The Future of Work

Since the turn of the century, a seemingly never-ending series of advocates have told whoever will listen about the changing nature of work in the coming decades. Graphs such as this one I adapted from Levy and Murname (2005) seems to convey the typical message:

the future of work
Expected trends in 21st century work (Adapted from Levy and Murname, 2005)


In general, these advocates predict employers will value different skills than previously.

I cannot disagree that new skills are necessary. I see the work done by people around me (including that in my adult children’s generation, and that in my generation who are into our third decade in the workforce), and I see it requiring different skills than were needed by my parents and their parents. I do think many advocated have missed one important change, however.

Technology is certainly embedded (deeply) in our work. We use computers to interact and to access and process and create information. What I observe that appears missing on much of the literature about “the future of work,” is the important role of humans who are skilled at navigating the space between technology and human affairs.

Consider these examples:

  • A space planner in grocery stores who considers disparate information (some of it explicit, much of it implicit) to decide what products are sold in supermarkets and how much inventory of each product is kept. This individual uses sales information, demographics of store locations, industry trends, and conversations with local managers to plan what goes where on the shelves.
  • The manufacturing professional who designs products and models them on computer screens before building the products and determining their quality. They then understand the technical and human parts of the manufacturing system to ensure the processes become more efficient and produce items that meet customer’s needs.
  • The teacher who makes use of sophisticated graphing tools to allow students to play with graphs to see how they vary depending on the coefficients, constants, and exponents. Those teachers then help students translate the graphs into situations and measurements rather than spending time learning the rules and algorithms of graphing the equations.

Daniel Pink (2005) and others have reminded us the future of work is in the “things” humans can do, but computers cannot. Advocates for coding remind us that the future of work is in the ability to control the IT in our lives. I maintain the future of work lies in the ability to leverage IT to accomplish to tasks relevant to human needs.



Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2005). The new division of labor: how computers are creating the next job market. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Riverhead Books.

Organizational Frames

Leaders seek to affect change; they identify those parts of the organization that must become more efficient or more effective. Efficient operation means outcomes and goals are met more quickly by consuming fewer resources. More effective operation means the outcomes are more closely aligned with the intended outcomes.

Leaders also seek to affect transformation change. This means the outcomes or goals are different. Christensen (1997) observes transformation change is often disruptive as the organization must change in a fundamental way, and the tools and methods that were efficient and effective for the previous goals are no longer.

Both leaders and followers will confirm the degree to which change is affected varies according to many variables, and it is very difficult to transfer innovations form one environment to another. Those leaders who are more successful than others seek frameworks to organize the change in their own minds, to focus and refine efforts to affect change, and to help them understand resistance. Bolman and Deal (2008) have developed four organizational frames in their book (entitled Organizational Frames) which has been through several editions.

  • Structural frame includes the tools and methods through which organizations operate. Those parts of the organization within the structure frame are refined to make the organization more efficient or more effective. When transformation change in undertaken, these are often replaced. The structural frame is important for leader to understand as it represents the actions and interactions members of the organization experience on a daily basis.


  • Human resource frame includes those aspects of the organization represented by the individuals who belong within the organization. How the structural frame changes affect how individuals fit into the organization, and leaders must take actions to ensure the human resources are aligned with the goals of the organization. Strong leaders develop the human resources frame to foster this alignment.


  • Political frame includes those aspects of the organization that persuade decision-makers as well as the power to make decisions. While much political influence arises from one’s position within the organization, there are other influences. Especially in the technology-rich landscape in which organizations operate, IT expertise or other specific expertise necessary for emerging pats of the structural frame can increase one’s political powers. Effective leaders are often the individuals who can form coalitions of individuals who have complementary skills and knowledge.


  • Symbolic frame comprises a complex set of beliefs and values about the organization. BY answering the question, “What does it mean to be a part of this organization?” one can get a sense of the symbolic frame. In many ways, the symbolic frame is as much a reflection of the individual as it is a reflection of the organization. If I find that identifying with an organization symbolizes something unacceptable to me, then I am unlikely to continue to be part of the organization.


As leaders, we believe there is agreement between what we perceive to be “the right” direction to our organization in each one of these frames. That is not always true. Dismissing those who disagree with us is the lazy way to approach the work of change; it is also short-sighted and more likely to lead to our failure.

Resistance is often grounded in lack of clarity. By clarifying goals and actions within these frames, leaders can frame their work and their leadership, this be more likely to succeed.


Bolman, L, & Deal, T. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.



Educational Design Research: An Emerging Planning Tool

Schools are institutions that leaders seek to improve. They take actions so that operations are more efficient; they take actions so that outcomes are more closely aligned with goals than they currently are. They also take actions so that new goals are achieved.

Whether the improvements are meant to reform operations (make them more efficient or effective for existing goals) or to transform operations (so that new goals are achieved), improvement and change requires planning. Traditionally, leaders approach this work in a familiar manner:

  • Begin by identifying the area of improvement;
  • Design a system that will led to the improvement;
  • Implement the systems;
  • Gather evidence to judge the degree to which the improvement has been realized;
  • Identify a new problem.

Leaders approach these as clearly bounded and linear; it is reasoned that once a step is completed one proceeds to the next. While this approach works well for some systems, many recognize that social systems like schools are far more complex and the planning processes comprise neither well-bounded steps nor linear steps.

In many situations, school leaders seek a sophisticated knowledge of the improvements they undertake:

  • deep understanding of the complex issues they face;
  • to design effective interventions;
  • to understand why their interventions succeeded or failed;
  • to ground all of this in sound theory and existing practice.

Leaders are recognizing the traditional linear models of planning are not amenable to the traditional linear planning. They need more time and structures to understand problems, they must craft interventions to reflect the nuances of their situation, and they need real evidence to understand their work. Educational design research (McKenny & Reeves, 2012) is emerging as a model for those who seek to both reform and transform school operations.

cover of Efficacious Technology Management
Efficacious Technology Management

In my book Efficacious Technology Management: A Guide for School Leaders (which is available under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded at is include these paragraphs on educational design research:


McKenny & Reeves (2014) captured the dual nature of educational design as a method for designing interventions and a method for generating theory, as they noted it is motivated by “the quest for ‘what works’ such that it is underpinned by a concern for how, when, and why is evident….” (p. 23). They further describe educational design research as a process that is:

  • Theoretically oriented as it is both grounded in current and accepted knowledge and it seeks to contribute new knowledge;
  • Interventionist as it is undertaken to improve products and processes for teaching and learning in classrooms;
  • Collaborative as the process incorporates expert input from stakeholders who approach the problem from multiple perspectives;
  • Naturalistic as it both recognizes and explores the complexity of educational processes and it is conducted with the setting where education is practiced (this is opposed to the pure researcher’s attempt to isolate and control factors, thus simplifying the setting);
  • Iterative as each phase is complete only after several cycles of inquiry and discourse.

Projects in educational design research typically comprise three phases (see figure 7.3), and each phase addresses the problem as it is instantiated in the local school and it is either grounded in or contributes to the research or professional literature. For school IT managers, the analysis/ exploration phase of educational design research is focused on understanding the existing problem, how it can be improved, and what will be observed when it is improved. These discussions typically engage the members of the technology planning committee who are the leaders among the IT managers. Design/ construction finds school IT managers designing and redesigning interventions; this phase is most effective when it is iterative and grounded in the planning cycle described in Chapter 6. Reflection/ evaluation finds them determining if the solution was successful and also articulating generalizations that can inform the participants’ further work and that can be shared with the greater community of school IT managers.phases of educational design researchFigure 7.3. Phases of educational design research (adapted from Ackerman, in press)



Ackerman, G. (in press). Open source online learning in rural communities. In I. Bouchrika, N. Harrati, and P. Vu. (Eds.). Learner experience and usability in online education. Hershey, PA: IGI-Global.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. (2012). Conducting educational design research. New York: Routledge.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. (2014). Educational design research. In J. Spector, M. Merrill, J. Elen, & M. Bishop (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 131–140). New York: Springer.


IT Users in Schools

Educators import technology expertise from other industries—the individuals who manage your school network and repair malfunctioning computers probably learned their craft in a field other than education. What they learned about keeping devices functioning and providing you with robust and reliable service can be transferred from business or industry into schools.

There is an important difference, however, between IT management in business and industry and IT management in K-12 schools. The nature of the users.

In business and industry, IT managers know much about their users (for instance they have known literacy skills and they are likely to have very specific and unchanging needs). In education, IT users can very unpredictable, and in many cases emerging literacy skills; further, students and teachers use IT for very diverse and changing tasks.

Consider passwords. These are essential for keeping networks and systems secure, and IT managers are likely to require complex passwords to ensure security. Those passwords may prevent young users of school computers from logging on and using the machines.

In my recently published Efficacious Technology Management: A Guide for School Leaders (which is available under a Creative Commons license), I include this chart to summarize the differences between IT users in business and industry and IT users in schools:

Three Questions and Measures for Assessment

“Assessment” has been an important aspect of teaching and learning (or perhaps more accurately, it has been a buzzword garnering much attention) for most of my career in education. Advocates for many positions (political as much as pedagogical) argue the role of assessment in achieving their vision, thus “fixing the broken educational system” once and for all.

The reality, of course, is that assessment is a much more sophisticated and nuanced part of the educational experience than is allowed by these advocates. Clearly, educators must determine what has been learned by the student, and (for many reasons) that learning must be reduced to a number of proxies; each proxy designed to capture and reflect what the student has learned.

In many ways, the summaries we use to assess students’ learning are an attempt to reify what happens in schools. We reason, “my methods must work, because I observed these changes on these assessments.” Educators do not admit, however, that our instruments are weak (“aligning your assessments with your instruction” is worthwhile, but dubious), subject to misuse (students don’t bother reading questions, educators’ biases affect their assessments), and we can be quite unskilled at understanding results.

The problem of defining and implementing appropriate assessment in schools is becoming more challenging as well. When print dominated, educators could be relatively certain of the skills that students needed. I have some of my grandfather’s college textbooks next to mine. We both studied science, which had largely changed in the 49 years between our graduation dates, but we both learned by reading textbooks and taking notes in those books. Today, students carry laptops, digital textbooks, and are as likely to use video to study as they are to use textbooks. “Becoming educated” has been a more sophisticated endeavor for my children than is was for my grandfather and me. My experiences as someone who has succeeded in both of these worlds are interesting, but the topic of another post.

Largely because information (and other) technology is changing how individual humans understand, how we organize our institutions, and the norms society holds; educators cannot predict with the same certainty what students must learn and which proxies are appropriate for assessment purposes.  This is a problem that has occupied my professional attention in recent years, and thanks to continued efforts to collaboratively design a comprehensive assessment method, colleagues and I have a much clearer, complete, and simple system for answering essential assessment questions.

First, we conclude three questions are relevant to understanding what matters in students’ learning, and each has equal value:

  • Does the student have the habits of effective learners and workers?
  • Can the students produce polished solutions to sophisticated problems?
  • How does the student compare to others?

These questions are answered in different ways, and all three comprise a reasonable and complete system for assessing students’ learning.

three assessment tools


In course grades, we answer the question “Does the student have the habits of effective learners and workers?” Consider the typical classroom. Over the course of months, students participate in a variety of activities and complete a range of assignments and tasks. Teachers’ make professional judgements about the characteristics of the students the degree to which he or she has mastered the material and is prepared to learn. Just as we do not always expect a supervisor to follow an objective instrument when judging workers’ performance, we should not expect educators to being completely objective.

Of course, as subjectivity enters the grading process, educators will find it necessary to defend decisions, which will motivate them to more deeply articulate expectations, observe learning, and record that learning. All of these are benefits of including educators’ judgments in course grades.

A performance is an activity in which we answer, “Can the student produce polished solutions to sophisticate problems?” Performances are those projects and products that working professionals would recognize as a familiar outcome and professionals would be interested in the motivation of the performance, the nature of the work, and the quality of the performance. Questions regarding a performance are best directed to the student because it was selected, planned, and carried out by the student.

Teachers do have a role in setting to context of a performance, guiding decisions, and facilitating the student’s reflection in the activity; but through a performance, a student demonstrates the capacity to frame and solve complex problems and complete complex communication tasks. While “projects” that are included in course grades contribute to students’ ability to complete these assessments, performances are typically independently constructed and are outside of traditional curriculum boundaries.

Tests have been at the center of intense interest in educational policy for the 21st century. The political motivation for these test have been challenged and is beyond the focus of this post. For the purposes of this essay it is sufficient to recognize that large scale tests (think SAT’s, ACT’s, SBAC, PARC, AccuPlacer, and the like) can be used to determine how a particular student did in comparison to all of the others who took that test.

A few details are necessary to complete the picture of what these tests show. First, standardized tests were used almost exclusively for these purposes in the 20th century. This century, standards-based tests have become more common. A standardized test is a norm-referenced test, which means the scores are expected to follow a normal distribution (bell curve) and an individual’s score is understood in terms of that distribution for comparison. When taking a standards-based test, and individual’s score is compared to those that he or she is expected to answer if the standard has been met.

Regardless of the exact nature of the tests, those interested in assessment of learning must recognize that these tests are administered for the purpose of comparing. Also, these tests are of dubious reliability. One of the fundamental ideas of all data collection is that measurements have errors, so a single measure taken with one instrument administered once is really meaningless. While the test results of a large group of students may allow us to draw conclusions about the group as a whole, a single student’s score cannot be used to draw reasonable conclusions about that student.

If we consider assessment as a method whereby educators can understand their program as much as they can understand students’ learning, then we see the three questions and the three types of assessments forming a meaningful and informative assessment system.

Observations of Narcissist Educators

The label “narcissist” has become relevant in the United States in recent weeks and months. I will avoid comment on current events, but I will observe the concept is useful in understanding the actions of some educators.

For the professional psychologist familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder has a very specific meaning and is made only when certain criteria are met. For the layperson, the label narcissist can be applied much more liberally. In both cases, however, one who is a narcissist has an elevated sense of self-worth and importance which is manifest in several characteristics; we recognize a narcissist as one who:

  • Expects constant attention and validation;
  • Expects special attention and recognition;
  • Is arrogant;
  • Believes himself or herself to be beyond criticism;
  • Lacks empathy.

These are all variable personality characteristics, and depending on a range of factors everyone demonstrates these on occasion. When we recognize these characteristics are displayed frequently and consistently, an individual earns the label “narcissist” by laypeople. When the antisocial behaviors demonstrated by the narcissist exceed normal limits and adversely affect relationships, a professional may apply the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The association between self-esteem, narcissism and the teaching profession is interesting. In general, teachers need greater than normal self-esteem; this allows us to interact with students, colleagues, parents, and other stakeholders as we do. The current thinking surrounding narcissism suggests that it arises from excessively weak self-esteem; the elevated sense of self-worth is an unconscious and misguided attempt to strengthen one’s sense of self. Differentiating one with a strong self-esteem who is having an extreme day and a narcissist can be difficult.

At several times during my almost 30 years in education, I have found myself working for narcissistic leaders and working with narcissistic teachers. My experience and the reading that helped me understand those people led me to the observations described here. Look for these actions or reactions to identify the narcissist in your midst.

Ex officio authority

Educators are in positions of authority. Teachers plan how students will spend hours, days, weeks, and school years. Administrators have even greater authority, as their decisions affect teachers’ careers and children’s (and their family’s) lives in important and permanent ways.

On occasion, every educator uses his or her authority to justify decisions. When educators are transparent and admit they are using authority and the rationale for it, students usually understand. Students will often comply with the use of authority to mediate conflicts, give direction to groups that need it, and maintain order. The teacher who decides “Jimmy will pitch this inning and Sally will pitch next inning” is using authority to stop the argument and allow students to play in the few minutes they have a recess rather than argue. Those educators who take time to explain their rationale to students when using authority have more credibility with students, and they are more likely to follow unexplained authoritarian decisions from those teachers.

Narcissistic educators use the authority of their positions as the default rationale for decisions, and the explanation is simple, “You will do this because I am the teacher (or principal or superintendent or whatever), and I decided it.” There tends to be little recognition of other circumstances, and the unspoken demeanor is “all must defer to and recognize my greater expertise.” Teachers who adopt this stance lose credibility with students, and administrators who adopt this stance towards teachers lose credibility as well.

A corollary to ex officio authority is narcissists’ expectation that all will use his or her formal title. Students refer to me by many names and nicknames (gackerman which is my network user name is frequently used), but if I insisted on being called “Dr. Ackerman,” I would be demonstrating the narcissistic characteristic. If an adult insists other adults refer to him or her with a formal title, then one is most assuredly are naming a narcissist.


Education is a complex endeavor and initiatives, projects, and lessons fail and fail frequently. The reasons are many and diverse and in many cases unpredictable. Most educators are able to recognize those failures as a part of the process of designing and refining their practice. In the jargon of organizational leadership, those educators “own” their role in the failure accept a role in improving further effort.

The narcissistic educator is decidedly Pollyannaish regarding failure; the excessively optimistic stance is demonstrated in several ways. First, failures are denied. Even when there is strong evidence that the individual narcissist was responsible for bad decisions, they will reinterpret the outcomes in a positive manner. Second, others who maintain there was failure are blamed for it and become the targets for future blame.

Third, in the face of persistent calls to recognize failure, the narcissistic educator will commonly feign ownership in a sarcastic manner. One particularly narcissistic administrator for whom I worked was known to respond, “Well, I’m sorry I’m not perfect…” and then walked (actually storming away is a more accurate verb) away when others refused to accept his Pollyannaish interpretation. He missed the point that whoever was challenging him was not seeking perfection, but they were seeking to understand the situation and find which part of the system failed.

Narcissists Flock Together Until They Don’t

“Birds of a feather flock together,” is an adage that applies especially well to narcissistic educators. They tend to form tightly closed cliques and support each other’s sense of self-worth with a style of groupthink that supports the members. These groups have tight boundaries, and the insiders regard outsiders with disdain.

The interesting characteristic of these groups, and the narcissistic individuals who belong, is that they tend to dissolve at a moment’s notice. Most frequently, a disruptive event will trigger the dissolution, and the group seeks to reorganize groups. In many cases, the reorganization is relative to an individual, and the groups are “for” and “against.”

In the 21st century, social media plays a part in this phenomenon. Facebook is full of groups that seek to organize in support or opposition to an individual or a program. The educators who participate in them (frequently covertly) are almost certainty narcissists.

Narcissists Challenge Competence

The narcissistic educator has a decidedly adversarial reaction to competence. Competent professionals tend to be:

  • Stable because they can justify their actions with a well-articulated rationale;
  • Insightful because they are constructively critical of themselves and others;
  • Humble because they have internalized their competence;
  • Confident they can adapt to new situations.

The narcissistic educator is likely to perceive these qualities in him or herself, but few others (except for other members of the clique) recognize these characteristics in the narcissist.

Narcissistic educators do identify competence in colleagues and will actively attempt to weaken those individuals, although they will not admit it. A narcissistic administrator will:

  • Disempower competent teachers by assigning others to roles of formal leadership (the competent science teacher will be replaced as the chair person of the curriculum committee, for example);
  • Diffuse competent teachers by separating them in time and place (interdisciplinary teams of competent teachers will be broken up);
  • Deflect changing the focus of the school away from their areas of competence (the competent literacy teachers will find the school begins math initiatives).

While the changes to disempower, diffuse, and deflect are supported with an independent rationale and justified with Pollyannaish reasoning, these actions are familiar to those who work for narcissistic administrators.

Instructionism Dominates

Teachers who are narcissists rely on lecture and instructionism as their pedagogy. This seems to follow from their elevated sense of self-importance, which contributes to their perception of themselves as the expert with the correct version of the curriculum.

An interesting corollary appears to be the narcissistic teacher’s reliance on a single explanation. When a student asks for clarification, the narcissistic teacher will respond with the same explanation that has been given previously. This is grounded in the assumption that his or her understanding is complete and clear, and that the difficulty in learning must be with the students’ attention or effort or capacity to learn. Teachers with minimal narcissistic tendencies will recognize that different individuals may need different explanations and will quickly different approaches and see that as posing no threat to their abilities.

A similar effect appears when a narcissist is a principal (or other administrator). The narcissistic administrator becomes a strong advocate for a single approach to teaching (typically method of instruction, less frequently a student-centered approach); regardless of the nature of the method, the administrator imposes it and prescribes how it is to be implemented.

Excessive Demands on Others

Schools cannot operate without the work of support staff, and this includes both licensed professionals such as librarians, technology specialists, art and physical education teachers, as well as unlicensed professionals, including janitorial and secretarial staff, computer technicians, and others. The narcissistic teacher keeps students late, expects them to miss other classes (especially classes like art and physical education—in an much earlier version of this essay, I included shop teachers, but they are exceedingly and distressingly rare today). All narcissistic educators expect support staff to immediately attend to their needs regardless of the other demands.

Reactions of Convenience

Another corollary to ex officio authority is a seemingly random reaction to proposed changes in pedagogy. All educators are familiar with the endless series of new teaching methods that are advocated by leaders. While we find it tiresome, most educators are willing to try new practices (within reason) if they feel supported and if they feel they are empowered to assess the new practices. Teachers will formally (and informally) apply the test “Is it helping students?” to judge new practices. When teachers are convinced about the value, they are generally quite flexible and accommodating to new ideas.

Compared to other educators, who exercise precaution and quickly adopt new practices that are reasonable, narcissistic educators adopt a rationale of convenience when deciding how to react. As a result, they (paradoxically) tend to both adopt new practices more quickly than colleagues and they tend to show more inertia than others.

Narcissistic educators tend to adopt new practices with little reflection or evaluation. This appears to be done with the desire to be perceived as “on the cutting edge,” and they are more likely to adopt these methods if it will help disempower, diffuse, or deflect competence. The administrator who attends a conference and returns having spoken with a vendor, thus “discovering” the next great curriculum initiative of the school is a narcissist. Narcissistic educators appear to be easily swayed by the self-serving research done by vendors.

The narcissistic educator will remain pedagogically unchanged in the face of reason and evidence that their practice is flawed. In recent decades, a growing body of research has supported “student-centered” practice in which students’ previous experience is an important factor in determining instruction and students are given an active role in deciding some detail of curriculum. Narcissistic educators will frequently listen to the reasoning for adopting the practices, and then conclude, “Well, I want my students to do well, so I really am ‘student-centered.’” This is an example of how the narcissistic educator regards his or her own work with a Pollyannaish perspective. They are very positive about their work, regardless of the true experience for students.


The narcissism is damaging to the cultures we need within school communities to promote out diverse student populations to become the flexible and innovative thinkers that they need to become and that our society desperately needs. I hope this conclusion has been established in my brief observations of this subpopulation of educators.

The question, “How do I respond if I find a narcissistic educator?” is easily answered: “Leave.” What leaving looks like depends on many factors, but narcissists prevent teaching and learning, isolate yourself from those individuals, but if they do not leave (voluntarily or forcibly), then you must.