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July 2, 2013

Secret to organizing teachers for blended learning

by Heather Staker

What do you get when you foist technology on busy classroom teachers? In most cases, you get technology-rich—but still traditional—classrooms, plus teachers who are now responsible for troubleshooting both misbehaving devices and the culprits using them.

One district leader articulated the problem well. He told me he’s excited about the district’s new learning management system (LMS), but not sure that teachers will use it to make learning more student-centric. He wonders if professional development will be enough to help his teachers “know how to really, truly personalize learning,” instead of merely add flash to the status quo.

He’s right. In fact, no amount of teacher training will solve his problem. But there’s a very different solution that will.

The secret is this: organize the right team to lead the implementation. During their time at Harvard Business School, Professors Kim Clark and Steven Wheelwright wrote here that different organization structures are right for different problems. Disrupting Class summarizes these points in Chapter Nine. Here’s the overview:

Functional teams

To create change within the walls of a classroom or department, use what Clark and Wheelwritght call a functional team. A functional team is made up of the team of teachers at each grade level or department. Functional teams bring specialized expertise in their own disciplines—the kindergarten teachers handle the kindergarten, foreign language teachers manage the foreign language department, and so forth. Functional teams are best suited for problems that don’t require other parts of the school to change. Use a functional team for problems such as:

  • Deciding how to use the LMS for problem sets and class calendars
  • Deciding how teachers will use online tools to enliven their lesson plans
  • Helping teachers implement a Flipped Classroom

Lightweight teams

Other problems require making changes that affect more than one set of classroom teachers. When the interdependencies are predictable, the best organization structure is a lightweight team. Lightweight managers shuttle back and forth among the departments to ensure that everyone’s work fits together. Importantly, team members represent the interests of their departments throughout the process. Use a lightweight team for problems such as:

  • Coordinating how teachers and parapros will work together as part of a Lab Rotation
  • Determining how the I.T. staff will support the middle school’s Station Rotation
  • Deciding how 6th grade students can serve as reading buddies for 1st graders during a  Station Rotation

Heavyweight teams

Some changes go beyond coordinating how classrooms or departments work together. They require changing the architecture of the school itself. In these cases, the best group to lead the change is a heavyweight team. Members of heavyweight teams must co-locate and a manager with significant clout needs to be at the helm. Members of the team must abide by a crucial rule—leave behind departmental interests and instead work collectively to meet the project’s goal. Use these teams for problems such as:

Autonomous teams

Finally, some technology initiatives are intended to disrupt the classroom and replace it with an entirely new education model. Leaders can only bring about this level of change if they create an autonomous team, which has the freedom to rebuild the budget, staffing plan, and facilities design from the ground up. Autonomous teams have enough autonomy that they in effect pioneer a “school within a school.” Senior administrators play a key role in defending the autonomous team’s right to break the grip of established processes. Use these teams to implement the disruptive models of blended learning that we identify in our report Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? (see pages 32-35).

Team design is a big deal. It is crucial to making a blended-learning implementation work as hoped. So listen up Miami-Dade (which recently announced that each of its 350,000 students will have access to a digital device by 2015) and Los Angeles Unified (which signed a $35 million contract to buy Apple iPads). Don’t think that teacher training is all that matters to make those huge tech investments pay off.

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