Walking Encyclopedias, Cash Clerks and Nose Wipers

Two months ago, a colleague shared with me a T-shirt describing a long list of responsibilities horrifying in scope and scale. Including roles such as 'petty cash clerk, walking encyclopedia, scapegoat and nose wiper', the T-Shirt comically concluded that "You can just call me a Teacher!" I laughed, but as an education professional who has worked closely with schools, the joke's implicit thesis haunted me.

In 2000, Newcastle University published a medical education guide which split the profession of a teacher-not into one, two or three roles but into twelve different ones. Outside of classroom instruction, teacher responsibilities have historically ranged from assessing performance to mentoring students and even managing the expectations of overeager parents. But I began to question this status quo, for how could any single human being however talented realistically manage all of these responsibilities at once?

After discussing with education colleagues, I also soon realized that the theory behind bundling so many teacher responsibilities lacked sound foundations. For instance, the statistical knowledge necessary for a strong academic assessor are unrelated to the content-delivery skills necessary for a good lecturer. I began to wonder: as a member of the education community, did we actually allow specialization-the great paradigm shift of the 20th century-to skip the teaching profession? If so, how do we apply this innovation as effectively and appropriately as possible for teachers, and for which responsibilities?

Positively, the role of a teacher has already begun unbundling, particularly in content creation. Textbooks are often developed by education companies in collaboration with education ministries. Meanwhile, edtech start-ups such as Khan Academy are centrally producing content.

While leading investments at the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, I frequently visited schools and saw teachers struggle with the demands placed upon them. In response, we invested in SPARK Schools, a South African school-chain, which reduces the load on teachers by leveraging adaptive online instruction. Despite having a digital component to its instruction, SPARK prioritized teacher training as much as any school, offering 300+ hours of teacher training per year. This has paid heavy dividends for SPARK in the form of improved academic performance relative to peer schools in Capetown and Johannesburg.

At SPARK and other innovative schools, I have seen first-hand how the teachers and students benefit from more professional development and less time on secondary duties, which can and should be unbundled. I believe the teaching profession will continue to specialize and that accelerating this process will only improve learner outcomes more quickly.

Specialization led to increased productivity resulting in the industrial revolution. Why can't the same happen in education?

Disclaimer: I served as board observer for SPARK Schools from 2014 to 2015.