In Transforming Teaching, Can Context Survive Scale?

At a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education forum on the future of the teaching profession, an audience member asked the panelists a question that got right to the heart of many contemporary debates about education policy:  if we say that context is so important, then how do we also justify policies at scale?  Can we have scale and still be mindful of context?

This is a question that has been much on my mind.  Specifically, I have been wondering whether our openness or resistance to scaling “best practices” -- especially when it comes to teachers and teaching -- depends too much on our own biases.  Are we too quick to play the context card when we find best practices disagreeable, arguing that we cannot scale things without context?  Similarly, are we too quick to turn a blind eye context when best practices align with our beliefs, rushing to impose these practices on people who might reasonably resist?  Can we hold scale and context in a constructive tension with each other?

If we cannot now, then I think we must learn to hold both of these ideas.  Admittedly, I am a work-in-progress on this point.  In my own research and writing about teacher professional development, I have thus far been quick to dismiss a long-running impulse among researchers and practitioners to distill and disseminate lists of “best practices” aimed at improving PD at scale.  In my mind, these lists have been blunt instruments that substitute quick and easily scaled fixes for more substantive context-friendly solutions.  But I probably should not be so quick to dismiss the "scalability" out of hand, since that could mean minimizing my own good ideas about how to improve PD at scale.  Maybe the middle path is to recognize that for policies to scale they must first appeal to the people most likely to apply them. 

Often the people tasked with scaling policies or practices in education are teachers.  Too seldom teachers are asked what they think about the ideas they are asked to scale.  Perhaps we do not ask teachers what they think about policy, because we are afraid that they will resist.  It would be understandable.  Trying new ideas – whether a model for PD or a new math curriculum or a new teacher evaluation system – requires taking risks.  It requires being willing to be vulnerable and to fail. 

One of the panelists at the HGSE forum, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a high school teacher in East Oakland and associate professor at San Francisco State University, agreed that policies imposed on teachers without consultation stand a high chance of being resisted and of failing.  That said, Duncan-Andrade suggested that scale and context are not incompatible.  “We should not confuse scalability with imitation,” he said.  In line with his Teacher Education Network’s alternative teacher evaluation system, Duncan-Andrade said that there are empirically demonstrated teaching practices that really matter for students, but that these practices that must be grounded in context.  Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and another panelist, concurred on this point, saying that replicability should be thought about as strategies that “can work, if they are tailored to context.”

Maybe one impediment to our learning to hold scale and context together is our conception of “scale” itself.  In my mind, I generally think of “scale” as applying a discrete policy indiscriminately, but maybe that is more a caricature than an accurate representation.  Maybe it would be more constructive to think of an idea that takes hold of the popular imagination (at scale, so to speak) but is adapted to context.  Theories in social science are like this:  for example, memes like "grit" or "multiple intelligences" have an empirical basis but often take on a life of their own and are adapted for numerous purposes across diverse contexts. 

The research and policy implications of this more abstract and nimble view of scale would be potentially disruptive (a prospect that many find quite attractive).  Researchers would need to be willing elevate design-based research approaches that prioritize adaptation to context over fidelity of implementation.  Policymakers would need to trade assertiveness for humility and be willing to consult numerous stakeholders before setting policies, accepting that there may be no unitary conception of “what works” but only a localized and variable conception of “what works here and now.”

Transformation is more than just tweaking.  Transformation means upending what is familiar, unlearning what we know, and embracing unexpected innovations.  In the drive to transform teaching, I hold out hope that the contexts in which teachers work and learn will be held at the center of any large-scale transformation. And I look forward to being part of the conversation, even as I continue to transform my own ideas about context and scale.