future, instructional design, leadership, metaphor, pairadimes, Pedegogy, restructuring

We aren’t in the ‘teaching business’, rather we are in the ‘learning business’.


“I think there needs to be a recognition that
we aren’t in the ‘teaching business’,
rather we are in the ‘learning business’,
and if we aren’t constructing a teaching model that
supports teachers in their learning then we need to
redesign what a teacher’s day looks like!”

That’s from my comment on Less is more. Teach less, learn more.

Below is from my comment on Tom Grant’s post, CORE PRINCIPLES AND “PERSONALIZED LEARNING”, which also considers Andy Hargreaves ‘Catalyst of Coherence’ principle of “Responsibility before Accountability”. (My original references to this idea: posts 1 & 2)

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two [core principles] recently:

• Create time for staff to learn together, to make performance more consistent and effective across the school

• Embed the development work throughout the school’s systems and practices

It seems to me that educators in the west spend a disproportionate amount of school time in front of students and so the majority of what they do when not with students is simply to prep for the next day. (I’m actually in a BC modelled school and can say the same thing about my school here in China.)

But I’ve had some amazing conversations with educators from different parts of the world and it seems that accountability trumps responsibility for us where other programs like Finland and even Germany see it a different way.

To me the challenge is not to give teachers more free time, but rather to embed ‘learning time’ into the structure of their day. Sort of like a learning team, but not needing to pull teachers away from scheduled class to do so. How could this work in the current model? Should ‘instructional minutes’ be a ruler for which we measure a teacher’s job? If we are in the business of ‘learning’ then shouldn’t teachers make learning part of their day? Shouldn’t we be modelling learning in a systematic and embedded way?

Sorry to throw out so many questions without answers, I just wonder if we shouldn’t be looking at trying to create a structure that in and of itself becomes a ‘Catalysts of Coherence’.

It’s time for structural changes. We need to stop trying to build a better straw hut instead of building a brick house. The foundations of true change aren’t what we are going to do within the system, but changing the system so that the foundations of learning are ever-present, (for students, teachers and our community), and embedded in our new houses of learning.

Easier said than done! I’ve watched, year-after-year, as schools have struggled simply to maintain services in an era of budget cuts. It’s a painful modus operandi which leaves the status quo as desirable, since the alternative is to offer less or to stretch resources more. But I also think resistance may run deeper than this as well. As Kim Cofino eloquently said in a comment:

“I want to promote this idea with my headmaster, who is very innovative, but I know it could be a hard sell – not because he wouldn’t be interested (he would) but because it would be hard to convince the board to have more teachers who do less teaching… How do you quantify the difference something like this could make?

Less teaching time is not equal to less work, but if this time is not used in a thoughtful and clearly outlined way, that will indeed be the perception (and in some cases the reality). There needs to be planned outcomes for this ‘learning time’, not prescribed to but rather designed by teachers.

– – –

This amazing project required teachers to meet on their own time, to work as a team across disciplines, and to model life-long learning to their students… as they openly share, the rewards were great! However, while the required meeting time with other colleagues goes outside of a teacher’s day, projects like this will be the exception rather than the norm.

Team Teaching: Two Teachers, Three Subjects, One Project

I worked at a school where we did a Renaissance Fair. For just over two weeks core subjects were shut down and all Grade 8 students across six (and in some years seven) classes took ‘cross-disciplinary courses’ on the Renaissance. First, teachers designed courses such as “Leonardo Da Vinci and Inventions”, Warfare, Medicine, “Bard in the Courtyard”, Lifestyle, and Architecture. Then, students filled out resumes and application forms and applied to these classes based on their favourite ‘course’ outlines, provided in a brochure.

"Renaissance Fair Collage"

Each student took two courses, 80 minutes a day for 10-12 classes, in which they had to build/design/create cumulative projects that they needed to display/perform/present at a large Renaissance Fair in our school gym. It was an amazing project that took hours of preparation, planning and ultimately learning on behalf of the teachers. We did this on the backs of our student teachers. Every year we would have 1-3 student teachers for our Grade 8 teachers and while they taught, we organized. It was our way of creating the time necessary to get the fair ready. Leading up to the project there would be weekly before-school meetings with all class teachers, student teachers, and support staff (who helped our struggling students that very often shined in what they produced for this project).

These are two great projects that required a disproportionate amount of planning and learning by teachers compared to time offered within a teacher’s day. As someone who coordinated the Renaissance project, I’d often ask my self in the middle of the project, “Why am I doing this?”, and then when we had the fair, and I saw all the incredible student work, I got my answer.

– – –

To summarize:

To me the challenge is not to give teachers more free time,
but rather to embed ‘learning time’ into the structure of their day.

But we are challenged with this question:

How do you quantify the difference something like this could make?

And the answer is that we need to showcase what is possible when we embed learning and collaboration time into a teacher’s day. We need to find examples that work, and more than anything we need to think BIG. We have to be grand in our intentions with what we want to do with this time. We also need to justify and account for how we use the time and really have it improve learning at the student level.

Beyond that, district-level leadership needs to think about how labour is budgeted at our schools. Until this happens, most of the amazing cross-disciplinary projects that we will see will happen despite the structures that be, rather than because of them. We are in the learning business, teachers need learning time as part of their scheduled day.

17 comments on “We aren’t in the ‘teaching business’, rather we are in the ‘learning business’.

  1. Hey David,

    I don’t like posting links in comments, but your post resonated with some of this webcast – How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better –


    especially pick it up around 8 minutes in. The point is that in fair to good school systems, there is a 50/50 split between accountability (prescribed measures) and professional development. However, in the districts deemed to be moving from great to excellent, the split is closer to 20/80. In other words, embedded and collaborative pd has a greater role in those systems. It cannot be understated that time for teachers to learn is imperative and why not embed it in the day if we are committed to it? Great post!


  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post. The question that comes to mind is to what extend should an employer be responsible for paying for teacher learning time. I’m not an educator. I am a healthcare provider. Every week I devote time to reading the latest research articles, collaborating with colleagues, and in general doing what’s necessary to maintain my standard of professional excellence. No one pays me for this. Should a school district be responsible for paying its teachers to learn, or should the teacher be responsible?

  3. Shannon,
    Thanks for the link! I haven’t had a chance to get past the 5 minute mark yet, but I will soon. It has been great connecting online and I look forward to learning from and with you.

    Now in my 13th year of education, I’ve met some incredibly dedicated teachers that spend hours after work learning and improving their teaching skills. All good teachers do so to some extent, as I’m sure you have noticed with your profession.

    I worked at an amazing school for my first 9 years, and a teacher I admired and respected taught across the hall from me for many of those years, yet I hardly ever saw him teach. I would teach kids that came from his class into mine the following year, I knew he was good, but never really found the time to learn much from him, didn’t really see him practising his art… and that’s a shame!

    Teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time practising their profession alone. This post and my ‘Thinking about Change’ post that it links to discusses this more.

    I said the school that I was at was amazing! Check out the Master’s paper Don Gordon wrote on the Renaissance Fair he and colleagues developed (also linked to in my post)… he is a ‘Master Teacher’ I worked ‘next to’ but also had minimal time to learn from. We had some amazing dedicated teachers at our school and for most of the day they could have been on another planet because we spent our days in our own classes and our preps either prepping or doing things for our students like the Renaissance Fair or running a Student Leadership program. (I don’t want you to think that we never collaborated or worked together, it’s just that besides ‘Learning Teams’, most of this time was before or after school.)

    I learned more about the teaching craft of teachers in other provinces, across America, Argentina and Australia in my first two years of blogging and reading other blogs than I learned in my first 7 years about the teachers in my own school… teachers I still consider friends! Most of them are now in Administration or district positions, almost all of them have their Master’s degree, done on their own time.

    I’m not suggesting a smaller work load, but rather a different work load. I’m suggesting that ‘experts in learning’ should model learning. I want opportunities to collaborate with the Don Gordon’s and other great teachers I work with. I want to see projects like the ones I linked to in my post be the ‘norm’ at schools, not the exception. Done properly, with expectations that this time will benefit student learning, I think many teachers would end up working harder, and for most, it would not reduce what they do outside of school… it would just make that time more meaningful and targeted to helping students learn.

    Thank you for your comments, and for keeping the learning conversation going!

  4. The post touches on a topic dear to my heart. I have been involved in developing and marketing educational resources for much of my career. However once every decade, my company closes, I get itchy feet or a new opportunity appears and I move onto something new. Often I find myself in a related but new area. One thing however has been common to every experience. Learning and working are one in the same thing. More often than not, I work in a team effort that brings people with different skills, different personalities, and different commitments together. We work collaboratively (most often) and have the opportunity to see (and perhaps assist) how other individuals do similar tasks to the ones I may need to accomplish. This environment accomplishes many different thinks, but two things come to top of mind. Good practice and technique are on view and provides models for my activity. Perhaps more importantly, rat holes that trip people up are on open display and help me understand what not to do. Simply not repeating an error moves my learning farther faster.

    I see no reason why these same team efforts wouldn’t help individual teachers learn from their peers and actually accelerate their progress as professionals. Once an organization understands the value of a strategy, tactical implementation is a large step closer.

  5. Martin,
    I’ll expand on one of your points and go in a tangent direction from my post, but I think it’s a valuable point:
    “Good practice and technique are on view and provides models for my activity.”
    That’s exactly why I want to see more teachers using blogs and the (very often free) technological tools we have today that can tear down the walls of our classrooms… so that teachers and students alike can learn from each other, in the neighbouring classrooms, and across the world. Not to replace face-to-face learning time, but to enhance it and to provide opportunities not available without the use of technology, as well as to add relevance to living in the wonderfully connected world we live in!
    Thank you for your comment!

  6. […] Teachers teaching teachers. Teachers sharing with teachers. Teachers helping each be better teachers. Teachers modeling and becoming lifelong learners. Teachers becoming more effective teachers because they are more effective learners.

    Doesn’t make sense that we should have time to learn too? Right there in our regular school day?

    […] For more thoughts on this idea, please look at David Truss’ article, “We aren’t in the ‘teaching business’, rather we are in the ‘learning business’”[…]

  7. I love what you say – we are not in the business of teaching – but in the business of LEARNING. To lead in learning I need to learn myself. Our BEST pd days at my school are ones when I lose the need to have a perfect powerpoint… properly backed with research and iron clad proof as to how these practises are truly “best” and instead – we together grapple with philosophical questions of change, who we are, where we need to go, and then – spending time with colleagues collaborating, problem solving, and inventing. What that truly means – is learning – together. Thanks for reminding us all of the importance of that!

  8. David that is totally cool-a friend of mine did something similar.She did an interdisciplinary day with middle school students where there was a central theme which was then taught in English,History,Bible, and Hebrew studies and the kids were enthralled and refused to go out to break. Now she is getting approached by other subject teachers to do some collaborations with them.
    and Btw I am hoping to come and teach in Yunnan province in the summer.

  9. Cheryl & Ruthi,
    I’ve been on holidays and away from my computer for a while especially the last few days in Koh Phi Phi at a hotel with internet issues… and it has been refreshing! But now I still have two weeks of holidays and I’m itching to get back to a learning space – digitally and mentally – I can’t just turn my brain off. I’ve read 5 books for pleasure already and now I’m done with that. Neil Postman’s “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is my next ‘holiday’ read. 🙂
    Before responding to your comments (thanks by-the-way) I had to re-read the post and all comments to get myself up to speed.
    Cheryl, well said! I’d love to see those ‘pro-d’ days you describe embedded into teaching schedules instead of one-off days where all the learning is expected to happen.
    Ruthi, that interdisciplinary day sounds fantastic, and the excitement of the other teachers is what I’ve often seen from teachers when they see the learning potential of such activities. Oh and you’ll love China… it is an adventure to teach here:-)
    Thanks again for your comments!

  10. Hi David,

    I’m with you and it is something I’ve noted through the years with successful teachers – they are more tuned into the “learning” and have slowed things down and stepped back.

    I’ve pounded my pulpit lots on the same theme – “the future of teaching is learning” and really think that maybe not wholesale but in some form, we should espouse what I think is the “I’m going away now” method. I borrow it from Sugata Mitra and think it is the best frame through which to see his ideas. Really that’s what his approach is about – letting students discover and self – organize so learning will flourish (like your post about the strength of question based curriculum).

    I think all schools, all teachers should view this recent lecture by Sugata Mitra. It really provides a narrative for what he’s been doing through the years and how to implement something like this. (watch especially the Q and A at the hour mark. ) You are on holiday so maybe you have the time 🙂 http://collegerama.tudelft.nl/mediasite/SilverlightPlayer/Default.aspx?peid=de0733a59a5c45f3a970164e666d927e1d

    But my main point is that we have to stop “filling space” and step out of the way and provide pressure for students to “reach for the top” and not just “get things done”.


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