaker teachers, suggesting that weaker teachers compensated for skill deficiencies by substituting the lessons for their own efforts.

Schools looking for ways to leverage technology to improve student learning should note that some of the most worthwhile technologies may be low-tech lesson plans and curricula that turn complex teaching tasks into simple, rules-based practices.

Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.