Make teaching more doable


Mar 29, 2017

Sometimes teaching feels like an impossible job. Today’s teachers perform a wide range of tasks, including supervising and instructing students five to six hours a day; creating lesson plans; grading papers; developing their professional skills; and taking up other school-related duties, such as coaching and advising student organizations. And as teachers feel the need to take on additional responsibilities—such as providing students with social and emotional support, building relationships with parents, and assisting students with the college application process—many teachers find themselves on a pathway to burnout. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One person who realized the challenges teachers face was Joel Rose, the founder of School of One. Back in 2007, when Rose was the chief executive of human capital at the New York City Department of Education, he took his team to learn from the human resources departments at IBM and GE about their people management practices. During these visits, Rose and his team observed that the companies talked a lot about designing the roles of their employees to ensure that they were doable. This proved to be a major insight. As Rose explained in a recent interview: “When we were reflecting on the doability of the job of the teacher, both based on what the data said and what our own experiences were as teachers, we came to believe that it was a pretty undoable job.” But making teachers’ jobs more doable was not as simple as updating job descriptions and tweaking work assignments. Rose soon came to the conclusion that “we had to think differently about reimagining the entire classroom in order to make the job of the teacher much more doable.”

With a resolve to address these problems, Rose opened the first School of One in 2009 as a summer math program in a middle school in Manhattan. The major innovation at School of One was its use of technology to automate some teaching tasks. A single teacher attempting to administer, grade, and analyze daily assessments; create and coordinate individual lesson plans for each student; and plan daily lessons designed for students’ learning needs would quickly become overwhelmed. Instead, School of One took advantage of computers’ data storage and processing capabilities to shift some of that work away from teachers.

During School of One’s summer pilot in 2009, every student completed an online math quiz at the end of the day. The School of One system then used the quiz data to create an individual “learning playlist” with a wide range of resources. At the same time, the system compiled corresponding teaching plans for each teacher. These plans consisted of lists of the students each teacher would work with during each block of the day, current data on students’ learning needs, and lesson plan recommendations aligned to learning objectives and students’ learning needs. The system for creating these teacher and student resources not only helped provide more student-centered instruction, but it also took time-consuming tasks off the teachers’ plates. Since the completion of the School of One pilot, the program has moved into mainstream schools. Then, in 2011, Rose went on to found a nonprofit called New Classrooms, which offers Teach to One: Math, a model similar to the School of One. The Teach to One: Math program is currently serving students in 10 states.

In my latest paper, “Teaching in the machine age: How innovation can make bad teachers good and good teachers better,” I discuss how innovations that commoditize some element of teacher expertise can also amplify teacher effectiveness. Teach to One: Math, which is featured in the paper, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Teach to One’s computer algorithm is just one way in which educators can use technology to both improve instruction and make teaching more doable. Many common edtech software solutions can cut down teachers’ workloads by automating or streamlining some aspects of record keeping, grading, feedback, direct instruction, and lesson planning. When teachers don’t have to spend as much of their time on these activities, they can focus their expertise on engaging students with content and providing needed social and emotional support that computers are unable to replicate. If leveraged correctly, technology can be a powerful tool for rethinking teacher roles to make high-quality teaching more doable.

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Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.