When Teachers Give Products Failing Marks

Imagine this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde scenario occurring in your own pilot project as you implement your company’s brilliant technology solution in an educational setting:

After completing a twelve- month pilot project in a dozen schools in this European capital, the final results were in. Kids loved the technology solution and strongly felt it improved their learning and even the relevance of the curriculum itself. Yet teachers appeared consistently resistant to the technology: they could not envision its use and did not want to continue to use it.

Of course, this is a recent and true story. These findings are at the same time interesting and disconcerting. Why does this happen? And most importantly, when teachers are way out of step with where the kids are at, what can we do about it? Read on to understand this unfortunate paradox and how companies can deal with it.

Why does this happen?
Research shows that teachers are a volunteeristic and idiosyncratic lot. Teaching itself is a volunteeristic and idiosyncratic profession. Teachers will tackle innovation only if they want to, and stay with it only if the technology suits their style and preferences. You can’t expect much else. So what happened in the above scenario unfortunately sounds about right. It’s for these reasons that it’s always a tough proposition to scale technology innovation in educational settings. Only highly creative, intrinsically motivated, or curiously inventive teachers break out of this pattern. And a few creative teachers will not create overwhelming scalability for your exciting products or solutions.

Why won’t more teachers kick in?
Even if a given technology is popular with young people, most teachers tend to put themselves in lanes of instructional practice and habit, and it becomes stubbornly difficult to move them into other lanes. For example, in one school, three teachers may show an interest, but many other teachers do not—and won’t—because they feel the implementing teachers have this innovation ‘covered’. In schools, time is a limited commodity for teachers. Any time that would be taken to implement a technology would clearly compete with the taut limits of volunteerism and the narrowed preferences or idiosyncrasy of teachers. And, sometimes, pushing for technology innovation may take on a “mean-spirited” twist. For example, in some school districts, a technology using teacher may be viewed as a technology or innovation diva (in the negative sense of the word) —an attention hog—and they can be mocked or avoided by other ‘normalized’ educators. “Not for us,” they cry!

If this is true, how can your organization possibly counter it?
I have found that only the following combined strategies can beat down this phenomenon. In successful educational technology implementations, your project or venture has a higher likelihood of scaling if it evidences:

  • a respected champion (teacher, principal, or district administrator)
  • a clear and sustained plan for scaling the innovation
  • attention density, an instructional focus that is consistent and stable over time. (See (Rock, D., and Schwartz, J. {2009} The Neuroscience of Leadership)
  • clear integration and systematization of the innovation within the culture and curriculum of the school. (It’s not just a fun add-on, but a both a required and culturally acceptable methodology.)
  • a plan for minimizing the predictable organizational entropy associated with any innovation: loss of key staff, equipment obsolescence, technical difficulties, newly competing priorities, ongoing training, and curricular systematization, to name a few)
  • constant evaluation, continuous improvement, and evidencing of results. (We value and extend only what we measure, if it works.)

The questions to ask about your educational reference sites, case studies, or pilot projects can be found in the above list. There’s a big difference between marketing and systematizing or initial placement and scaling. –Len Scrogan