I recently attended the Blended and Personalized Learning Conference, which the Christensen Institute co-hosted with the Highlander Institute, to listen to school leaders from across the country discuss blended-learning implementation and best practices. At the end of the two-day conference, I was left with a strong impression that just as teachers are critical players in the classroom, when it comes to blended-learning implementation and planning at scale, they are often critical players in the boardroom as well.

To be clear, nearly every successful school and district has a principal or superintendent who exhibits strong leadership and is committed to improving student learning outcomes. But the clear consensus among the school leaders with whom I interacted at the conference was that teachers are often the real drivers of change in the design and adoption of blended learning. Perhaps the clearest example came from Rebekah Kim, the principal at Midway Elementary School in Des Moines, Wash. Despite being a thoughtful, passionate, and devoted principal, Kim described how early efforts at architecting change in her school weren’t as effective because teachers weren’t included in the design process:

We started with a core leadership team that included administration and specialists. The problem was that we were not working directly in classrooms and trying to develop a structure that was new. We realized that to have guided input we needed to consult with our classroom teachers on what was working, what was not working, and where additional support was needed. So we created a Blended Learning Leadership Team, which included teachers. This is when we started getting more meaningful input on how things really were going and what needed changing in order to make the shift to the successful school-wide culture that now exists.

To understand why Midway Elementary School was successful when it included teachers in the leadership team, it is imperative to understand the theory that helps explain how organizations can bring about change and which types of teams are best suited for which jobs.

In their book Revolutionizing Product Development, Harvard Business School professors Kim Clark and Steven Wheelwright describe how different organizational teams are right for different types of problems. For example, a functional team, which consists of individuals within a same functional domain—such as finance, marketing, or engineering—is best suited to solve functional problems at the component level. For example, if Toyota wants to provide a heated steering wheel in its next Camry, it doesn’t need to assemble a team of designers, marketers, managers, and sales representatives to develop the new product. Instead, Toyota can create a functional team of engineers, who focus on steering wheels or other interior parts, to come up with the mechanisms for heat and then incorporate them into the new vehicle. In this case, there is no need for change in institutional processes or priorities, and the overall vehicle architecture remains exactly the same.

But when the architecture of a product or process needs to change, organizations must create a heavyweight team to drive significant or breakthrough improvements. A heavyweight team consists of people who are pulled out of functional organizations and placed in a team structure that allows them to interact with groups of people with whom they normally wouldn’t collaborate. This structure enables members to transcend the boundaries of their functional organizations and interact in different ways.

For example, when Toyota decided to create the Prius, it could not use functional teams because the hybrid vehicle called for a completely different architecture than a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle. More than a simple heated steering wheel, a hybrid vehicle required new components that interfaced with other new components in novel ways—the internal combustion engine had to coordinate propulsion responsibility with an electric motor, the brakes needed to generate electricity by interfacing with the battery, and so forth. To solve these problems, Toyota pulled people from different engineering departments and placed them in a heavyweight team to design and build an entirely new vehicle. The success of this, or any, heavyweight team is in the priorities—team members don’t “represent” the interests of their respective departments, instead they provide expertise that can help the group as a whole to figure out better ways to knit together ideas to meet the project’s goals.

With that framing in mind, Principal Kim’s experience at Midway Elementary School is entirely understandable. What she wanted was a new classroom architecture where students and teachers would interact in novel ways, aided by the introduction of new components such as EdTech, hardware, and data. But as the learning and teaching processes in any classroom are driven by the teacher, and when teachers are the ones who will be using the new components to personalize instruction for their students, Kim’s original team, which excluded instructional expertise from teachers, was unable to redesign the classroom to improve performance in a breakthrough way. Once Kim created a heavyweight team that included both administrators and teachers and allowed teachers to provide expertise in an environment outside the confines of their classroom, performance improvements became possible.

In the K–12 field, the call for personalization is rightfully aimed at students who, in our current factory-based system, have a very slim shot at getting an education optimized for their individual needs. But personalization for students will not come unless new classroom architectures and processes are developed, where interactions between students, teachers, and technology are redesigned and improved. When any school endeavors to engage in this process of innovation and change, it will be critical to match the right team to the task at hand. Whether it be small, functional teams focused on transforming individual classrooms or heavyweight teams working on school-wide redesign, those on the ground day in and day out—teachers—need to be included.


  • Clifford Maxwell
    Clifford Maxwell