3 myths about teacher agency and why they hold back scaling education innovations

Male teacher standing in front of a classroom full of young students in Brazil
Shutterstock/Maarten Zeehandelaar

As we mark the passing of another World Teachers’ Day, confronting a few myths about the role of teachers in scaling education innovations seems worthwhile. Addressing these misconceptions is important because underestimating or neglecting individual teacher agency—what it is and how it manifests in both positive and negative ways—is a key reason why many education innovations struggle to scale or are not sustained.

Eradicating these myths can lead to authentically engaging educators as active innovation partners during the development, implementation, and scaling of promising instructional innovations.

Teachers matter

Research makes clear that teacher quality is a primary factor impacting student outcomes. Research also shows that the most effective educators are often those who leverage their own professional knowledge, understanding of students and context, and teaching autonomy in service of student learning. This means that the best teachers are active agents of instruction, not passive curriculum deliverers.

Despite this research, the belief persists that many educators are interchangeable implementers who can deliver preset curricula in lockstep. This faulty assumption may not be intentional, but rather the result of not having sufficiently thought through the complex nature of teacher learning—yet, it is pervasive in development and policy circles. It is worth noting, however, that, while closely related, this blog is not speaking to debates about structured pedagogy related to teacher agency within specific initiatives. Rather, we focus on bringing teachers in as active agents in scaling. Many teachers will inevitably adapt innovations as they are scaled, and therefore teachers need to have a voice in the process for scaling to succeed.

We draw on learnings from ROSIE and the Real-time Scaling Labs, two multiyear, multi-partner studies led by the Millions Learning project that explore scaling impact in education in low- and middle-income countries. Over five years looking at scaling in more than 30 countries, we find again and again that disregarding teachers as authentic reform partners holds back scaling efforts and neglects a useful system lever.

Myth 1: Teacher training automatically leads to teacher change

A prevalent misconception is that, once trained and with only limited follow-up, educators will automatically translate what they’ve experienced in their training modules into new classroom practices that won’t soon fade or get washed out by the system. However, adult learning, behavior change, and teacher development are complex, iterative processes. And bureaucratic systems (such as schools) co-opt externally implemented modifications. Research shows both that one-off trainings aren’t enough to create lasting changes in teacher practices and that many teachers alter or resist new training to fit their preexisting practices.

Instead, teachers should be treated as agentive actors with complex knowledge systems, conflicting commitments, and—often—an inclination to teach the way they were taught. As such, engaging with both the overt and underlying aspects of pedagogy is essential for those hoping to scale education innovations. Additionally, bringing educators into the design and implementation phases from the outset increases their understanding of and commitment to the innovation process. And finally, more consideration is needed about what professional supports (e.g., coaching, team-teaching, or changed working conditions) are required for different kinds of educators in different contexts.

Myth 2: Teacher feedback is teacher resistance and teacher resistance comes from bad teachers

Everyone praises collaboration as a necessary ingredient of scaling, but historically built roles in education limit the extent to which different actors can participate in an innovation’s design, contextualization, and implementation. Often, by the time most teachers are introduced to a new initiative, the innovation has been developed, piloted by a small sample of early-adopter teachers, and already has a scaling strategy in place. And vested interests and committed funders tend to be protective of the initiative and implementation approach.

When it scales and more teachers begin using it, negative feedback—either solicited or unsolicited—about the initiative is often viewed as resistance, lack of understanding, or recalcitrance—rather than useful input. In reality, soliciting teacher input along the whole scaling journey provides useful feedback on how to improve and contextualize the approach. Rather than a threat to either fidelity or teacher professionalism, teacher adaptations can improve the initiative or make it more suitable for their unique context. The field dismisses these adaptations at its peril. Continuous feedback loops among students, teachers, and scaling professionals are essential for understanding what’s required for different teachers in different contexts to implement the initiative successfully (and grow their instructional capacities in the process).

Given the rise of educational technology, this point is particularly germane. Current promises around adaptive classroom devices, personalized learning, and artificial intelligence for instruction are ubiquitous, and yet rarely are teachers, other educators, and students included in designing, developing, and creating scaling/implementation strategies for the digital “solutions.” No wonder 67 percent of purchased edtech products and software in the U.S. are not being used or having the intended effect in classrooms. Bringing end users into the process from the beginning is smart scaling.

Myth 3: Initiatives behave on their own, independent of the existing system

For many new education initiatives, “leap-frogging” and long-term benefits are promised but the difficulty of changing teacher practices and the challenges of adding new learning or work to an overloaded teacher are downplayed. In fact, we find that insufficient emphasis is put on understanding how forces from the school, community, and education ecosystem impact if and how educators will learn, practice, and implement an initiative. Teacher burnout and reform fatigue are real. Broader teaching conditions such as overcrowded classes, incongruous instructional materials, rigid student assessment systems, inadequate (or misguided) support from school leadership, and cultural views of teachers play active roles in how teachers respond to new innovations. It is often the miscalculation of forces outside the scaling model that sabotages a promising scaling plan.

Engaging school leaders through authentic orientation meetings—seeking their input along the way and inviting them to participate in trainings alongside teachers—will deepen the school-level commitment needed to ensure teachers can adopt the initiative. Embracing system views of education centralizes the holistic supports needed to promote change that gets down to the classroom-level and lasts the test of time. Scaling teams and professional development programs mindful of teacher workload and the need for teacher commitment—not control—will increase teacher buy-in.

Concluding thoughts

Additional myths persist: the myth that, once the value of the innovation or its mandatory nature is properly explained or demonstrated to a teaching faculty, teachers will automatically get on board; the myth that teachers participating in a training necessarily means that they’re engaging in the training; the myth that education policymakers or researchers always know better than teachers; and so on.

To honor World Teachers’ Day this year, we argue that authentically including teachers in the development, implementation, and scaling of education innovations—while messy, time-consuming, and humbling—pays long-term dividends by simultaneously developing innovations in more useful ways, harnessing the power of teachers to improve uptake and sustainability of scaling, and increasing teacher development in the process. But doing this requires replacing incorrect assumptions and myths about teachers in scaling with more accurate, agentive ones.