Four principles for designing the future of teaching in 2020

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Dec 17, 2019

When I started my career in education as a middle school math teacher, the work often felt overwhelming. Delivering excellent instruction day-to-day was itself a major endeavor. But even when my classes and lessons went well, they never felt like enough. I had a constant sense that there was more that I should be doing for my students—things like facilitating projects and field trips to deepen their learning, bringing outside experts into my classroom to broaden their perspectives on the applicability of the content we were learning, and building relationships with students and their families by spending time with them outside of school hours. Granted, I was a novice teacher, and my ability to manage all the things on my plate would have grown over time. Yet, even with more experience and expertise, I don’t think I would have ever become effective and efficient enough to “do it all.” 

Given the overflowing demands on teachers’ time, we need to reinvent the classroom and the roles of teachers so that teachers can tackle the meaningful and important work that often gets sidelined amidst the daily hustle. For those interested in solving these system-level challenges, here are four principles to help guide that work.

1. Teachers’ time is scarce

Time is a precious resource for teachers. Between teaching, planning, grading, supporting out-of-class activities, and building relationships with students and their families, there never seems to be enough time to go around. 

If we had to account for demands on teacher time similar to how we account for school budgets, we’d be forced to confront a punishing reality: most schools are bankrupt. Decades of new policies, best practices, and rising expectations have saddled teachers with responsibilities that go well beyond the hours in a day. This means we can’t solve the problems in education by just asking teachers to do more or work harder.

To really solve these problems, we need more demand for innovations that free up teachers’ time and thereby expand their capacity.

2. Technology can expand teacher capacity

Often, as schools think about adopting new technologies, the question they ask is “How will this technology affect student learning?” This is an important question to ask, but it can also narrow school leaders’ perspectives. Given that teachers are a school’s biggest lever for influencing student learning, an equally important question school leaders should ask is “How will this technology affect teacher capacity?” 

For example, a technology may produce marginal improvements in student learning, but if managing the technology takes additional teacher time, restricting other important pedagogical practices, that technology probably isn’t worth the investment. On the other hand, if technologies employed in a blended-learning model can effectively replace whole-class instruction and free teachers up to spend more time on higher-value activities—such as targeted small group instruction or projects that deepen and enrich students’ engagement with content—that technology can be an incredibly worthwhile investment.

Educators and leaders should hone an instinct to always consider education technology in terms of its impact on teacher capacity.

3. Most educational technology only enhances teachers’ practices

There’s a subtle but important distinction between the various technologies that teachers use in their classrooms. The most common technologies—such as interactive whiteboards, digital textbooks, word processors, and presentation software—typically don’t expand teachers’ capacity. Rather, they enhance how teachers deliver conventional instruction. 

Consider these examples of enhancing technologies: a projector might help teachers convey content in multimedia formats, access to the Internet might make it easier to search for information and resources, and an online word processing tool might make it easier to work with students on editing and revising their writing assignments. These uses of technology are what we’ve called “tech-rich” in our research on blended learning. They do not change the instructional model of the classroom. They also do not take tasks off teachers’ plates to thereby expand teachers’ capacity for other worthwhile activities. 

On the other hand, when teachers use blended-learning strategies to offload some elements of planning, grading, and instructional delivery to online learning, those technologies can have a net effect of expanding teachers’ capacity for other important activities. For example, if a teacher can shift some whole-class direct instruction to online learning videos and activity, that teacher can reallocate the time they would have spent planning and directing teacher-led instruction to other activities such as tutoring students, facilitating debates and discussions, or organizing project-based learning.

Both types of technologies can be valuable in their own right. But to address the problem of limited teacher capacity, educators need to see the distinction between the two and then focus on finding ways to use technology to expand capacity.

4. Teachers need to see capacity as their core problem of practice

Expanding teachers’ capacity with technology is a sensible idea in principle. But for busy teachers, reinventing your instructional model is a lot harder than adopting a new technology that enhances your current practices. In the short run, expanding teacher capacity actually amplifies demands on teacher capacity. So what motivates teachers to make the up-front investment? 

As we found in our recent research on teacher motivation, teachers reinvent their instruction when they conclude that conventional instruction isn’t good enough. They need to see for themselves that conventional, teacher-led instruction is a bottleneck that keeps them from truly meeting the needs of their students. 

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.