Two reasons why teachers don’t automate their work

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Sep 20, 2019

Teachers today stand to benefit from using technology to substitute for some of their work. 

If you’re a teacher, just consider how nice it would be to have more time for collaborating with colleagues, differentiating your instruction, planning engaging projects, building relationships with students, or bringing field and industry experts into your classroom. 

Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, many of these worthwhile activities fall by the wayside amid the daily time-consuming scramble to prepare lessons, grade assignments, and fulfill administrative duties. But if educational technologies could automate some classroom tasks—similar to how washing machines and dishwashers replace the effort we have to put into household chores—teachers would have more time for valuable activities that benefit their students. 

My last blog post doubled down on the merits of using technology to automate some teaching tasks. But hypothesized benefits aside, this isn’t an idea that we see broadly put to practice. Most teachers who use technology today use it to supplement or enhance conventional teaching practices, not to automate their work and expand their capacity. So, why don’t we see more teachers using technology to automate their practices? As a former teacher myself, I suspect at least two reasons.

1. Teachers don’t have suitable technology options

It may be that teachers generally don’t use technology to automate their work because available technologies aren’t yet suitable for giving teachers the help they want. 

First, available technologies might require too much time and effort to get up and running. For example, using online videos to cover content may seem good in principle. But in practice, the upfront time a teacher needs to spend to create or curate those videos may pose a real barrier to adoption. As an analogous example, have you ever put off getting a household appliance because of the cost and effort to have it set up or installed? If technologies take a lot of upfront time, effort, and expense to get them working, we’re less likely to adopt them.

Another hiccup may be that the available technologies’ performance isn’t worth the time spent in implementation. For example, platforms delivering instructional videos might not give teachers practical ways to check students’ engagement and understanding. Similarly, adaptive learning software might not do a good job differentiating instruction or informing teachers of students’ learning progress. When technologies fail to deliver, they leave teachers to regularly double check the technology and then re-teach content that students were supposed to learn online. By way of analogy, if you bought a robotic vacuum to save you time when cleaning your house but then had to regularly attend to the vacuum to empty its dust bin, pull out debris jamming its brushes, and get it unstuck from under your couch, you might decide it’s just easier to vacuum your floors manually.

The ultimate test for technologies that aim to take work off teachers’ plates is whether they actually help teachers accomplish the things they are trying to do. Technologies that aren’t practical to use won’t get adopted. Or in Disruption Theory lingo, technologies won’t get adopted unless they are good at meeting teachers’ Jobs to Be Done.

2. Teachers aren’t interested in automating their practices

Most teachers have a fair amount of autonomy over what happens within the walls of their classrooms. They may not be able to pick their state standards, textbooks, or computers, but they sit squarely in charge of deciding how they use those resources to teach their classes. This means automation isn’t something that just happens to teachers whether they like it or not. Rather, it’s a process that requires their willing participation. 

The motivation to automate one’s practices starts when a teacher comes to his own conclusion that conventional instruction is fundamentally broken and more time is needed for personalization and relationship-building. For Kareem Farah, it was seeing that he couldn’t differentiate to the varied needs of his students when all were expected to learn at the same time and pace. For Stacy Roshan, it was realizing that conventional instruction put undue stress on her students and didn’t allow her time to connect with them on a personal level. For Peter Carzoli, it was a feeling that conventional teaching was a soulless march through hoops on students’ way to graduation.

As we found in our research on teacher motivation, a teacher’s desire to outsource tasks to technology hinges on her taking a broad view of her role. She needs to feel responsible not just for delivering high-quality instruction, but also for influencing student outcomes. She needs to see herself not just as the deliverer of instruction, but as the curator of students’ learning experiences. Unless teachers frame their work in this way, they won’t be interested in adopting technologies that take some instructional tasks off their plates.

Yet, our research also revealed that most teachers aren’t looking for ways to reinvent their instructional models so they can address unmet student needs. Instead, they’re looking for manageable improvements to conventional instruction. This weddedness to conventional instruction is entirely rational. Most teachers spend years mastering best practices and honing their strategies and techniques. Often, they perceive their professional value in terms of their mastery of these practices and they take pride in their effectiveness at delivering high-quality conventional instruction. For these teachers, it doesn’t make sense to use technologies to do something they’re already good at. Furthermore, when they compare the available technologies to their own expertise, the technology always looks like a pretty poor substitute.

In short, the automation of some aspects of teachers’ work might not happen simply because teachers aren’t interested in having their tasks automated.

It’s all about supply and demand

The two reasons above for explaining why teachers don’t automate their practices boil down to supply and demand. If teachers don’t automate their practices because the available technologies don’t work well, that’s an issue of supply. To solve this problem, technology developers need to approach product development with more attention to teachers’ Jobs to Be Done

But if automation doesn’t happen because teachers aren’t interested in automating their practices, that’s an issue of demand. That demand won’t exist until teachers conclude that what they’re doing now isn’t good enough, and that the burdens of conventional instruction constrain them from doing what they really need to do. Teachers may cringe at the thought of automation in their classrooms, but it may be exactly what their students need.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. 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.