5 Things Edtech Startups Can Learn From Classroom Teachers

Apr 22 2014, 6:52pm CDT | by

Edtech is a big market, trillions of dollars globally. No wonder there are so many entrepreneurs trying to grab a piece.

In an age when start-up entrepreneurs routinely try to come up with the next big gold rush, however, it is easy to forget that the fundamentals of pedagogy have remained stable for thousands of years. Great technology does not disrupt as much as it empowers humans to do a better job at staying the same.

Each week, I get emails from hundreds of startups. They want me to look at their products…or should I say, their “innovations.” Some of them are good, but the majority are confused, They think they’re going to change civilization with some great “disruption.” They believe they will forever change the landscape of education and solve a global education crisis. Never buy into your own hype. There’s is nothing as trite and status quo as reading an entrepreneur’s press release about how “unique and game-changing” his or her product is. Have you asked the teachers what they want, or what they need?

On average, teachers and school reformers tend to dismiss new technologies. “We’ve seen this before. There’s always something poised to change everything,” they say.  So many educational technologies disappeared just as quickly as they arrived. Consider the stereograph, the reading accelerator, B.F. Skinner’s “teaching machines.”  Education professionals are hardly inspired by promises of the next new big thing.

Perhaps your new product is disruptive, but disruption is not what we need.

The most effective pieces of edtech start with the assumption that educational tools are at their best when they function like the chalkboard: non-invasively helping teachers to do a well-practiced job with increased precision and ease.

“Teachers Know Best: What They Want From Digital Instructional Tools” is a report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We embarked on this research with a simple goal: to find out directly from teachers what kinds of tools and instructional technologies they’d like to have to help them tailor instruction to their students’ individual needs and skills.” They continue, “We hope these findings will provide a roadmap to ed tech companies that will help them develop products that better meet teachers’ needs, as well to districts and others who buy these tools to encourage them to give teachers a voice in choosing the digital resources they’ll use in their classroom.”

They surveyed 3,000 K-12 teachers and more than 1,000 students. While I think their report suffers from a misguided faith in the power of revolution, rejuvenation, disruption and innovation, there are still quite a few important take aways. Here are the five findings that are most interesting to me (with commentary).

  1. “Teachers feel there’s a gap between the variety of tools currently available to them – most of which are purchased by districts on their behalf – and what they find to be most effective in the classroom.” Teachers have been saying this for decades. The nature of school infrastructure is such that teachers are rarely the ones who make the purchasing decisions. Certainly I understand the reasons, but in the age of crowdsourced decision making, you’d hope we could figure out better ways to empower (and trust) teachers to make decisions that were in the best interest of the individuals they work with everyday.

  2. “Teachers really do want digital tools” but “those tools need to transform the learning experience in new ways – they can’t simply be ‘converted’ from successful traditional tools.” I know this almost sounds like teachers want disruptive innovations, but that’s not it. Instead, they want edtech that doesn’t try to fix what’s not broken. Stop trying to build better chalkboards, for example, this is not an area where problems exist. Everything doesn’t need to be digitized. But there are some particular areas where teachers do want digital tools…

  3. “Teachers identified six instructional purposes for which digital instructional tools are useful: Delivering instruction directly to students; Diagnosing student learning needs; Varying the delivery method of instruction; Tailoring the learning experience to meet individual student needs; Supporting student collaboration and providing interactive experiences; Fostering independent practice of specific skills.” All of these examples point in one direction: collaborative adaptive learning technologies. Everyone knows it. We need technologies that allow us to personalize instruction, assessment, practice, and collaboration in increasingly sophisticated ways. We don’t need technologies that fix the classroom–it works just fine–we need technologies that fix the big problems: individual work, homework, and standardized testing. It is sad to consider our culture’s priorities: we’ve built amazingly sophisticated adaptive algorithms to make consumers incur more and more credit card debt while shopping online but we still haven’t applied the same level of engineering expertise to education.

  4. “In math, as grade levels increased, teachers were less likely to report having available, sufficient, and digital resources, with high school math teachers reporting the biggest gaps. The opposite trend is seen in English language arts (ELA), with elementary school teachers reporting the biggest gaps.” Take notes; these are the gaps. And it is not unique to edtech. In general, we’re really good at teaching the building blocks of STEM, but as it gets more ambiguous, we struggle. In ELA, it is the opposite. In my opinion, this is because of our misguided belief that science is factual and the humanities are abstract. In fact, both are language systems–the foundation (or should I say, the grammar) is rigid, the eventual implementation is always creative, fuzzy, and ambiguous. Multi-disciplinary edtech will help everyone understand that the strict divisions between subjects/disciplines is problematic. From what I’ve seen, game based learning is the likely front runner in this area.

  5. “Teachers don’t get to choose many of the products their students use, but when they are given the opportunity to select them, they are more likely to report that products were effective.” Remember what really matters. At the end of the school day, it is all about whether or not a teacher is able to reach a student–to nurture a critically thinking, productive contributor to a better civilization. Forget about who signs the checks, and who the customer is, and the size of the market. Focus on the teachers’ relationship with their students. Establish ways to empower them to make their own decisions.

Finally, remember some of the best innovations in the history of humanity: the wheel, irrigation, written language, etc. Real entrepreneurship does not function in service of “disruption,” or “revenue models.” Instead it reimagines everyday implementation patterns in ways that increasingly benefit human civilizations.

Read the full report here: http://tinyurl.com/TeachersKnowBest

Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss, a book about how playing video games can transform psychological attitudes. For information on Jordan’s upcoming books and events click here.

 
 

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