Three Terrible Truths about Teachers, Exposed!

Something’s been bugging me lately…and at 5:00 this morning I woke up realizing what it is. It’s not really something that I didn’t know…sadly I’ve had many opportunities to observe it firsthand.  So here’s what it is: Education Technology companies don’t really understand teachers.

You’re shocked by this revelation, I know.

I’ve been spending a lot of time, recently, attending webinars and playing around with new content creation tools and apps.  This seems to be the “hot” thing lately…companies vying to give teachers the opportunity to create their own marvelous digital lessons.  Some of the applications are quite clever, many give teacher users a bunch of different “interaction opportunities” to build into their lessons (e.g., multiple choice questions, constructed response, true/false, drawing, etc.).  Almost all of the applications make video look super-snazzy and cool.  And a number of them tout the ease with which a teacher can import an existing pdf or powerpoint (we can debate the question of whether or not that’s a good thing, instructionally, another time).

All of the tools that I’ve seen only allow content creation in whatever their particular proprietary “shell” is, which means that once a teacher chooses a tool to go with, he or she should hope that the company survives, lest they no longer have support for the tool. Additionally, many of the tools only allow teachers to save the lessons they create online.  The teachers are not allowed to download and save those lessons on their local machines.  I get it. We’re moving to the cloud and requiring teachers to save in the cloud means that we can charge subscription fees to let them access those lessons they’ve made and the teachers will have safe backup of their lessons. (Kind of like when the bank charges me money for them keeping my money safe.) And still others limit the number of lessons teachers can save in their online accounts without having to “upgrade” to a bigger holding area.

We could probably debate all day about the business models and monetization paths that these guys have taken.  But that’s not actually what I want to talk about.  What I really want to do today is provide kind of a public service, if you will, to those vendors out there who don’t really “get” what teachers actually want and why these content creation tools just won’t cut it.  And teachers, please pile on and add to my list or correct me if I’m wrong!

The Three Terrible Truths about Teachers

1. Teachers are not instructional designers.  Many in the education technology space seem to be unaware that “instructional designer” is a completely different profession than “teacher.” Most teachers are simply not trained to be instructional designers (needless to say, there are exceptions).  I took a look, just now, at the course catalog for Teachers College at Columbia University.  A student pursuing a master’s degree in Curriculum and Teaching must complete 60 hours of work.  The extent of instructional design coursework that is required is three hours in:

C&T 4052. Designing curriculum and instruction
Application of models for designing curriculum and instruction. Students design curriculum in collaborative groups.

And that’s at Teachers College, the oldest graduate teacher training program in the country that regular ranks in the top teacher training programs.  And a master’s degree program. Fifty-seven other hours are spent on other topics.  That’s not a criticism.  That’s just a fact. Teachers are required to learn about a wide array of topics, of which instructional design is a tiny part.  Instructional designers specialize just in instructional design…there are entire academic programs and degrees for it!  To expect teachers to do the jobs of instructional designers just isn’t fair.

2. Teachers don’t want to be instructional designers.  That’s right, I said it.  And it’s true.  Most teachers have neither the time nor the inclination to be reinventing the wheel and creating their own digital lessons from scratch.  Are there some who do?  Sure, but they’re the minority.  Most teachers go into teaching because they want to, ya know, TEACH.  Not to be monkeying around with a content creation tool in their plentiful free time.  Vendors, your tool could be the easiest tool in the world, with the most benefits and features.  But if your customer doesn’t want it….?

3. What teachers really want is content curation.  The teachers whom I’ve talked to, all over the world, really just want one thing.  A place where they can go, find solid, effective lessons that they can pull down and use as they need them.  They want them to be searchable by standard, grade level, topic and all that good stuff.  They’re willing to tweak a lesson to make it a better fit for their needs.  But they want something that is, in a word, good.  And frankly, there’s a lot of junk out there.  There are plenty of people doing aggregation, but I have yet to see anyone doing true curation and doing it well.  Teachers don’t want lessons that just fill time and keep kids busy.  They want stuff that works.  Lessons that actually teach something.  Lessons that, once completed, have successfully changed student performance.  And they don’t want to have to go out onto the wild and wooly internet, beating the bushes, to find one lesson here, one lesson there, hunting and pecking for something they can use that will be meaningful.

Right now it seems like education technology companies don’t want to stick their necks out.  Everyone’s leery of saying, “here’s the performance this lesson improves and here are the performance data proving it.”  Why?  Some ed tech professionals may feel it’s not their job to tell teachers what’s good.  Or maybe there just aren’t lessons out there that are good enough to say that about.  Either way, the company that can provide this service, with curated libraries of lessons that meet those criteria will win in this space.  The company that can say to teachers not, “Here’s a tool for you to build your own,” but rather, “Here are libraries of lessons that are demonstrated effective.  We don’t accept lessons in our libraries that are not.  Any lesson that you get here works,” will be the winner.  It’s as plain and simple as that.  Who’s up for the challenge?

To learn more about instructional design approaches for creating excellent, effective lessons, I recommend:

Markle, S. M. (1990). Designs for instructional designers. Champaign, IL.: Stipes Publishing Company.

Tiemann, P.W. & Markle, S.M. (1990). Analyzing instructional content: A guide to instruction and evaluation. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing Company.

The image included here originally appeared at

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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10 Responses to Three Terrible Truths about Teachers, Exposed!

  1. MimioGuy says:

    Thanks for this post. I couldn’t agree with you more based on my experience as well. Exciting times ahead.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, MimioGuy! Exciting times, indeed, but a huge amount of work for anyone who is ready to take it on. Although building a content creation tool is difficult, it is so much easier than what I am challenging companies to do in this post: take responsibility for making a truly meaningful contribution to EFFECTIVE instruction!

  2. TOTALLY AGREE. In fact, all of the lack of time and “Atlas carrying the weight of the Earth” workload is what is keeping me from returning to teaching, sadly.

  3. Alyssa says:

    I agree as well. The next post should be the terrible truths about educational companies – most don’t want to spend their money testing their instructional content for changed student performance, don’t know how to test their product for this, and most don’t want to curate only the “good stuff” for fear of not having the well-known and profitable (but terrible) instructional content on their site. It is a difficult and some times not as profitable job, doing the RIGHT thing. Sadly, as we all know its all about the almighty dollar! If someone would just realize that a quick buck isn’t the same as that earned by making the difficult choices, doing the right things, putting in the hard work, and doing the things that are done with integrity!

  4. Lois says:

    Nicely outlined and spot-on! Take a look at for examples of well prepared lessons for English teachers, which also emphasize collaboration.

  5. clivebuckley says:

    I don’t see these as so ‘terrible’! (BTW I teach in a university in Wales so my thinking is is set within that context).

    What I would say, however, that really good resources come from collaboration. I would not want two see two camps, teachers in one and instructional designers in another – both bring skills, knowledge and expertise and together they are much better than apart.

    I know the digital medium is different and we could debate how that impacts of pedagogy – although I am not entirelly comfortable with Marshall McLuhan’s “medium is the message” philosophy. But do we not have a long standing model for successful collaboration? The book. Teachers wrote the words and then editors, illustrators etc. worked on that material to make it ‘better’ for the medium. OK teachers had a very good understanding of what a good book was and what features were available and that may not be true of the digital environment but the model still seems useful to me.

    And just as it was with the text book, good teachers will select what is right for them and then personalise it so that it is appropriate for their group of learners – creating a ‘mash up’ if you will.

    You are right Karen, there is a lot of junk out there and if we had a carefully curated site which promised to delivery high quality, effective lessons then that would be great but even in the best libraries in the world one can still find poor books!

    Best wishes and keep on writing!

    • karen mahon says:

      In truth, Clive, I don’t see them as terrible either. That was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.

      I agree that many say that they want to personalize, but, in my experience, there are not all that many teachers who actually DO. It makes me wonder if those who DO personalize do it because they want to, or because they really HAVE to, give the quality (or lack thereof) in the content that they find “out there.”

      And it’s definitely true that there will always be “bad stuff” to be gotten. My mission is more about helping people make informed decisions. If they still want to choose the stinky stuff, that’s certainly their choice to make. But it’s hard for teachers and parents to figure out what’s good, when everything looks (and is described as) being the same.

      Thanks for contributing, Clive!

      • Clive Buckleyclivebuckley says:

        “It makes me wonder if those who DO personalize do it because they want to, or because they really HAVE to, give the quality (or lack thereof) in the content that they find “out there”

        Good question. The answer is probably ‘yes’.
        Both – the improve content that isn’t just right but they want their students to know that they care enough to generate the material.

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