A response to "How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals"

Robert Pondiscio’s article "How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals" caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.” photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.) In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice. I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much. I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is "making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design." What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students. The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck. The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards. Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is " like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before." That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals. The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management. The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional. (That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally. It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards. Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning. I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff. I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.) I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest. If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering. Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.