Why Teachers Aren’t Making “The Shifts”

Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonbecker/4625331304

I’ve began a few talks with this slide and I think it serves to spark the conversation about change. It’s been a little while since Will has pushed my thinking as he did this week with his post called “My Summer of Confusion." While he shares many concerns and questions it was this paragraph that prompted a response from me:

I’m also wondering to what extent is it a professional educator’s responsibility to keep abreast of the latest research, technologies, and news that impact learning? At one presentation to about 800 people, only about 25 raised their hands when I asked if they’d visited Khan Academy. In general, throughout the summer, I’d estimate less than 10% had heard of MOOCs, the Maker Movement, or 3-D printing. On many occasions, I wondered aloud if we would accept a similar lack of currency for our physicians or our accountants. Bottom line: as a profession, we’re not keeping up with the changes that are occurring.

After a few back and forths on his blog, I figured it required an expanded response.

The physician example gets used a lot but I think it’s problematic. First and foremost physicians work independently. They have pretty much full autonomy over what they learn. It’s solely based on patient needs. They have no one to report to expect their patients. The other problem I have with this analogy is that a patient’s health and doctor’s success is based almost exclusively on numerical data. I suppose that’s why many like it. Patients come in with very specific, targeted needs: “Here’s the problem, solve it”. I think what schools are tasked with is much more complex and nuanced. Finally, for any complex change or new approach, I presume physicians find and receive adequate training before they implement.

I will fully admit I’m pro teacher almost too a fault. It comes from the fact that I am a teacher and that my belief is that most teachers are in the profession to do great work. They put in endless hours and are continually asked to do more with less and in turn have lost much of what it means to be a professional. Having worked in a role where I’ve been supporting classroom teachers, the number of initiatives from state/provincial and district/school levels can be overwhelming. While the rhetoric is always, “this isn’t an add on but should be part of your classroom” it never plays out that way. In addition, the increasing gap between student ability, experience and well-being is making most “regular classrooms” obsolete. It’s forcing teachers to rethink everything. No one denies the need for differentiated instruction but few teachers have adequate training to understand and help all students be successful. It’s mentally taxing and emotionally draining.

Besides the issue of time, I think the reason teachers aren’t keeping up, as Will suggests is that they are told they are. Most districts have staff in place to do the research for them. That was my role for 10 years. I essentially researched and studied all the ways technology was changing learning and was tasked with making those changes. The same was true for literacy, maths, assessment and any other number of big ideas. We tried to share that research, tell teachers why they should change and how it would help kids and then provide minimal time to figure it out and then expect them to make these changes in their classrooms. We sent them on their way and were frustrated when they weren’t doing all things we told them to do. I made lots of mistakes in that role and my biggest was in not understanding how much time it takes and how difficult it was to make these changes. My frustration was in knowing the vast majority of teachers would never be able to make these changes under the current system.

In the comments Will wonders about those teachers who have and are making the shifts he and I talk about

Finally, what do we say, then, about the tens of thousands of teachers who have already engaged in the type of changed thinking and practice that both of us advocate? Are they just “special” in some way? A-listers? Are they all privileged in some way and immune from the pressures of “regular” teachers? I doubt it.

I don’t know exactly how to respond to this but would suggest that yes, in some ways these folks are special. When I think of some of the teachers who are changing their practice, they are often what I describe as “positive deviants“. I’m always interested in their stories as to how they began to make the shifts they’ve made. Often there’s a bit of luck. They happen to go to a conference and hear a Will Richardson speak and are awaken to ideas they’ve never heard before. Sometimes they take a class and have a professor that introduces them to a new approach to learning. Sometimes they hear about a thing called blogging and head down a rabbit hole. While lots of people might have these same experiences and do nothing, there’s a greater number of teachers who’ve never even had a chance like these. Again, I don’t know exactly what it is but knowing we have such a small number of teachers really making these big shifts isn’t because teachers are uncaring, dumb or lack conviction.

Instead of the physician analogy, I might offer another one. Telling teachers it’s their responsibility to make the changes is like telling people living in poverty to get out of it. There are many examples of people who have come out of poverty, worked their butts off and made a new life for their family and future generations. Why can’t everyone in poverty do that? I admit, it’s not a perfect analogy but I think has as much validity as the physician one.

I’ve been privileged in my role with Discovery to work with a few districts that I think are doing the right work. They have leadership at every level who are on this journey. They struggle with how to help teachers make these shifts with the current constraints. It’s really hard to continue to focus on the “why” and also provide time and resources to work on the “how”. There are very few districts out there who have made digital a focus. Even within those, we all know it’s not exactly about digital but without an emphasis on digital, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to fully realize the potential modern learning has to offer. Since the current system is still hierarchical, since teachers continue to lose autonomy over their own learning, the blame, if there is any, is on leadership who makes the decisions about what matters.

Okay, what I really need is for you to all chime in on this because it’s possible I could be entirely wrong, I’m just a little sensitive to any hints of teacher bashing. (Yes, I know Will you weren’t teacher bashing).

cross-posted at http://ideasandthoughts.org/

Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, specializin in the use of technology in the classroom. He lectures for the University of Regina and is the Community Manager of the Canadian DEN or Discovery Educators Network.