Why Teachers “Give Up.”

In one of the more interesting twists of digital fate, my recent post on interactive whiteboards has been making a bit of a splash in cyberspace over the past few days.  It was first picked up by Teacher Magazine.  Then, the Washington Post spotlighted it in their Answer Sheet blog.

And while the majority of the comments in both places have been surprisingly supportive of my argument that IWBs are a waste of cash, there have been a few negative arrows slung my way.  One in particular—added to the Teacher Magazine post by a guy named Mr. D—caught my attention.

He wrote:

I think the problems is that either you are resistant to technology ie change, or you have not been exposed on how to integrate it properly.  Bill why would you give up so quickly in trying to implement it in your classroom? Don’t you have higher expectations for your students? Would you let them give up so quickly?

What bothers me in Mr. D’s comment is an attitude towards teachers that I see often in conversations about school change.  “Teachers all resistant to change and lazy!” the argument goes.  “If they’d just be persistent and determined, our schools would be saved.”

I hear this kind of thinking across domains in education.  Talk about technology use—including some of my own posts here on the Radical—targets teachers who just won’t “get on board.”  Conversations about professional learning communities and collaboration are driven by those who “won’t get on the bus.”  The general belief is that teachers lack determination and commitment in almost every circumstance.

In many cases, that’s a flawed assumption.  Want to know why your teachers “give up” in the face of new initiatives?  It’s simply because the amount of effort that most changes take doesn’t align with the corresponding benefits that change is designed to produce.

Like professionals in any field, teachers judge the transaction costs that change requires before taking action. When new practices or strategies require tons of investment—complicated planning, intensive research, sophisticated interactions with colleagues, specialized resources or tools—teachers must be convinced ahead of time that the benefits are going to outweigh these new costs of action.

Take my whiteboard argument:  I “gave up” (to borrow Mr. D’s lingo) because the amount of effort that it took to design truly innovative, student-centered learning experiences with my IWB was almost overwhelming.  The software wasn’t designed to naturally facilitate the kinds of teaching that I believe in and limited access to the hardware required that I restructure learning time in my classroom almost every day.

Was it possible to make the IWB work in my room?  Sure—I’m a pretty talented teacher and I could probably figure out how to create meaningful lessons with any tool or technique—but the benefits were limited and the costs were high.  That’s a recipe for failure every time.

It might also surprise you to know—considering that my first book on professional learning communities was published in September—that I was ready to give up on collaboration after the first few months of working with my colleagues.  Why?  Because collaboration was completely exhausting.  Designing common assessments required difficult and time-consuming conversations.  Identifying instructional strategies that work required compromise.  Remediation and enrichment required research and restructuring of traditional practices.

Nothing that we created together during those first few months seemed to be of any real value.  Sure, we had simple successes—but those successes paled in comparison to the time and energy that we had to invest in learning to work together.  I still remember the anger that I felt every time I heard our principal—a guy I still respect and admire more than most any school leader alive—wax poetic about how great PLCs really were.  He, after all, wasn’t having to plug through new work with little support and/or guidance.

The key for school leaders interested in seeing change efforts succeed, then, is simple:  Work diligently to reduce the costs of new changes for your teachers.  Begin by identifying the practices that are the easiest to implement and introduce those early and often. Teachers will see instant benefits with little effort—and instant benefits with little effort builds momentum and confidence.

Then, target increasingly sophisticated practices that are likely to carry greater costs and find ways to make that work easier for your teachers and teams.  Provide exemplars and templates.  Hire specialists to come in and advise.  Create additional time for teachers to work with new practices on the clock.  All of these actions can balance the costs and benefits of change—and balancing the costs and benefits of change is the only way that you’re going to get your teachers to truly embrace anything new!

Richard Elmore, an educational leader, once wrote, “Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for
every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.”

Instead of harping on “those lazy teachers” who won’t embrace change, true instructional leaders work to build capacity by decreasing the transaction costs associated with change efforts and by ditching practices that will always require more energy than they are really worth.

Any of this make sense?

I guess I’m just tired of being told not to give up in the face of practices that I know hold little value for my students.  Change is about more than determination, you know.  It’s about careful choices.

16 thoughts on “Why Teachers “Give Up.”

  1. Karen McClain

    Great posts! I love technology. I love(d) my smartboard. My projector broke midway through 2010-2011 school year. My principal bought me a new projector six months later – but has yet to get it mounted to the ceiling and my desktop computer. My smartboard is no better than a whiteboard to display images from a laptop attached to the projector. Its a darn good thing that I have a chalkboard in the room and that nobody has stolen my antiquated chalk. My ship would be sunk otherwise. Multiple requests…still waiting. Been doing the chalk thing for an entire school year plus half of last year. Technology is great – but where is the support needed to keep it up and running? Still waiting….

  2. Paul Swendson

    I am going to make an overly general statement here that is not entirely fair: often, administrators seem to be pushing new innovations, technological or otherwise, in order to justify their existence. Technology can be great, but what matters are the individuals utilizing the technology. A lesson plan that is not particularly well thought out will be bad regardless of the medium through which it is presented

  3. Sarah

    I use my Smartboard every day, but I could go without it. I say, invest in more copy machines that actually work so I have papers for my students, then give me a good old chalk board that I know will always work. Technology is never, ever reliable. I am young, but I still hate this shift. Students are always “plugged in” every waking hour, so why add to that in school? And don’t get me started on laptops. How about some real, social interaction for a change?

  4. Lucy Condon

    Great hearing from all of you. If it serves the whole class then use it, if it only serves a section, create a lesson that will serve the whole class. I bow before the better speakers.

  5. victeach

    Ditto to the rants above! However, my workplace has just invested in IWBs and I am itching to begin using them constantly in class – yes as an OHP but also as a large screen computer for students to take hold of lesson content and create understanding themselves. I shook my head today at a teacher who was ‘waxing lyrical’ at the benefits of butcher’s paper when the IWB would do this job for all to see and save long term for future use. My workplace constrains my creativity and the collaboration that does exist becomes a forced agreement upon content, assessment tasks and focus. I know that when my IWB is finally installed, it will allow me some autonomy in a very straight-jacketed existence.

  6. HippieTeachr

    I truly feel vindicated. Every year, there is a new initiative that will save our school, and every staff member MUST jump on the bandwagon. However, we all know that this will never be followed through, it’s just simply to check off the boxes in the, “This is what our school is doing to improve ourselves this year,” paperwork. Then, just like we all knew…from years of experience…a NEW initiative that is much, much better, and it starts all over again. Can anyone relate?

  7. Bill Ferriter

    J wrote:
    This is what I dislike about educational researchers. If only they would just ask us (teachers) we’d tell them flat out.
    Yup…It is a quote from my book! And the good news is that I AM a classroom teacher. I didn’t research anything. I just spoke from my own experience.
    And isn’t it nice to hear from classroom teachers once in awhile!
    : )

  8. Miriam Bogler

    This makes a lot of sense in view of what I am going through as the technology teacher in a public school. We adopted Google Apps last year and used Sites for projects. In those days, Google did not have any template features available and students had to create their site from scratch, which many times was time consuming and difficult for some. This year we enjoy their template capability and I can prepare them ahead of time, so students can focus on content more than on the technology. The teachers are much happier this way. I am not sure that I am so happy because I value the skills that students learn by setting up their own site, but time constraints dictate templates and so it shall be.

  9. J

    Re: The quote in the slide.
    Someone actually had to do research to figure that out?
    This is what I dislike about educational researchers. If only they would just ask us (teachers) we’d tell them flat out. Save them years of designing studies to surreptitiously find what we teachers are more than willing to flat out state. And then they act like they’ve uncovered something fascinating, when they don’t even realize that it is the topic of faculty room chatter in between, “Who is going to make the coffee?” and, “Who do you trust for plumbing work?”
    -end rant-

  10. Louise

    It’s easy to see what’s helpful – how many students can use it at once? If less than 5 (even administrators should be able to do this) it means that less than 1/8 of my class can work at once, what will the rest be doing? So unless all children can work at the same time, it’s not helpful. Please concentrate on getting every child a pencil and paper to use, their own material to read, science and math tools to handle and use, and the ability to get to school.
    Then I can take your luxury products to amuse 10% of the class at once. I’m glad you made noise.

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Glad this post resonated with y’all. I wasn’t sure if I’d written anything worth reading this morning. In some ways, I felt like I was rambling….
    Rock on,

  12. Melissa

    This is by far the most insightful and enlightening post I have read in months (dare I say years!) regarding tech innovation and change management.
    Thank You!

  13. Barry

    Technology is never the end goal. Learning is. Whether it is an IWB (which I agree with you Bill, is an overpriced LCD projector the way I’ve seen most use it), or a pencil, if the tool doesn’t help create better learning towards better understanding in an efficient way, DON’T USE IT!

  14. Mark

    This is an amazing post. It’s so well-written that I genuinely have nothing else to add to the discussion, but I was compelled to simply add my “AMEN” to the chorus.

  15. Amy

    I completly agree. Our school has a one-to-one laptop program. I love technology, but the time and effort were too much when we do not have the support to keep all the laptops working. Over half of my students do not have working computers. Why waste my time and energy on creating lessons that I will just have to scrap or print out for students?

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