Tom Vander Ark on ???Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction???

Founder of GettingSmart.com
Tom Vander Ark

In this post, guest blogger Tom Vander Ark analyzes the latest installments in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. It originally appeared on the Getting Smart blog.

Fordham released two important papers today as part of the Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. The first, Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,
is by the co-directors of Public Impact. Bryan and Emily Hassel are the
Malcolm Gladwells of education—they point to profound truths hiding in
plain sight.  In short, this is the best current description of the
implications of digital learning on learning professionals.

The Hassel’s primary assertion is that in the age of digital
learning, “Teacher effectiveness may matter even more than it does
today.” I buy the argument that edtech will increasingly build basic
skill but they run the risk of being trapped in a Rocketship Education
rut—tech does easy stuff, teachers promote critical thinking. That’s one
currently useful pattern, but innovative delivery models are advancing
other alternatives.

Their conclusion that “The elements of excellent teaching that are
most difficult for technology to replace will increasingly differentiate
student outcomes,” may be projecting a bit of the individual
practitioner past into a team based design-centric future.

The Hassels write about the implications for individuals but I’m a
fan of design thinking—systems and cultures matter more than individual
effort. Rick Ogsten has good teachers, but Carpe Diem is design
success—it allows good teachers to get results.

In the “tech does the basics” vein and making the case for the super
teacher they point to seven higher order dimensions that “distinguish
excellent teachers from peers.” These include motivation, mentoring,
self-management, and development of social skills. It’s true that
adaptive software will help build math skills, but I’m equally
enthusiastic about:

  • Simulations that boost system thinking
  • Self management tools that build productivity
  • Social learning platforms that enable anywhere/anytime collaboration
  • Motivational systems that boost persistence, and
  • Decision support tools that guide post-secondary choices.

I generally agree with the suggestion that there are three ways tech
will help with talent development: Extending the best, improving the
rest, and inspire new talent to join the field.  In my recent book, Getting Smart, rather than referring to teachers, I began referring to learning professionals to
indicate a broadening array of career opportunities in and around
teaching and learning. The Hassels point to a future with “a smaller,
but much stronger and more highly paid” teaching force.

First a small caution (given the created hysteria about computers
replacing teachers) that productivity gains will be small compared to
manufacturing—education will remain a human services sector for the
foreseeable future. Second, the proliferation of blended models and
delivery strategies suggests that roles for learning professions will be
more specialized (and model specific), there will be more levels (i.e.,
a career lattice), and a bit more distributed.

They announce that, “The digital revolution needs excellent teacher.”
Instead, I’d say, “The shift to personal digital learning will leverage
excellent teachers.” Rather than being trapped in a traditional
schedule impacting 150 students, a great middle grade math teacher could
lead a team serving 600 students in a blended format and produce
resources that benefit thousands.

I agree with their implications for teacher evaluations, specifically
that increasingly multiple people rather than a single teacher will
contribute to a student’s learning. This suggests that school systems
should plan on updating evaluation procedures at least every other year
for a decade as new data and new models are introduced into the system.
To that end, the Hassels call for flexibility in state employment
policies, links to an updated funding system, and the need for a talent
marketplace.

They close this important contribution with a call for courageous
leadership. The leadership challenge will be a bit easier with the
Hassels outlining the necessary dialog.

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