Why Teachers Don't Collaborate on Lesson Development

Later: Christina Koch wrote a rejoinder to this article that says a lot of insightful things better than I ever have.

For the last three years, I've been asking people why teachers don't collaborate at scale on lesson development in the way that programmers collaborate on open source software and pretty much everybody collaborates on Wikipedia. I put this question to a room full of people who know more about education than I do back in January, and got some new answers. I've summarized them below, along with my rejoinders.

  • The most important thing about a lesson isn't having it: it's writing it (which gives you a chance to figure out what you think about the topic). This one rhymes with my personal experience, but the same is true of software, and somehow we get up-and-coming programmers to use and improve libraries rather than building their own stuff from scratch.

  • It's just more trouble than it's worth, i.e., it's always easier in the short term to write something from scratch than to learn your way around someone else's material. See above.

  • It doesn't pay off for most teachers because they only teach any particular lesson once a year (or once a quarter). I think infrequent teaching would push people toward re-use, not away from it.

  • Working at scale results in a more neutral point of view (the average of the contributors' personal views), but in many fields, lessons are valuable precisely because they're one person's opinion. I might believe that for literature, but for basic algebra? And if the difference is one of teaching method rather than content, then yeah, I could see there being half a dozen different shared lessons on polynomials, each approaching the topic in a different way, but I simply don't believe there are as many different ways as there are teachers.

  • There's no onboarding process to teach people the mechanics of distributed ad hoc large-scale collaboration. I believe this is a contributing factor, but (a) teachers get more training in how to develop lessons than most programmers get in how to take part in an open source project and (b) lack of a formal onboarding process hasn't slowed down Wikipedia.

  • Collaboration on lesson development gets squeezed out by more important things (where "important" means "the principal or chair said 'thou shalt'"). Again, I think this would push people toward collaboration (possibly under official radar), since every minute I don't spend writing a lesson is a minute I can use to satisfy the principal or chair.

  • The Firewall of Doom at many schools prevents people from working on shared materials. Probably true for some people, but (a) demonstrably not true for all and (b) most teachers in industrialized countries have access to a computer at home these days.

  • The stakes are too high for collaboration, i.e., it only works for Software Carpentry because our instructors are volunteers who aren't going to be evaluated on their teaching. I agree that this would lead some people to choose not to collaborate, but I don't believe it applies to/would dissuade everyone.

  • No measurable outcome will show improvement, so there's no incentive to do it. The same is true of open source software, but while only a small minority of programmers contribute, that's still enough people for it to thrive.

  • Lessons are the wrong granularity for sharing: collaboration would be more likely to take hold if the thing being collaborated on was smaller. Unfalsifiable.

  • It's a generational thing: as digital natives, tomorrow's teachers will just naturally do it. This kind of "not yet" argument is also unfalsifiable (like claims by members of many millenarian movements, for whom the apocalypse is definitely coming—yup, absolutely, any day now).

  • You can't run regression tests on a lesson, so there's no easy way to tell if my changes have broken something that you wrote. But Wikipedia...

The most interesting observation was that while teachers might not collaborate, they do remix: finding other people's materials online or in textbooks and reworking them is common practice. That suggests that the root problem is a flawed analogy: rather than lesson development being like writing Wikipedia articles or open source software, perhaps it's more like postmodern music.

And don't forget to read Christina Koch's thoughtful reply.

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