Why teachers should disrupt themselves

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Aug 27, 2019

Daily life in the United States two hundred years ago looked strikingly different from life as we know it today. Back then, most people had to pump water from wells or gather it from streams, make candles for light, grow most of their own food, and make and wash their clothes by hand. Fast forward to the modern era, and technology has taken care of most of those tasks. People today spend far less time managing life’s basic chores in favor of other preferred activities thanks to the tools provided by modern innovations. With luck and ingenuity, innovations can benefit teachers in the same fashion.

Innovations that do our work for us are examples of disruption

From personal computers to vacuum cleaners, the force driving all disruptive innovation is asymmetric motivation: new innovations enter the scene by taking on work that incumbents are happy to cede or ignore. Consider some examples: 

  • Low-end steel products like rebar shifted from integrated mills to mini-mills because integrated mills were more interested in selling high-end steel products like angle iron and I-beams. 
  • In the 1960s, US automakers conceded the economy segment of the car market to Toyota because they were more interested in selling high-end cars. 
  • Dell outsourced manufacturing of its computer components to Asus because Dell wanted to get manufacturing assets off its books to improve its financial metrics. 

In a similar fashion, asymmetric motivation propels people to adopt technologies that assist with household labor. We happily outsource our chores to Whirlpool, Maytag, iRobot, Doordash, and before long Waymo, to get more time for things we would rather do. Now consider how teachers’ motivation to reallocate their time could lead to the disruption of teaching as we know it.

Disruption can change teaching—for the better

Teachers today stand to benefit from letting new innovations disrupt some of their classroom work. If you’re a teacher, just consider how nice it would be to have more time for things like collaborating with colleagues, differentiating your instruction, planning cross-disciplinary projects, 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 scramble to prepare lessons, grade assignments, and fulfill administrative duties. 

Yet, if teachers had edtech innovations to help disrupt some of their classroom work—similar to how modern conveniences disrupt household chores—that disruption could give them the capacity they need for other worthwhile activities. 

One of my recent blog posts describes how a few teachers are doing this very thing. Stacy Roshan and Kareem Farah are two teachers in the D.C. area that have created online videos to disrupt how they teach content to their students. By disrupting their lecture-based instruction with online instruction, they can now spend more of their planning time and class time helping students wrestle with concepts and building relationships with their students.

With these positive examples at the forefront, it’s important to note that disrupting your own labor can also lead to less positive ends—if you let it. Disruption is a technologically-driven phenomenon that often makes products and services simpler and more convenient. This can have the effect of creating time—but we have choices about what we do with that time. If automating and outsourcing household chores just means you and your family spend more time mindlessly watching television, you probably aren’t doing yourselves any favors. 

Similarly, a teacher’s goals matter in the asymmetric motivation equation. If teachers outsource their classroom work just to get a pass on planning and grading, they’re probably not doing justice to their responsibilities as educators. But if teachers use technology to disrupt some of their work in order to expand their capacity for other instructional activities, disruption can be a powerful force for improving the learning experiences teachers offer their students. 

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.