Organize The Team, Then Train The Teachers

By 07/16/2013

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My colleague Heather Staker’s recent blog, “Secret to organizing teachers for blended learning,” makes a powerful point. No amount of teacher training by itself will help teachers use technology to personalize learning to its fullest. Instead, organizing the right team to lead a technology implementation is the necessary first step.

In her piece, Heather outlines how different team structures are designed to solve specific types of problems and bring about different levels of change. The kind of problem a school is solving dictates what type of team structure it needs to use to be successful. Only certain types of teams are able to create certain blended-learning models, for example.

This is an important insight, not just for what it says directly, but also for how it flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the edtech world. Too often in the edtech world, people claim technology would have impact if only we paid for professional development alongside it.

So purchase loads of iPads, create 1:1 computing environments, stir, and simply add a dose of PD.

The problem is that there’s hardly any evidence that that improves student outcomes. There are of course some stories, but there is no research that shows that professional development was the secret sauce. That might not mean much by itself, but the bulk of the evidence on professional development more generally is that it’s pretty poor.

To take this a step further, in my experience, the technology that a school uses tends to be far less important than the model in which it is used, which is one of the fundamental insights in Disrupting Class. Technology can be crammed into existing models and change very little—as Larry Cuban has documented over and over—or it can be used in dramatically new models to very different effect. Themodel is critical.

Now this doesn’t mean that professional development is pointless. The role of the teacher changes dramatically in blended-learning models designed to personalize learning for students. Many teachers in blended-learning schools say that roughly 5 percent of their teacher preparation prepared them for what is now 95 percent of their job, and 95 of their teacher preparation prepared them for what is now 5 percent of their job. They legitimately need to build new skills to be successful in these new models.

But that shift happens only once the model is in place. The new skills often do not make sense in the old models. There isn’t time for teachers to do them so they create more work and complicate teachers’ lives. In new models designed to personalize learning, these new skills fall into place far more naturally. It just doesn’t make sense to carry on old practices designed to teach large batches of students.

To get these models in place that can personalize learning for students, schools need to organize the right teams.

The takeaway? Start by defining the problem you’re trying to solve; deploy the right team to attack it; design the model; and then figure out what professional development you need. Not the other way around.

-Michael Horn

This blog entry first appeared on

Comment on this article
  • Alistair says:

    You lost me with “deploy the right team to attack it.” This is the language we get when we allow MBAers—or Kilgores in civilian dress—to make education policy. This isn’t to say that that strategies proven to work in business won’t ever work in schools—just that I’m skeptical of such militaristic language. It is all expediency and no complexity or heart.

  • Alistair says:

    Also, “takeaway.” Ugh.

  • Pac061995 says:

    @Alistair: Actually, the message I got is to be thoughtful and strategic in one’s approach to use of technology, and NOT to settle for expediency (like a district buying tons of new laptops or iPads with no strategic plan on how it will benefit students and support teachers). Sounds pretty logical to me and something effective organizations, both non-profit and private sector, do well.

    This isn’t merely business speak. By focusing on the language, you completely missed the point of the writing and the overall lesson.

  • Debb Oliver says:

    @Alistair- maybe what he is trying to say is – get your district or site level committee together and make a PLAN – be sure the committee includes a voice from all stakeholders- i.e. district leaders, site leaders, teachers, students, parents, PTO, community member.
    Don’t lose the big picture- it’s about learning goals not the tech tool.

  • Alistair says:

    Yes, @Debb Oliver, I think your summary of his point is right on. I wrote a piece on this a few years ago:

    @Pac: The word of warning about being strategic about how schools use technology to meet specific goals is well-taken. And though it’s not a novel idea, I wish more districts and schools took it to heart. To your point about language, I think it’s crucial to fight for the kind of language we use to talk about ideas that we care about. In fact, the point of a piece of writing is often found in the kinds of words used, whether the writer intends it or not. This writer conceives of educational problems as things that need to be “attacked.” In my experience, when things are attacked, they tend to bite back, or find other more subversive ways to resist. This is also the kind of business rhetoric that is thrown around lazily and carelessly in business advice books sold in airports. I resent that kind of language being brought into education.

  • Pac061995 says:

    Actually, the point of a piece of writing is the ideas it is conveying. Individuals who are contributing to the education of our young people come from diverse backgrounds and thank goodness for that. With diverse backgrounds and experiences comes diverse skills and knowledge which can help us solve many of these challenges. Of course, it also means diverse ways of communicating and language. These differences should be celebrated as long as the intentions are good. Nothing in Mr. Horn’s article led me to believe his intentions were filled with malice. We should celebrate our different skills and experiences as opposed to resorting to name calling (your Kilgores comment) which is unprofessional and does nothing to address these huge problems. If you take issue with his ideas, then by all means, debate that.

    You resent the language he used while I resent the fact you spent an entire paragraph (two actually) complaining about language and have pulled me into this (I own that one) when there are massive problems to be addressed.

    Celebrate the diversity and let’s use these diverse skills, knowledge and experiences to solve, address, attack (or whatever term you are comfortable with) these massive problems facing our young people and teachers who are there with them every day.

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