The innovator’s dilemma for good teachers

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Nov 4, 2013

Last week at the iNACOL Symposium I heard some familiar comments about the challenges that teachers and school leaders face when implementing blended and online learning. One common refrain was the intense need for more and better professional development. Many school leaders also mentioned their struggles helping teachers feel comfortable and proficient in new teaching roles.

These comments were not surprising when considered from the perspective of our theories. In our research on organizations we’ve found that strong capabilities also define disabilities. In short, organizations are good at doing the jobs they were built to do and struggle to do the jobs they were not built to do. This disabling nature of capabilities is the cause of the innovator’s dilemma. Interestingly, there are parallels here between organizations and individuals. Just as the saying goes, old dogs have a hard time learning new tricks because time-honed instincts are hard to ignore.

The capabilities of an individual (or an organization) fall into one of three categories: resources, processes, or priorities. To make these constructs salient, let’s consider some of the capability-defining resources, processes, and priorities of a teacher. A teacher’s resources include lesson plans or project materials that she uses in her teaching. Other important resources are the teacher’s content area knowledge and her knowledge of effective teaching practices. The teacher’s cognitive abilities are also important mental resources that enable her to do her job. These resources are complemented by the processes—or skills—that the teacher develops over time in order to effectively practice her trade. Examples of processes include presentation skills, planning skills, classroom management skills, skills for assessing students and providing them with feedback, and skills for developing relationships and fostering culture. A teacher’s priorities are the instincts that guide her moment-to-moment decision making. They distill over time as she learns what works for her. They are mental heuristics that embody her beliefs regarding what constitutes good teaching and learning.

Ironically, the resources, processes, and priorities that make a teacher effective at her job in one setting make it difficult for her to adapt to new roles in new models of instruction. For example, when a teacher has accumulated her own catalog of good resources—such as lesson plans and project materials that have worked for her in the past—it can be time-consuming and frustrating to have to abandon the old and figure out how to use new resources such as virtual content playlists and software-based activities. Similarly, when a teacher has developed highly-effective processes for planning and delivering engaging direct instruction, it can be hard to adapt to only using guide-on-the-side skills in a Flex model. The hardest changes are those that require developing new priorities. While misaligned resources and processes are what make it hard to change, misaligned priorities undermine the motivation to change. For example, when a teacher’s experiences have convinced her that good teachers are always in control, the notion of giving students autonomy for competency-based learning will feel absolutely wrong-headed. Her instincts will constantly nudge her to rely on airtight, lock-step classroom procedures for moving students through their instruction.

Despite these challenges, there is some good news. As all educators know, human beings are endowed with self-awareness and the ability to learn. This means that our learned capabilities are not immutable. In fact, our minds are some of the most adaptable systems on the planet. Although change is hard, it is not impossible. We can make deliberate choices to rebel against our time-honed capabilities and overcome our personal innovator’s dilemmas. The best blended-learning and online schools supply ample evidence that both veteran and novice teachers can excel in new instructional models.

The first step to change is to recognize the need for change. Veteran teachers must accept that many of the capabilities they have forged through their teaching experiences, if not kept in check, will hinder their efforts to reinvent themselves. This realization is what motivates a teacher to face up to the hard work of tackling new challenges to develop new capabilities.

It is important to note here that capabilities are built through working to meet challenges and not merely through instruction. This is where professional development so often falls short. Instruction can provide ideas for the types of capabilities that might be worth developing and tips on how to go about developing those capabilities. But capabilities are forged by trying out those ideas, reflecting on the results, and then iterating on what worked. It takes repeated experience to turn suggested priorities into mindsets. Developing skills or processes takes practice. And building resources takes time and effort.

In order for us to succeed in moving to a student-centered education system, it is critical that we help our teachers overcome the innovator’s dilemma and adapt to new roles in new school models. Because good teachers are the most important component of any good educational model, we will need agile, flexible teachers to lead the way in order for our new models of personalized learning to succeed. Successful teachers in traditional classrooms have forged recurring processes and priorities for dealing with the daily challenges in that setting. As those same teachers meet new challenges in new blended-learning environments, it stands to reason that over time they can develop new processes and priorities that are appropriate for those settings. It will just take time and true effort.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.