My colleague Heather Staker’s recent blog, “Secret to organizing teachers for blended learning,” makes a powerful point. No amount of teacher training by itself will help teachers use technology to personalize learning to its fullest. Instead, organizing the right team to lead a technology implementation is the necessary first step.

In her piece, Heather outlines how different team structures are designed to solve specific types of problems and bring about different levels of change. The kind of problem a school is solving dictates what type of team structure it needs to use to be successful. Only certain types of teams are able to create certain blended-learning models, for example.

This is an important insight, not just for what it says directly, but also for how it flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the edtech world. Too often in the edtech world, people claim technology would have impact if only we paid for professional development alongside it.

So purchase loads of iPads, create 1:1 computing environments, stir, and simply add a dose of PD.

The problem is that there’s hardly any evidence that that improves student outcomes. There are of course some stories, but there is no research that shows that professional development was the secret sauce. That might not mean much by itself, but the bulk of the evidence on professional development more generally is that it’s pretty poor.

To take this a step further, in my experience, the technology that a school uses tends to be far less important than the model in which it is used, which is one of the fundamental insights in Disrupting Class. Technology can be crammed into existing models and change very little—as Larry Cuban has documented over and over—or it can be used in dramatically new models to very different effect. The model is critical.

Now this doesn’t mean that professional development is pointless. The role of the teacher changes dramatically in blended-learning models designed to personalize learning for students. Many teachers in blended-learning schools say that roughly 5 percent of their teacher preparation prepared them for what is now 95 percent of their job, and 95 of their teacher preparation prepared them for what is now 5 percent of their job. They legitimately need to build new skills to be successful in these new models.

But that shift happens only once the model is in place. The new skills often do not make sense in the old models. There isn’t time for teachers to do them so they create more work and complicate teachers’ lives. In new models designed to personalize learning, these new skills fall into place far more naturally. It just doesn’t make sense to carry on old practices designed to teach large batches of students.

To get these models in place that can personalize learning for students, schools need to organize the right teams.

The takeaway? Start by defining the problem you’re trying to solve; deploy the right team to attack it; design the model; and then figure out what professional development you need. Not the other way around.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.