Timeline of Updating Teachers’ Practice

With the growing complexity of the domain of teaching and learning, it is reasonable to conclude that educators will be engaged in increasingly dynamic learning in all aspects of their domain: the content they teach, the natural phenomena surrounding human learning, and the application of technology to curriculum and instruction design.  Compared to 20th century educators who worked in a culture of slowly changing knowledge, relatively stable sociocultural expectations, and a marginally important role of information technology in curriculum and instruction, Sawyer (2006) concluded,

The teachers of the future will be knowledge workers with equivalent skills to other knowledge workers such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, and consultants. They will deeply understand the theoretical principles and the latest knowledge about how children learn. They will be deeply familiar with the authentic practices of professional scientists, historians, mathematicians, or literary critics (572).

After commenting on the need to increase the pay of educators to reflect their status as workers comparable to other professionals, Sawyer concludes, “The classrooms of the future will require more autonomy, more creativity, and more content knowledge” (2006, 572). In addition, classrooms of the future will require educators who adopt a much shorter period of updating practices.

Whereas 20th century educators were able to develop their baseline professional knowledge as undergraduate students and then complete and update all aspects of their professional knowledge through occasional review over years, the 21st educator will be continuously refreshing his or her practice. In the journal that I kept when I was a student teacher in 1988, I recorded the advice of one of the teachers in whose class I taught, “every couple of years, whenever they buy new textbooks, you have to go back through your plans and update them.”

In 2000, I recorded the observations of a teacher who was enrolled in a summer institute to design a system of electronic portfolios. In the first year of the institute, she had learned to create portfolios to be put on compact disks, and at the second institute she was developing the process for putting them on the World Wide Web using hypertext markup language. She observed, “so now, every year or so, we need to update how we do things for new technology.”

When I was observed as part of my school’s teacher evaluation program in 2011, my principal noted that the lesson I had presented was not the one I had indicated in the previous week the students would be studying. My response seems to capture the extent to which educators must review their curriculum and instruction. I explained, “if I don’t—at least once a week or so—learn about something one day and share it with my students the next day, then I am not doing my job. You happened to be in my classroom the afternoon after I learned something good when eating lunch.”

I am distressed to see this trend has not continued. As I observed classrooms, professional development, and other learning activities for educators in the last few years, we seem to have reverted to very long timelines in professional learning. The phrases “this is a work in progress,” “it will emerge as we go,” and “we will have that conversation later” are examples of unclear direction that is too common in professional development work. To be clear, I understand continuous improvement, I understand emergent properties, and wicked problems. Behaviorism is as terrible a philosophy for professional development and operational planning as it is for pedagogy.

The problem is that unclear and contradictory messages from leaders leads to inaction among teachers and a return to and entrenchment of their standard practices. My message to those who hope to affect change in teaching and learning is this:

  • Make a decision about  what you want to see;
  • Articulate a clear rationale for why it is good;
  • Establish a clear path to the next step;
  • When you adjust (which will be necessary), iterate the decision-rationale-pathway strategy.


Sawyer, R. Keith. 2006. “The Schools of the Future.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Science, edited by R. Keith Sawyer, 567-580. New York: Cambridge University Press.