Teaching Unbundled

The Atlantic ran an interesting article regarding the process for obtaining certification as a teacher. The general theme of the article was that...

Schools should make it easier -- not harder -- for mid-career professionals to enter the classroom.

I agree that we need to make this process easier for everybody and that we need to achieve this goal in such a way that doesn't reduce the quality of potential teaching candidates. With that said, I think the best way to make teaching more accessible is not to eliminate the certificaion process but to redefine how one views the act of teaching. I think that the many activities currently labeled as teaching should be "unbundled" and handled by a group of experts instead of one person.

Teaching is not really one activity. This becomes apparent when reading through both The Atlantic article and its comments. If you've ever done any teaching you already know this.

What are some of the main areas of expertise required of a teacher? Remember, I'm coming at this from the perspective of a college instructor. I realize things differ in K-12.

  • Subject matter mastery. A teacher must thoroughly understand their field of study and stay current with new and developing trends in that field.
  • Curriculum design. A teacher must be able to take their field of study and break it down into learnable components using a combination of experience and best practices based on modern educational theory.
  • Curriculum development. A teacher must either license pre-built tests and activities from a publisher of these materials or build these items themselves. This process can also include the curation of resources from online and print materials.
  • Assessment. A teacher must be able to assess that their students are learning the subject matter in a measurable way and use that data to revise the curriculum if the students are not achieving the goals. Assessment is a formal process separate from grading.
  • Learning delivery and classroom management. A teacher must deliver the material, in some form, to the students. They must keep order and pay close attention to identifying and meeting student needs during the course.
  • Data processing. A teacher must grade, take attendance, and deal with the bureaucracy required by the modern learning environment (filing reports, dealing with individualized student requests, complying with various state, federal, and accreditation requirements, etc.).

I teach. I know which of these items I'm good at and which I'm not. What if somebody else could handle the parts of my job that I'm not very good at doing? This would leave me the time to focus on those areas where I know I can create the most value for my students. What if teachers could specialize in just one or two of the areas I've listed above?

The unbundling of teaching activites is already happening in face-to-face courses. Schools and teachers are licensing more and more learning and assessment materials from book publishers and also integrating larger numbers of free online resources, such as the Khan Academy, into their courses.

Unbundling is also happening in online courses and is most evident in MOOCs. How might the development and operation of a MOOC be viewed through the list of teaching activites stated above? These courses have Subject Matter Experts (SME) that know the source material inside and out. SMEs work with Instructional Designers to design and develop the course and its corresponding materials. Programmers, Artists, Audio Producers, and Video Producers may be brought in to assist in the development of the course materials. Data is collected through the learning interface and analyzed by a combination of analytic software, dedicated Research Personnel, and other individuals involved in the success of the course. Those presenting the lectures may be Professional Lecturers. Many MOOCS don't have a hands-on, face-to-face, component but imagine if students could go to a learning lab where they could get help from a Professional Trainer or Tutor? Imagine trainers or tutors that are dedicated full-time to the study and application of modern learning theory and they use that knowledge, in combination with course analytics, to help students overcome problems.

Unbundling is very much in line with the idea of the flipped classroom. Getting things like lectures, assessment, and curriculum design "out of the way" allows the teacher to maximize face-to-face time with students and take on the role of the Professional Trainer or Tutor. In the most basic sense, teachers can now actually teach.

I don't think my ideas reduce the number of people needed to facilitate the teaching process. I think the unbundled teaching model would allow today's educators to focus on the aspects of teaching that they are most interested in and, most importantly, best at performing. I also think that an institution adopting this model would position itself well for the future and be agile enough to adapt to the inevitable future disruptions that will occur in the field of education.

How does all of this tie back to the original point of making it easier for more people to enter the field of education? If the process of teaching is unbundled we no longer need to educate, and certify, super teachers. Each piece of the unbundled teaching process is its own speciality and each piece could still be certified. It's more likely that somebody looking to transition from another career into teaching may already possess a number of the skills required for one of these speciality areas. Their background may mean that they do not require much, if any, additional education to enter that position. Those that wish to persue the position of Professional Tutor or Trainer may still require something similar to today's student teaching process but the unbundling of the teaching responsibilities would free these individuals to focus solely on this specific skill, thus shortening the time to their certification.