Reform Proposal:
Make More Effective Use of Technology
and Existing Staff 


We need to recognize the fact that many teachers may be capable of filling some of the roles presently expected of them, but not skilled enough to fill all of them.  Some of the functions and activities related to teaching require more ability than others.  The roles and duties that are the most demanding should be assigned to the teachers who are best qualified to perform them.  More mundane and less demanding aspects of the job should be performed by less-gifted individuals.  By offering higher salaries for the more demanding positions, we could increase pay for our best teachers without enormous increases in funding and make more effective use of the personnel we have.  We should restructure the system for delivering instruction, as well as for meeting other needs of students, to take full advantage of the strengths of each individual teacher, while minimizing or avoiding their weaknesses. Increasing the degree of specialization within the teaching profession, particularly at the secondary level, would result in significant improvements in the quality of instruction. 

There are three basic modes of teaching: Didactic instruction, discussions (involving Socratic dialogue or other forms of questioning), and coaching (tutoring).  The skills, knowledge, and attributes needed for each of these approaches are similar, but not identical.  Some teachers are more effective in one of these modes, than they are in the others . The number of students who can be effectively engaged with a single teacher also varies considerably depending on which of these methods is being employed. 

The goal of didactic instruction is the acquisition of knowledge.  The teacher’s role is to convey information.  Common methods of didactic instruction include lectures, demonstrations, presentations, reading materials, and videos.  The primary advantage of this mode of teaching is that it enables a single instructor to teach a large group of students.  A single presenter can speak to an auditorium full of students at the same time.  A recorded lecture, demonstration, presentation, or video, can be utilized at various times with an infinite number of students. 

Discussions are essential for moving students beyond recognition and recall of factual material to help them develop higher order thinking skills.  Participating in a discussion can help students broaden and deepen their understanding of concepts or ideas that have been presented by didactic means.  A meaningful discussion requires enough participants to include a variety of viewpoints and an interesting range of thoughts related to the topic being discussed, but the group should also be small enough so that all of the students involved can participate actively.  The optimal size of a discussion group is, therefore, between four and eight students. 

Coaching (tutoring) facilitates the development of skills and provides additional help in mastering concepts.  Working individually with students, or with small groups of students, a teacher can offer immediate feedback and assistance.  While tutoring may be particularly important for students who are having difficulty with a skill or concept, all students benefit from one-on-one instruction from time to time.  It is difficult to pay close attention and offer constructive feed- back and criticism, with more than one or two students at a time. 

A typical class in most schools consists of twenty to thirty students.  This is not the optimal arrangement for any of these modes of instruction.  We could significantly improve the quality of the instruction we offer students by more effectively matching the number of students involved in an activity with the mode of instruction.  This would require more effort in scheduling classes and other activities, but the benefits involved would make it well worth the effort.  It would also involve making more effective use of technology and making more effective use of existing staff.  We should utilize videos more extensively to provide didactic instruction.  Computers should provide students with extensive opportunities for drill and practice.  Our most talented teachers should be delivering didactic instruction, leading discussions, and providing small group or individual coaching. 

Didactic instruction is the weakest link in the instructional chain under the present system.  Some teachers are fairly effective lecturers, but many others have not really mastered the art of public speaking.  Hearing a dynamic speaker discuss a topic can be quite stimulating.  Listening to a poor speaker drone on and on is a very effective means of curing insomnia.  Some teachers are good at explaining concepts and operations, others are not.  Having each teacher repeat each lecture or lesson over and over for groups of twenty to thirty students is very inefficient.  To be effective, a lecture must be delivered with some degree of enthusiasm.  At the end of the day it can be difficult to bring a sufficient level of enthusiasm to the fifth or sixth delivery of the same lecture, presentation, or demonstration. 

We could realize some improvement in the quality of didactic instruction by scheduling lectures in our high schools so that the most effective speakers on each staff deliver a single lecture, covering topics related to their area of expertise to all of the students studying that subject.  We could achieve even greater levels of efficiency by recording lectures and demonstrations by our best teachers.  In this way we could offer students at schools throughout the country the opportunity to learn from the best teachers in each subject area. 

Appropriate visual elements should be added to recorded lectures whenever possible.  For some topics, well-produced videos are already available and are being used in classrooms.  For other topics we would need to produce video recordings that are aligned to our educational objectives.  Videos can take students places and show them things in a considerably more dramatic manner than is possible through a lecture.  Traveling to the far corners of the earth is beyond the means of most people, and while watching a video is not the same as being there in person, they are often the next best thing.  Video technology can provide a cost-effective passport for any student who is interested in learning about other peoples and places.  Television and movie cameras have recorded more and more historical events in recent years, making it relatively easy for students to revisit important moments in history.  Audio and video recordings of historical figures, speeches, and events bring history to life in a way that can greatly increase the interest of students.  Audio and video recordings enable students to listen in as leading authorities discuss and debate important issues and ideas. Field trips to Broadway shows are beyond the means of most schools. Videotaped performances could provide exposure to top quality stage productions. 

The educational potential of television has been obvious from its inception, but we have failed to realize more than a fraction of that potential.  We are still wandering through the “vast wasteland” identified by Newton Minnow decades ago.  Video technology is presenting us with fresh opportunities to realize the educational potential of television. It is essential that we begin to utilize the technology at our disposal more extensively and effectively. 

One potential drawback to providing didactic instruction to large groups of students is that students who are not motivated to learn what is being taught, find it relatively easy to tune out. In some cases, inattention turns to various forms of disruption, making it difficult for students who are paying attention to concentrate. T his could be a serious problem with a large group of students. If we continue our attempts to force-feed knowledge to reluctant scholars through compulsory attendance laws and required classes, it would be important to have monitors present who would be responsible for controlling disruptive students and, when necessary, seeing that they are expelled from the presentation quickly and quietly. 

In a situation where students are genuinely motivated to learn what is being taught, discipline should not be a serious problem.  One or two monitors could easily supervise a large group of students in an auditorium or screening room.  The skills needed to monitor students effectively in such a situation would be minimal. Monitors would not need to be teachers.  Our most talented teachers should not have their time wasted in this role. 

It is worth noting that Webster defines “didactic” as “intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment.”  Although it may not always be possible to convey necessary information in an entertaining manner, we should do so whenever possible.  Whether we like it or not, our schools are competing with the entertainment industry for the attention of students. Although we may deplore the influence of the media (shortened attention span, slavish devotion to the pleasure principle, reduced willingness to set, or work toward, long-term goals), we can ill afford to ignore opportunities to present material of an educational nature in an entertaining manner. Talented speakers, writers, and narrators often find a way to add a little entertainment value to a presentation, many classroom teachers are unable to do that effectively. 

Using computers to provide students with opportunities for drill and practice or to test recall and recognition of factual material, offers several important advantages over pencil and paper assignments.  Feedback is most effective when it is provided as soon as possible.  When using a computer for drill and practice, feedback can be instantaneous.  Worksheets or assignments from the text that are handed in, graded by the teacher, and returned even one day later, are a much less efficient means of providing feedback.  Another important advantage to using computers for drill and practice is that an individual student can move at his or her own pace.  Those students who learn quickly and easily do not need to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.  Those students who learn more slowly do not become frustrated by being forced to move on before they have truly mastered an operation or concept.  Perhaps the greatest advantage of computer programs is that they can make drill and practice more enjoyable for students.  Students who are willing to work for hours on a computer are often not willing to invest the same amount of time in other forms of drill and practice. 

The technology is already in place to link video presentations with computer programs designed to test recall of important information or to provide opportunities for drill and practice.  After viewing a video, students work at computers with software designed to ask questions related to the video or present problems for a student to solve.  If a student solves a sufficient number of problems or answers questions correctly, they move on to the next presentation.  If the need for remedial work is indicated, the computer refers them back to the appropriate portion(s) of the video.  In some cases, it might be advisable to refer the student to a different segment of the video where the operation is explained in a different manner using different examples. We should be making more extensive use of this means of providing basic instruction. 

Closed-circuit television and computers connected to the Internet are also opening up other alternatives to traditional classroom instruction.  On-line courses and other forms of distance learning offer educational opportunities to students in rural areas, as well as added convenience for older students who can avoid the need to arrange childcare.  The Internet offers a convenient means of researching many topics. 

If we are going to make effective use of recordings and computer software, we must improve the alignment between these materials and our educational objectives.  Examining and evaluating the materials that are currently available will be a monumental task.  Very few classroom teachers have the time or energy to sort through more than a fraction of the materials that have already been produced.  Resource teachers can perform this vital function.  (They already do in some schools and districts.)  These teachers could be employed at either the federal or state level, or they could be classroom teachers with a reduced teaching load to allow them the time necessary to review and evaluate materials and disseminate their evaluations.  Teachers selected to fill these positions would need to be extremely knowledgeable about both subject matter and the learning process.  They would need to be patient enough to sort through mountains of inferior products to find the occasional gem.  The effective use of resource teachers would significantly improve the quality and effectiveness of supplemental materials utilized in the instructional process. 

We are almost certainly going to find that there are no effective supplemental resources available to address some objectives.  Most of the educational videos that are currently available are not well produced, do not hold the interest of students, and do not align well with state or national standards. If educators are to make more effective use of the technology that is now available, both the production values and the educational content of the materials we use need to be improved. Developing effective resources to fill these gaps is well beyond the means or the ability of classroom teachers or individual schools.  It will require the efforts of a relatively small number of highly talented individuals with adequate budgets. 

Students have grown accustomed to programs with high production values.  Considering the amount of money and talent needed to produce top-quality videos, it is not surprising that the Public Broadcasting System and the news divisions of the major television networks have produced some of the best educational programs currently available.  The quality of writing, acting, and directing in programs produced by, and for, the major television networks, is noticeably superior to the vast majority of educational videos. 

The primary shortcoming of many of the programs that are produced for the networks is a lack of alignment with the standards that have been adopted by state legislatures and school districts.  This is not surprising considering the fact that networks are primarily concerned with ratings.  Even programming with considerable educational value is produced with the goal of attracting as many viewers as possible.  Better communication between educators and television production companies could improve the alignment of programming with educational objectives.  Grants and subsidies could give producers an incentive to consider educational effectiveness, in addition to ratings.  The Public Broadcasting Service should be a leader in this effort.  By making more effective and more extensive use of videos and computers, we can free more of our most talented teachers to work with students one-on-one and in small groups. 

Conducting effective discussions is a difficult art to master.  A skilled discussion leader asks thought-provoking questions to guide students through the process of thinking critically about important issues, has the patience to wait silently while a student formulates a thoughtful response, and is capable of involving students who might normally remain silent during the discussion, without making them feel uncomfortable.  While basic questions can be formulated prior to a discussion, asking the right follow-up questions requires listening and critical thinking skills that are not all that common.  Conducting a discussion without injecting your own thoughts and opinions can be very challenging for teachers who are used to conveying information in a more didactic manner. 

Coaching and tutoring also demand a great deal of skill on the part of teachers. It is difficult to teach someone a skill you do not possess. It is impossible to explain a concept you don’t understand. In order to function effectively as a mentor, tutor, or academic coach, the teacher involved is often required to diagnose the reason a student is having difficulty and find a way to demonstrate a process or explain a concept in a way that the student will comprehend.  Academic coaching is very helpful to students, regardless of their age or ability level as they learn to research a topic and write clearly and effectively about what they have learned through the research process.  Guiding students through the research and/or writing process and offering detailed, thoughtful, constructive criticism requires a careful reading of what each student has written.  It is a time-consuming and challenging process. Providing meaningful feedback to advanced students in the upper grade levels requires an academic coach who is highly skilled as a researcher and writer. 

By increasing the degree of specialization in the teaching profession we could achieve significant improvements in the quality of the instruction we offer through our public schools.  By relieving teachers who are skilled at lecturing, leading discussions, or tutoring students, of the burden of supervising students who are involved in reading, viewing videos, or working on computers, we could provide considerably more frequent and extensive opportunities for students to interact with our most talented teachers in one-on-one or small group situations.  It will require some effort to match the skills of each teacher with the skills needed to function effectively as a resource teacher, resource developer, lecturer, discussion moderator, academic coach, or monitor. It might be disruptive to divide the staff at each school into these various roles.  Teachers with limited skills who are assigned positions as monitors might be offended. However, there are some teachers who basically serve as little more than monitors within the present system. 

When teachers do nothing more than assign chapters from a textbook and hand-out worksheets and tests provided by the publisher of the textbook, the real teacher is the author of the book.  The “teacher” in that situation, could more accurately be referred to as a “teacher’s aide.”  Some teachers are quite content with this approach to instruction.  Teaching, done properly, is a very challenging job.  It is a lot less demanding for teachers who are content to let the textbook and supplemental materials provided by textbook publishers do the work for them.  We need to give them better materials to work with and let them fill positions as monitors.  While textbook authors and publishers already provide teachers with worksheets, review questions, tests, and supplemental materials that are essentially a “paint-by-number” kit, the resulting picture is typically far from a work of art.  During a transitional period, positions as monitors could provide continued employment for less-talented teachers.  Eventually, we could reallocate more money to hiring teachers for the more demanding positions by using non-certified staff as monitors.