future teaching 2019

4 ideas to advance teaching in 2019

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Jan 17, 2019

I’m generally skeptical of all the prognosticating at the start of each new year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for good things to come. Below is my wish list of ideas for teaching that I hope to see take off during the next 12 months.

1. Put technology in service of teaching

It’s time for a paradigm shift in how schools and the edtech sector think about educational technology. Daniel Willingham, the esteemed educational psychologist, recently called out the flaws of today’s dominant framing on Twitter:

Teachers, not technologies, define performance in our education system. Even if our end goal is student-centered instruction, teachers are the key to making that kind of instruction a reality. So instead of fixating on what technology can do—often with teachers engineered out of the equation—we need to find ways to amplify teachers’ capacity. Technology should function in service of that aim, not as an end in itself.

To help advance this paradigm shift, I’ve been working on a framework to describe how, exactly, technology can amplify teacher capacity. If you’re interested in being part of the change, check out the current iteration of the framework and let me know what you think. Additionally, if you’re a school leader aiming to adopt new technologies this year, our recent research on what actually motivates teachers to do things differently is a must-read.

2. Prioritize student-teacher relationships

Traditional instruction routinely sacrifices individual students on the altar of group expediency. Students’ behavior issues often stem from boredom, confusion, or social and emotional challenges. Yet too often teachers ignore these underlying issues and turn to adversarial discipline—not because that’s what’s best for the individual students, but because of the need to control classroom behavior in order to make whole-class, direct instruction work. The best teachers in traditional settings expertly manage their classrooms to minimize this tension. But what if we could eliminate it altogether?

One of the greatest benefits of blended and personalized learning is creating more opportunities for teachers to relate one-on-one with their students. But efforts to personalize learning easily fixate on learning activities while overlooking how to make relationships between students and teachers more personal. Recent research out of Chicago on school climate shows that helping students feel safe and supported may be one of the biggest levers for advancing student achievement. My hope—for the sake of both students and teachers—is that more schools make relationships their reason for blending and personalizing learning in the year ahead.

3. Decouple teaching and grading

In most schools, teachers have a tricky tightrope to walk: on one hand, their aim is to inspire students’ passion for content, coach students on study habits, and motivate students to fulfill their academic potential. On the other hand, they must be judges who develop assessments, set grading policies, and then hand out performance marks. In the best case scenario, teachers are rigorous and unbiased assessors of student performance, and students see the grades from their teachers as fair. But all too often, when students get bad marks, teachers must pivot from being an advocate to an adversary as they defend the results of their grading; and students all too easily walk away rationalizing that their bad grades were more a reflection of the teachers’ biased or unfair grading and not the students’ own efforts.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I wrote a piece proposing an innovative staffing arrangement where the roles of teacher and grader get unbundled. Let some teachers at a school or district serve as unbiased assessment experts who develop and then grade assessments of students’ learning. Then take grading off classroom teachers’ plates and let them become the coaches and advocates who are always on their students’ sides. Not only would such an arrangement create greater alignment between the interests of students and their teachers, but would also provide teachers with regular, objective feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching.

This approach to staffing already has a track record in higher education at Western Governors University. As K–12 schools continue to experiment with innovative staffing models, perhaps this will be the year when they, too, figure out how to make these types of arrangements work.

4. Offer more PD for purposeful practice

In my years researching K–12 education, I’ve been underwhelmed by most of the innovations in professional development (PD). Personalized PD—through online learning and micro-credentials—is certainly an improvement over one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get workshops. But I’m skeptical of whether these forms of personalized PD will actually move the needle on student outcomes.

Strong intuitions for teaching come more from purposeful practice than from focused study. Learning to teach is more like learning to play the piano or play basketball than like knowing how to read sheet music or recite the rules of the game. Both research and my own visits to high-performing schools confirm that coaching is one of the most valuable forms of teacher development. Yet most personalized PD excels at content delivery, not at giving teachers practice and feedback.

There are, however, a few noteworthy innovators that are forging new ground in teacher coaching and feedback. Those on my radar include CT3, Mursion, EdConnective, IRIS Connect, and TeachBoost. Technology is not going to replace expert teacher coaches any time soon. But it could help to streamline the process of observing teachers and giving feedback so that regular coaching can be a sustainable practice.

And lastly, I hope you’ll reach out

As you consider your year ahead, please let me know if you’re planning to implement any of the practices I’ve described above. I’ll be eager to follow your work. If none of these ideas were on your radar until now, hopefully this post provides some inspiration for how you might plan to move the needle in your realm of influence. Here’s to a great year!

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.