This guest blog was written by Ben Kutylo, Co-Founder and President of Fremont Street,
Mounting research supports what most in education generally accept now—teaching is the most important factor impacting student learning. Besides parents, educators know students best. They are the primary implementers of any school initiative that we hope will create better outcomes for students. Simply put, educators are essential to the success of students.
Why then are teachers still largely left out of the change process in education?
Historically, top-down change doesn’t include teachers until implementation
In my roles working in edtech, consulting and education philanthropy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with schools and districts throughout the country of varying size and in different contexts. In most cases, my work started with leaders — policymakers, philanthropists, or district superintendents. They identified a solution that they believed would substantially improve student outcomes, based on their own priorities and understanding of the needs in schools. Examples included district-wide talent strategies mandated by state legislation and the adoption and implementation of digital learning technologies. In nearly all cases, we did not significantly include teachers in the change process until they were asked or required to implement the new solution. The leaders were smart, passionate and well-intentioned. The solutions were often logical and promising, having yielded results in other schools. However, without teachers at the table from the beginning, we failed to sufficiently consider their true needs and motivations, the implications to their daily jobs and the realities of implementation on top of everything else they were already doing in their schools.
In hindsight, the results were predictable. The solutions, in fact, did not effectively address teachers’ needs and motivations. Buy-in and support among educators were tenuous. This resulted in weak implementation fidelity and ultimately, the initiatives did not achieve the desired impact on student learning. As time passed, the focus on those solutions dwindled. Leaders most often responded by looking for the next “transformative” solution, and then approaching change and implementation in the exact same way.
Educators want change that values their voice, their context, and their motivations
I saw these challenges play out over and over again. This is why our first project at my current organization, The Fremont Street Fund, supported the Christensen Institute to launch a study, released last September, that helps explain what motivates teachers to change how they teach. Drawing on the Jobs to Be Done Theory, the authors interviewed teachers to discover what motivates them to adopt new approaches to instruction, such as blended or project-based learning.
According to the theory, all people—teachers included—are internally motivated to make changes in their lives that move them toward success or satisfaction within their particular life circumstances. Just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses, people search for something they can ‘hire’ to help them when ‘Jobs’ arise in their lives.
Through a series of interviews, researchers Thomas Arnett, Bob Moesta and Michael B. Horn found four Jobs that often motivate teachers to ‘hire’, or adopt, new instructional practices.
Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job are eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement.
Job #2: Help me find manageable ways to engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable. Teachers in this job are open to new strategies that they feel will help them engage students they have struggled to reach, but must feel these strategies are practical to incorporate into their existing practices and routines.
Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Teachers with this Job struggle constantly with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students. These teachers seek approaches that will help them completely transform their approach to instruction.
Job #4: Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative. Teachers with this Job are not actively looking for new solutions. New practices—like integrating technology—seem like an added layer of complexity on top of already demanding work. They are not convinced that a new practice will be better than strategies they have developed through years of experience. However, as the solution scales within their district, they feel they have no choice but to adopt it.
In addition to reimagining schools, we need to reimagine the approach to change
Unfortunately, the top-down approach to change often pushes teachers into Job 4. They do not feel they have a voice or agency as leaders make decisions with major implications for how they teach. They do not feel valued or respected as professionals. Often, the initiatives don’t fit well with what they are already doing. Teachers who feel forced to adopt a solution they don’t believe in are less likely to implement it well. They do the best they can, but they know that before long the next initiative will come down replacing the current one.
In contrast, Jobs 1 through 3 are based on teachers’ internal motivations to improve their schools, enhance their craft, and better meet the needs of students. Teachers who adopt a new strategy because they feel it will address their needs and motivations will demonstrate more ownership over its successful implementation. If change efforts start with teachers—rather than with models or programs determined by leaders—they tap into teachers’ natural motivation to find solutions that work for them and their students.
We are at an exciting point in education. There is a growing movement to reimagine school to increase equity and better prepare all students for today’s world. But if we continue to approach change in the same way—by pushing school models, instructional strategies and technologies down to principals and teachers—the full potential impact will not be realized and scale will be limited. To achieve different results, we can’t just reimagine schools. We also must reimagine how we identify and implement innovations. We must give educators a voice and an active role in determining the primary challenges their students face and how best to solve those challenges within their particular context.