Future Tense

The Blame Game

Who’s really holding back innovation in schools—teachers or administrators?

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock
Teachers and administrators blame each other for holding back progress, creating a gridlock that seems to obstruct innovation.

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

You’ve probably heard all the buzzwords: inquiry- or project-based learning, blended classrooms, gamification, play, etc. Whether the cheerleaders shout “21st-century skills,” “character education,” or “entrepreneurship,” it is clear that we want children to have a school experience that is not only about facts and content, but also about empowering thoughtful individuals.

School administrators and teachers are mostly in agreement about these intentions and objectives. After all, they are browsing the same education blogs, reading the same books, and listening to the same speakers. I should know; I regularly give keynote talks at education conferences and presentations to principals, superintendents, legislators, education technology developers, and classroom teachers. I usually talk about how game-based learning blends content with context, so that students learn not only facts, but also how to use those facts in relationship with other individuals and with the world around them. I emphasize how new technologies can help teachers leverage the power of play and creativity.

Afterward, both teachers and administrators always approach me to share their enthusiasm for experimenting with new tools and teaching methods. The trouble is, each one seems to identify the other as an obstacle. Administrators want teachers to adopt new trendy methods, but they feel that teachers are resistant to change. Teachers yearn to be more creative but feel it is impossible to do so within a rigid bureaucracy. Both blame the other, creating a gridlock that seems to obstruct innovation.

The problem may be that teachers and administrators don’t have a dependable shared language with which to communicate. While the landscape of educational innovation is big on trendy concepts and buzzwords, it is short on specifics. The same term may mean different things to different ears. This lack of shared definitions makes it difficult to evaluate success rates and convey accomplishments.

Jessica Millstone is a researcher and educational professional development expert who serves as the director of engagement at BrainPOP, a popular website full of animations and video games for learning. She told me that teachers and administrators aren’t even clear on the definitions of new technologies. For example, “while many teachers say they are using digital games in the classroom, a lot of the time they just mean interactive activities or worksheets.” Millstone suspects that this is why “so much of the research around games and learning shows high levels of adoption, but there are still relatively few teachers or environments to show off as examples.”

For example, a recent study from A-GAMES, a research collaboration between New York University and the University of Michigan, last year surveyed 488 K–12 teachers and found that “more than half of teachers (57 percent) use digital games weekly or more often in teaching.” That’s a pretty high adoption rate. But according to Millstone, “the most frequently used ‘games’ aren’t really games at all.” Teachers seem to label any interactive activity that happens on a laptop or a tablet a ‘game.’ The categories are unclear. To which activity does each buzzword refer? What counts as blended learning? What’s the difference between game-based learning and gamification?

At the end of a semester, labels and definitions may not matter as much as demonstrable learning gains. But the A-GAMES study shows that innovative classroom tools add other important values, as well. Teachers are using video games and other interactive digital platforms in the same way they have always used classroom tools: for formative assessment (a fancy term for monitoring and evaluating student performance on a daily basis). Teachers are watching over students’ shoulders as they interact with technology, and making teaching decisions for each individual accordingly. There’s no simple way to slap a sticker on such an experience and file a memo so that administrators see the positive impact. Even if there were, what’s the best term to use? What’s trendy this week? Which language will appeal to administrators?  

Clear definitions and methods of classification are the fundamental building blocks of good communication. Without a shared language, Millstone explains, administrators struggle to know how to “identify and reward teachers for finding and integrating innovative tools into their curriculum.” Lacking good ways to incentivize teachers to try new things, administrators appear not to be providing the kind of support that teachers deserve. Millstone guesses that this communication breakdown causes some teachers to use lack of professional development as the go-to excuse.  

Absent a foundation for good communication, the professional culture around education technology and innovative pedagogy sounds like a dysfunctional marriage where both spouses want more romance and affection but each blames the other for an uninspired sex life. With the exception of a few schools and districts, the relationship between teachers and administrators is hindered by a giant communication gap. Like a bad cliché of family therapy, they both want the same thing but don’t know how to say it.

Perhaps, if they listened more attentively to one another, they might discover they are more aligned than they imagine.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate