Are great teachers a problem for the growth of blended learning?

The best teachers are, of course, hugely beneficial to students, families, and schools. But holding up the best teachers as models of blended learning success may cause problems for the field.

While attending the iNACOL symposium, and at a subsequent event hosted in Orlando by Pearson, I had the opportunity to hear from, and talk with, quite a few outstanding teachers.

Their stories are inspiring. They wanted to reach students in new ways, change their classrooms, better engage students, and improve their understanding of how well their students are doing.

They did these things by researching online content on their own, or perhaps with a bit of help from others at their school. They figured out the tools. Possibly they used an existing learning management system more than most other teachers are using it. Or perhaps they signed themselves and their students up for the free version of a technology platform, or succeeded in landing a small grant to pay for it.

Their students responded. They love the new approach, possibly after an adjustment period. All the teachers admit that they got better as they went along, but even their starting point usually sounds pretty good.

I heard that story many times. It’s not yet widespread, but it’s common enough that anyone who has researched online and blended learning has probably heard it at least once.

And it’s inspiring, right? It’s a version of the American entrepreneurial success story, except the teacher isn’t pursuing new pedagogies like blended learning, or the flipped classroom, to make money, but instead to improve her teaching and her students’ results.

It’s also, I am starting to believe, part of the reason that we’re not seeing more true blended learning implementations at scale.

These stories cause a few inter-related problems. Chief among them is that the spread of good blended learning is not going to continue to be based on the small proportion* of early adopting, rock star teachers. One of the teachers in a conversation at the symposium told her story about building a blended course. She was proud of it, as she should be. And then she said, quietly enough that some people didn’t hear this point, that she slept about five hours per night during the semester that she was building and teaching the course. That’s not a sustainable or scalable approach.

Transformation is not going to happen if it requires an extraordinarily time-consuming, voluntary contribution from millions of teachers. But the stories create the impression that perhaps professional learning isn’t really needed; perhaps the time for professional learning isn’t really needed; perhaps all teachers can learn these tools on their own, or within their professional learning communities, and the transformation will occur.

The stories are inspiring, but the lessons that may be taken from them are wrong.

*Note that I say small proportion, not small number. The sheer scale of K-12 education in the U.S. is sometimes forgotten. It is so large that 20,000 teachers—which sounds like many—is in fact one half of one percent of all teachers. One can tell many, many stories, all of which are true, and which together do not scratch the surface.