In 2021, teachers hold a key to transforming conventional instruction

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Jan 4, 2021

As we enter 2021 and the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, no doubt predictions will abound about the transformations that may result from a year of thoroughly unconventional schooling. But as I argued in my last post, we’re unlikely to see the disruption of existing schools and districts by private micro-schools and learning pods.

That doesn’t mean that nothing will change in K–12 classrooms, though. Although COVID-19 has incited stress and suffering, it has also created circumstances that will accelerate many teachers’ adoption of online learning resources. Here’s why that could make a difference in disrupting, and ultimately transforming, conventional instruction models.

Conditions that create change

Prior to the pandemic, I conducted a study with Bob Moesta and the Re-wired Group to better understand why teachers change their instructional practices. Two insights emerged from that research that seem particularly relevant to the 2020-21 school year. 

First, the teachers we interviewed often changed their practices when a change in their circumstances made their prior resources and practices less relevant. For example, when teachers changed grade levels, subjects, or schools, they were less able to rely on the lesson plans and materials they had accumulated in their previous roles.

Second, teachers were more likely to make major changes in their teaching practices when they had experiences that led them to conclude that their prior practices were fundamentally broken. For example, one high school math teacher we interviewed reached this point after observing for years that his students were just learning enough to regurgitate discrete skills on his tests and had no passion for the content. Another teacher came to this point when working in a high-poverty school led him to conclude that conventional approaches were never going to meet the range of academic, social, and emotional needs of his students. For teachers that reach this point, the frustration is palpable. Many state that they’re ready to leave the teaching profession unless they can find a radically different way forward.

The 2020 catalyst

COVID-19 has created these conditions in spades. 

First, the shift to remote teaching handicapped educators’ abilities to teach the way they were used to. Print-based instructional materials and craft-based learning activities were out of the picture. Physical elements of classroom culture—such as grouping and spacing of desks and placement of posters or student work on the walls—didn’t work. Many tried-and-true moves of classroom management—such as eye contact, body language and physical proximity—just didn’t translate well over video calls. Teachers have been forced to find new ways to do their jobs.

Second, remote and hybrid instruction exacerbate many of the longstanding problems with conventional instruction. If keeping students engaged during whole-group instruction was hard in a classroom, it’s even more difficult when students are staring at a screen for hours on end and teachers can’t control the distractions happening in another browser tab or in a students’ physical learning space. If dealing with variation in students’ learning needs was a challenge when most students were on grade level, it’s even more of a challenge after a tumultuous spring and summer that widened students’ differences in achievement. If it was hard to cover all your content in a regular 180-day school year, it’s even harder when your daily instructional minutes get cut in half or when you only see your students on every other day of the week. As long as the pandemic keeps schools operating in remote and hybrid arrangements, these conditions will continue to push many teachers to seek radically different approaches to instruction.

The evidence

Recent research reveals there’s evidence of this phenomenon playing out. In a nationally-representative survey that the Institute will release next week, 79% of teachers indicated they had discovered new resources or practices during COVID-19 that they planned to continue using post-pandemic. In an open-ended follow-up question about what they had adopted, many mentioned tools for creating and managing online learning resources, such as Google Classroom, Nearpod, PearDeck, and EdPuzzle. Using these tools alone doesn’t guarantee movement towards more student-centered classrooms. But once teachers learn to use these types of tools, other shifts toward student-centered learning become a lot easier—such as flipping their classrooms, making flexible use of classroom time, and letting their students’ progress based on mastery. The Modern Classroom Projects podcast gives first-hand accounts of teachers who are making these shifts this year.

The long-term result

New tools alone do not translate automatically into student-centered learning. But COVID-19 creates the kinds of conditions that can motivate teachers to not only adopt new tools but also the student-centered practices that those tools can enable. The more teachers use online learning tools to cover basic content instruction, the more those technologies give teachers the capacity to dedicate their time and energy to a wider range of experiences—like individual tutoring, real-world projects, and out-of-school learning—resulting in a more engaging and student-centered experience. 

In effect, when teachers adopt these technologies and use them to shift to more student-centered learning, they disrupt the resources and practices of conventional, batch-process education. K–12 education needs edtech companies and professional development providers to design tools and training that make this shift as easy as possible for teachers. 

Yet even with student-centered changes afoot, the disruption that plays out at the level of teachers’ classroom practices has its limits. On their own, teachers can’t change factors such as school schedules, class rosters, mandated curriculum, quarterly report cards, A-F letter grades, or policies that emphasize classroom-based instructional minutes over mastery and authentic learning. School and district leaders have more jurisdiction over these factors, but established processes and priorities often truncate administrators’ abilities to make change, as my colleague, Chelsea Waite, and I recently detailed.

In my next post, I’ll point out where I see COVID-19 creating the impetus for districts to disrupt themselves to create more student-centered schooling options.

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.