The case for "unbundling" the teacher

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For most of the past century we have bundled a very complex set of disparate skills into a single role we call the ‘classroom teacher’. Teachers must have deep content knowledge to understand the scope and sequence of a curriculum, and pedagogical expertise to plan effective lessons and evaluate student comprehension and mastery. We also ask them to be charismatic presenters, a coach/mentor to provide support and motivation for students to persevere, and project managers able to keep track of each students academic progress.

It is incredibly difficult, and perhaps unrealistic, to expect to find such a diverse skill-set in a single individual. As a result the past few years has seen various attempts to “unbundle” the teacher. While much is made of the developed world’s experiments with unbundling, most notably flipped classrooms and MOOCs, some of the most interesting innovations are occurring in the developing world where the dual constraints of limited financial resources and a weak labor pool make the need for new solutions all the more pressing.

The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund has invested in some exceptional entrepreneurs that are tackling this challenge head-on.

For example, at SPARK, a school chain in South Africa, a highly trained teacher is in charge of the whole group and guided practice portions of the typical learning cycle, while the independent practice portion of the learning is done primarily with the aid of “e-learning labs.” Here students work to reinforce and extend classroom instruction with personalized computer programs overseen by a more junior assistant.

This allows the extremely valuable time of the master teacher to be dedicated to the more complex tasks of implementing best-in-class instructional methods and overseeing classroom management. As a result, the cost of delivering high-quality education is substantially lower, while quality is maintained.

Another example of the same trend is provided by Bridge International Academies, who dedicate the bulk of their six-week teacher training program to focusing on techniques for classroom management, student engagement, and checking for understanding, while a team of world-class educators based in Boston and Nairobi write a rigorous, student-focused lesson script which the teachers read on an e-book during class.

Visiting a Bridge classroom you will see students being pushed to perform more challenging cognitive tasks (for instance, instead of simply writing down a list of map symbols they will be using these symbols to draw a map of their own neighborhood) with teachers circulating the classroom carefully checking students work. Both of which are rarely found in a typical classroom in Kenya.

My prediction is that 2016 will see much more piloting, experimenting and testing of these new models. Some will be taken to scale, most obviously through new public-private partnerships that are able to see the value in moving away from the old model of a single, jack of all trades, teacher. This division of labour will allow expertise to be deployed where it is most needed, and where it can best be found - and the impact on learning will become increasingly visible.

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Read more about the work of SPARK and Bridge.