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The Greatest Challenge to School Innovation

By: Thomas Arnett on February 20th, 2019

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The Greatest Challenge to School Innovation

Innovative Leadership

When school leaders want to bring innovative practices to classrooms, what's the greatest challenge that stands in their way? Lack of funding? Inadequate in-house expertise? According to the most recent SpeakUp survey, 46% of administrators point to one key factor above most others: teacher motivation.

This finding makes intuitive sense. Teaching children is no simple matter, which means we trust teachers to use professional judgment as they plan instruction for their students. But as a result, new practices don’t make it into teachers’ lesson plans unless teachers have a compelling motive to adopt those practices.

So what motivates teachers to adopt new practices? What are the keys to getting teachers to try new tools and strategies with their students? Today, popular ideas to motivate teachers abound—from merit pay to leadership opportunities. But to truly understand what drives teacher motivation, you need to understand teachers’ circumstances.

Understanding Teachers’ ‘Jobs’

Recently, my colleagues and I released a research paper that draws on the Jobs to be Done Theory of motivation to uncover the factors that inspire teachers to change how they teach. The theory—validated through decades of research across many sectors—starts with the premise that circumstances drive behaviors. Put differently, people’s goals and motivations, and what they seek out in order to meet those goals, are circumstance specific. These circumstance-based goals are what we call ‘Jobs.’ Just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people search for something they can 'hire' to help them when Jobs arise in their lives.

Through interviewing teachers, we uncovered three Jobs that often motivate them to adopt new practices. These Jobs exist in teachers’ lives independent of any school innovation program or initiative.

Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job are eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement. They often look for opportunities to serve as curriculum coaches, mentor teachers, or department chairs. For these teachers, a compelling approach to innovation is one that 1) seems like a viable and worthwhile way to improve the school, 2) seems simple and straightforward to share with their colleagues, and 3) offers them an opportunity to help shape the direction of the program.

Job #2: Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable. Teachers with this Job are generally confident with how teaching and learning happen in their classrooms. But they have a few students each year who they struggle to reach. They search continuously for new ideas in books, online, at conferences, and among colleagues. But they only hire innovations that seem both practical and worthwhile for their students.

Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Whether from perpetually low test scores, low graduation rates, ongoing student behavior issues, or a general sense that learning lacks joy and passion, teachers with this Job struggle constantly with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students. For these teachers, the practical, incremental innovations that appeal to teachers with Job 1 and Job 2 are completely unsatisfying. They’re tired of “best practices” that fail to address the larger issues they face. They want novel approaches that offer a complete reset on teaching and learning.

Fulfilling Teachers’ Jobs

Understanding these Jobs is an important first step toward setting up innovative programs for success. But how do administrators apply this understanding?

Option 1: Align new programs with relevant Jobs. Because different teachers have different Jobs, no innovation program can be all things to all people. Fortunately, teachers looking to lead (Job 1) may find willing followers in teachers looking for manageable improvements in their day to day approach to teaching (Job 2). By appealing to those two common Jobs, school leaders can often motivate a sizable majority of their staff.

Busy teachers looking to fulfill Job 2 don’t have time or patience for a program that demands 30 hours of professional development or that requires them to shelve the resources and strategies they’ve relied on for years. They want practices they can use right out of the box; and they want ongoing, job-embedded support to get them through any “technical difficulties” that arise along the way.

But what do you do if some of your teachers are only motivated by opportunities to give their classroom models a complete overhaul (Job 3)? These teachers need space to experiment, push boundaries, and fail forward, often in low-stakes assignments outside of mainstream instruction—such as in elective courses, remedial courses, or after school programs. But don’t expect these teachers to pursue breakthrough innovation while also keeping up with pacing guides, mandated curriculum, and all the boxes on the teacher evaluation rubric. Make the ultimate goals of their innovation efforts clear, but give them flexibility in the means and timeline for achieving those goals.

Option 2: Make latent Jobs relevant. The first option is fine if your goal for most teachers is incremental improvement. But what if you see a need to radically transform teaching and learning? How do you get teachers with Jobs 1 or 2 to fundamentally change their practices?

Fortunately, teachers’ Jobs change over time. Circumstances, not personality types, are what make a Job relevant for a given teacher at a given moment. If you want more teachers to find motivation through Job 3, give them experiences that help them conclude for themselves that the status quo fails their students. For example, identify areas where students’ academic or life outcomes fall woefully short, then let those students’ stories speak for themselves. Bringing teachers to this point may take some time, but in our experience, it's the only real way to increase their appetite for radical change.

The Risk of Ignoring Jobs

Whereas the three Jobs mentioned above illuminate ways to motivate instructional change, we also found a fourth Job which serves as a cautionary tale. Several teachers we interviewed had Jobs that amounted to “Help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.” In short, when the innovation mandates came down from on high, these teachers quickly concluded that the new programs were not viable solutions for any of their relevant Jobs. So they did what they needed to do to make sure they could check the appropriate boxes on their teacher evaluation rubrics. But they didn’t bother figuring out how to make the practices improve life for them and their students.

Across the country, school innovation tends to span a skewed distribution. At one end are the shining outliers that the field loves to point to as the future of education. But more often than not, schools push innovation with great fanfare, only to meet lackluster results. The reasons for these failures are varied and complex. But our research makes at least one reason apparent: lack of clear understanding of the motivations of those on the front lines who must make innovation congruent with their day-to-day realities. Teachers are not stubborn or lazy. Most work hard to deliver great learning experiences for their students. Thus, for innovation to work for them, it must fulfill the Jobs they are trying to get done.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine

About Thomas Arnett

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on Disruptive Innovations in K–12 education and the changing roles of teachers in innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems. Thomas previously worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with Achievement First Public Charter Schools, where he designed and piloted a blended learning summer school program. He also taught middle school math and experimented with blended learning models as a Teach For America corps member for Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a William G. McGowan fellow.

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