Empowering Teachers as Learning Engineers (Without Adding More Work)

When we reflect on how the pandemic disrupted education, we’ll think about the resiliency of our teachers, who were challenged like never before to connect with students in new ways to keep learning going in the face of nationwide school closures. But it hasn’t come without a cost. A recent NEA survey found that 28 percent of educators reported that they were more likely to leave the profession.

Significant challenges lay ahead that require education leaders to continue thinking creatively about how we support our invaluable educators. We need to equip teachers with the right tools to save them time and support and simplify the planning process so they can continue giving their best to their students.

To do that, we must move beyond thinking about what schooling could look like to what it should look like. Teachers should be empowered with actionable data, equipped to engage each student with a personalized learning experience and supported as they establish stronger relationships with home-based learning guardians such as parents.

In short, it’s time to more intentionally think about educators as Learning Engineers.

Teachers Are Already Learning Engineers

Engineers are constantly looking for ways to evolve and improve processes to get the best results. They think about problems in context, consider multiple tools and approaches, and apply science, math and data to continuously evaluate designs and make improvements.

In an educational context, we expect Learning Engineers to pioneer new ways to leverage technology and data to deliver instruction that meets each individual student’s learning needs. They reallocate their time and their students’ tasks based on real-time progress. They share insights with home-based learning guardians to ensure students are supported every step of the way, especially now as parents and other family members play a greater role in a student’s education.

Learning Engineers do not solely rely on data and algorithmic models to drive changes. Rather, they use these insights to inform what course corrections are needed in the classroom. This may sound intricate, even technical. But analyzing and acting on data is not new for teachers, who already make decisions and adjustments on the fly. Some of these insights come from natural cues and human interaction; others via education technologies specific to subjects and lessons.

In many ways, teachers are already Learning Engineers.

However, the pandemic has shined a greater spotlight on the limitations of existing tools and approaches. Traditional data, like end-of-year exams, only evaluate a student’s learning progress at one moment in time—and are too late for any course correction. These limitations are only amplified in remote learning environments, where teachers are no longer in the same room to determine what students need, and parents may not always know how to diagnose or support their child’s learning needs.

What’s needed are data and insights that can help provide more comprehensive snapshots of what students need—and more importantly, inform how teachers can adapt instruction.

Equipping Learning Engineers with Technology

Technology can streamline the way Learning Engineers collect student learning and engagement data as they interact with digital tools, getting valuable information that would otherwise be hard to get in remote learning environments. This can help reveal where students are in their learning in real time, rather than waiting for the result from state-end tests, which is the norm. There are also innovative tools that can help predict how students will perform on these exams.

Instead of asking teachers to review spreadsheets of student state assessment scores and adapt accordingly, digital tools can also surface actionable insights from the data collected and recommend actions to close any learning gaps. (For example, is a student struggling with fractions because of a lack of familiarity with division?) By equipping teachers with these insights about their students, teachers can plan more strategically for differentiation and lessons.

Lastly, technology can unveil deeper insights into how students are feeling about content. Today, teachers in remote or socially distanced classrooms are currently unable to notice cues from students that may indicate how they are feeling about a subject or their comfort with new material. Through adaptive learning technology, click-through data, surveys and exit tickets, today’s tools can capture these observational and formative data points and provide teachers with insight into how students are thinking about their world, understanding the content, and their own solution strategies.

Providing Relevant Training for Learning Engineers

Empowering educators with the skills and actionable data to act as Learning Engineers is not asking teachers to do more or expand their role to become data scientists. But without guidance, it can be daunting for teachers to review extensive data and discern how to identify the right topics and differentiation strategies they should use to support their students.

We must ensure teachers have relevant training. Teacher preparation programs, colleges and universities should evaluate their existing required courses and make certain they are preparing teachers for the new, data rich environments they will find in schools.

School districts also have a responsibility to provide meaningful job-embedded professional development courses for their teachers to learn how to efficiently collect and use data in order to modify their instructional strategies. Administrators should introduce courses and professional development that help teachers understand and use the short-term and long-term data generated by resources provided by the school or district.

The industry has a role to play as well. By integrating professional development resources as a part of their services, edtech providers can help school leaders provide teachers training based on real-time student performance data and learn how to make more personalized professional learning choices that are directly connected to impacting their students and relevant to their classrooms.

Looking Ahead

A study by McKinsey & Company projects students could lose up to three months to a full year of learning due to the challenges of learning during the pandemic. We must do everything we can to close the achievement gap, and it’s critical that teachers have the data insights into where students are in their learning to appropriately adapt lessons and instruction.

By empowering teachers to be Learning Engineers, we can step forward with confidence and move away from impersonal, less responsive models of schooling and design competency-based, student-centered models of learning that support each student. This new model of schooling is how we should support our teachers and our students.

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