Less is More for Teachers (and Better for Students!)

Stepping back from a load-weary model to glimpse a new paradigm’s potential.

SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston

CREDIT Mark E WestonConjure an image of a school. Visualize yourself entering a classroom. Students and a teacher are there. What do you see the teacher doing?

Chances are, the teacher you see is not resting, reflecting — or even preparing a lesson. Despite the relative importance such tasks play in the design, delivery, and improvement of high-quality instruction — teachers rarely have time to do those tasks at school. So the teacher you see is likely delivering instruction, managing students, assessing performance, or organizing resources — including technology.

Having technological tools designed to enable, drive, and support their efforts, teachers can be more effective and energized.

As you watch the teacher, it becomes painfully apparent that she has too much to do, too many students with whom to do it, too little time to get everything done, too many interruptions, and too many regulations demanding that she do even more. Further, you almost certainly see her doing several tasks at once.

Now conjure a classroom at a different school. See a teacher there calmly moving amongst students sitting in groups of four. Each student is engaging with other students in the group and each has a laptop computer, iPad, or smart phone to do their work. When the teacher stops at one group, she and her students have a lively exchange. When she stops at another group, again, a lively exchange ensues. After an exchange with yet another group, the teacher, acting on feedback from the groups, uses her iPad to send a message to each student in the class. Upon receipt, each student reviews the message and acts accordingly.

After the teacher’s last stop, she sits with us. The student she brings with her describes the unit-ending, problem-based lesson that is underway, pointing out that the lesson counts for 40 percent of the unit grade. We learn that this level of focus is important because the students and teacher share a goal of every student mastering every lesson and passing every exam. Attaining the goal accounts for 10 percent of each student’s final grade for the course and is a major part of the quarterly evaluation of the teacher.

The teacher tells us that she and her colleagues teach the lesson every year, refining it each time. They came up with the initial design for it five years ago using a software toolkit that teachers share with students, parents, and administrators. Teachers use the toolkit to design, deliver, assess, and refine all their lessons. Students, parents, and administrators use the toolkit for their unique purposes and needs. Everyone uses it to provide feedback about the current lesson. Thanks to the toolkit’s capacity for enabling, processing, and reporting feedback, the lesson and all other lessons improve with each delivery regardless of the teacher or user. The performances of students, teachers, administrators, and parents improve each time they interact with a lesson. The student and teacher are quite confident that all students will master the current lesson and subsequently pass the exam.

Two schools, two classrooms, two teachers: similar yet very different. How? Let us find out.

One difference is quite visible at the first school. Multi-tasking is the norm for teachers there. When in this mode, the cognitive load of teachers at the first school increase considerably as the efforts they expend to do everything that they must do. For students to learn what they must learn in this context, short-term processing capacity of the teachers’ and students’ minds are pushed to the limit and the reserve strength of their bodies is depleted. This everyday high-load reality is the dirty little secret every teacher at the school knows but dares not acknowledge or talk about.

Instead of confronting their secret openly, teachers at the school individually struggle to keep in check their respective cognitive loads. When load-weary, they sometimes do routine tasks in autopilot mode. Other times, they cut corners, inadequately prepare for class, or deliver instruction that is incomplete. Regardless of how they lighten their loads, each time they compromise student learning and generate more load for themselves later; but they somehow need to stay afloat. Yet, each teacher knows she is working as hard as she can. Predictably, the school reports no annual gains in achievement.

At the second school a key difference is visible too. There, everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—shares responsibility for learning and teaching. Each has a clearly defined role and specific, measurable goals for learning and teaching. Their common language and understanding of instruction defines their work. Feedback guides the work they do and how they do it. Assessment of individual and collective performance informs what they do next. They rarely are overloaded, multi-task seldom, and year-over-year the school reports significant gains in student achievement. Everything adds up.

Teachers working at schools like the first inevitably figure out that the coping strategies they each construct actually do not lighten their respective loads. They come to understand that no effort to improve learning at the level of a classroom or beyond will possibly succeed unless the high-load challenge that teachers face is solved. Multi-tasking and maxed out, none of them can do more or perform better. So any improvement effort that heightens their load just makes what it seeks to improve worse.

For teachers in these schools the educational paradigm to which they adhere is the source of their load. The paradigm assigns each of them exclusive pedagogical responsibility for student learning. Their devotion to meeting that responsibility inevitably dooms them to careers of unattainable goals and high-load misery.

Six years ago, teachers at the second school chose to confront the dirty little secret. They began dispersing control for learning and teaching across all stakeholders, including students and parents. In short order, new and genuine commitments to roles, goals, practices, and processes, and tools were in place. Their toolkit makes the core educational work—teaching and learning—of the school powerful yet doable. They are a self-organizing school. Not surprisingly, school-wide performance is at an all time high and so is morale.

Improving education requires permanently liberating teachers from the painful and exhausting effects of their loads. Conjure all you want about fixing the prevailing educational paradigm; loads will not abate.

The time for a new paradigm is here. With stakeholders sharing responsibility for learning and teaching and having technological tools designed to enable, drive, and support their efforts, teachers can be more effective and energized. Teachers at the second school give us a glimpse of the new paradigm’s potential. Let us expose the dirty secret and change the conversation, and change the work of teachers, students, parents, and administrators so that students can learn and be successful.

Mark E. Weston Ph.D. is co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children. He resides in Dunwoody, Georgia. Contact him at shiftparadigm2011@gmail.com and @shiftparadigm on Twitter.

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14 Responses to Less is More for Teachers (and Better for Students!)

  1. Susan says:

    Great insights. I think there is a lot of “secret-sharing” going on, however, among teachers: non-productive complaining and parking lot talk. Twitter has been a great tool for teachers to build a PLN and become more efficient so many ways, such as resource and strategy sharing. That helps mitigate some of the weary load, but it is a band aid for the large issue you describe.

  2. Cindy says:

    Hello, Dr. Weston. What an enlightening article! As a parent and former teacher, I can definitely tell you that it’s informative, well-written and easily understood. Teachers and administers can benefit from reading it. As to parents who care about their children, they also will benefit from it. But what does a teacher or administrator do when parents will not get involved in their children’s education? One can hope these people can somehow be included in the process, maybe through presentations at PTAs or community meetings etc. Your article, Dr. Weston, was both enlightening and insightful.

  3. Peter Hess says:

    Nice summary, Mark! You presented in simple terms a very complex set of ideas required to make the paradigm shift described. As someone who has lived through this change process I understand the challenges involved and the rewards to be gained. Perhaps the most important factor in making this change is the ability of teachers to implement a common set of instructional practices that are shared across a school. Unfortunately, as long as the field remains unclear about what constitutes effective practice, this will remain a challenge to be overcome. The software tools described provide a vehicle for overcoming this challenge.

  4. C Carver says:

    Well said, as usual, Mark! You are so right that now is the time for the conversation to change, the cognitive load to be lightened, and the paradigm shift to happen!

  5. Nick Brierley says:

    Great post, Mark,

    To overburden our students with assessments, tasks and even feedback would be looked upon as negligent and detrimental to their overall performance. However, the ever increasing load on teachers is sustained under the guise that it will somehow improve performance and student achievement.

    The time for paradigm shift is here.

    And it needs to start with a key focus on student learning and the best ways to facilitate this. How can we expect to attain a high level of outcomes for our students while we are so busy worrying about so many external factors and tasks that affect little or no change in student learning!

  6. Allison says:

    Bingo. It takes a community to raise a child, or something like that. Building a better world starts with bringing a full sense of community into every school.

    Teachers do have great influence on a student but their’s cannot be the only voice/viewpoint heard by a student.

  7. Ann Ware says:

    A common sense approach Mark to enabling success for students and teachers alike.

  8. Craig Kemp says:

    Nail on the head here mate! LOVE everything about what you have said and the idea of ‘lowering the load’ rings in my ears – all too often I here this in my role. Thank you for your continued inspiration.

  9. Hi Mark, this is a great post! It’s important that teachers not feel loaded and burdened with many tasks because this will have an impact not only on their self-care but also impacts the students. Sharing the load sounds like a fantastic solution that we must all work and collaborate together to achieve.

  10. Thanks Brett. Good is good regardless of location…

  11. Debby Call says:

    Amazing!!! This is an extremely reflective piece of writing. I feel fortunate that one of my Districts initiatives this year is 1:1 devices for all Students. It truly does make a difference in the school culture and all having ownership in student learning and student success. Beautify written, Mark!

  12. You nailed it, Mark! Very well shared! Will forward to stakeholders in my district. Thank you.

    Kay Oberender

  13. @MRsalakas says:

    “Two classrooms, two schools!” It reminds me of a saying we have here, there can be more differences in classrooms at the same school than when comparing different schools!

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