December 21, 2022

Justin Reich, Author & Associate Professor at MIT

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #92

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Justin Reich, author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education. Reich is also an associate professor of digital media, as well as the Director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Justin sat down with Sam and discussed how teachers learn, how technology can enhance the learning process as well as our lives, and what private sector companies can be doing to be assistive inside of the public school systems.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Reich shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Learning takes practice.”
  • “Education domesticates new technologies.”
  • “There are lots of ways to improve the human experience through education.”


Sam: So, I guess outta the gate, what’s a learning scientist?  

Justin: Learning scientists are people who study how humans learn. That’s kind of obvious. A lot of times when people describe what kind of scientist they are, it can be a little hard for people on the outside to follow because we’re actually talking about what community we’re part of. I’ll give you a quick history of that, which is for a long time the people who studied how folks learn were psychologists, particularly the field of cognitive psychology and psychologists came out of this tradition where it said all brains are universal, they’re evolutionary, they operate in the same way everywhere.

So because that’s true, we can just find like undergraduates and bring them to laboratories and give them learning tasks, and we can study learning that way. And people have discovered interesting things there. But there are a bunch of folks who said, ‘there are some common features of all brains, but actually people are culturally pretty different and the environments that we learn in matter a ton for the experience we have learning.’ You can’t actually take a bunch of undergraduates and run little cognitive tests one at a time in a lab and have that necessarily translate into research that’s gonna help teachers in a classroom with 26 kids do what they do. 

So learning scientists are kind of a community of people who study learning and they’re particularly interested in the messiness of learning. They have a little bit of a suspicion of studying what happens in labs, and they’re more interested in saying, ‘let’s build stuff and let’s bring it into real classrooms or real online environments with real people who have something they’re trying to learn and study what learning looks like in those contexts.’

Sam: I was reading up on the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and you gotta tell us a little bit more about it. I mean, it sounds like some pretty wild stuff. I love the work. I was a former football coach, so when I keep hearing the word practice bouncing around and especially practice for teachers, I thought that was awesome.

Justin: Yeah. So at the Teaching Systems Lab, we aspire to design, implement, and research the future of teacher learning. Most people that study education technology are interested in how students learn, which is great, but we are interested in how teachers learn, and a really unusual feature of how K through 12 teachers in this country are trained is that when they learn, they listen to people talk about teaching and sometimes they talk with each other about teaching, but in their learning experience, they very rarely do teaching. They go to seminar classes, do readings and discuss them, and then we put them in front of 26 kids who need to learn how to factor polynomials this week. 

We know for sure, like as a football coach, that learning takes practice. It’s a little bit like we said to these teachers, ‘well, you can either watch some game film or you can try that next week against the Patriots, or that’s it.’ And of course, football players will be like, ‘that’s ridiculous, we need an environment where we can do low stakes, high repetition practice, where we can abstract the way some of the complexity of a real situation and just focus on particular moments.’

A great thing that athletic coaches will do is they’ll say, ‘let’s just have the linemen focus on their piece, or let’s just have the runners run their routes and let’s get good at these components without all the reality. Let’s take away some of that complexity and get good at components,’ and then that’s what lets us integrate them.

Teachers very rarely have those kinds of learning opportunities, and so we’re trying to build them. So we create practice spaces, learning environments inspired by games and simulations that let teachers rehearse for and reflect on important decisions in teaching, often doing things that look less like scrimmages and more like drills. So our simulations tend to be ‘less go ahead and teach a full 15 minute mini lesson to kids’, which is a good thing for teachers to do periodically, but as time consuming and it’s hard to do a lot. We try to do more things that are along the lines of, ‘here are three conversational turns with a kid. Here’s a student expressing a really interesting misconception.’ Or you just watch a colleague say something to her class that really comes off as racist to you, or or prejudiced in some kind of way. Like what exactly do you do at that moment? What do other people do at that moment, and how can we learn from those kinds of practice experiences? 

Sam: What’s the biggest learning so far from the experience? 

Justin: I think we’re pretty optimistic that these kinds of practice-based approaches can be feasibly integrated into people’s learning experiences. So part of what we have to figure out as learning scientists is like we can’t make the ideal learning experience for the ideal context, like a teacher learning doesn’t have a VR headset lying around and they don’t have hours that they can practice. The things that we build, we often think about, can we get them to work in a mobile phone so you can do them on the bus as you’re commuting to work? Is it gonna fit into the 25 minute prep period that you might have while you’re at your school? Or can you do it with your other assignments? 

So we have to try to make things feasible. A lot of the institutions that do teacher learning in the United States are not particularly technologically sophisticated or have a ton of resources, and so we try to keep the front end of our technology very simple.

So we’ve asked a bunch of questions like, if we want to help really immerse you into a classroom scenario, do we need video or can we do it with images? Can we do it with text? You know, some of the things we find, for instance, if you’re teaching math teachers, If you want to get them really in the head of a student having a really realistic image of a piece of homework or classroom that they might be working on. That might be more important than seeing an image or having a video of a kid explaining things. What feels really authentic is like, yep, I’ve definitely seen kids make that kind of really funny misconception. So some of what we’re trying to figure out is like, what are the markers of authenticity that really help people get into a role?

And then a really challenging thing about helping people be better teachers is there are some things in teaching where we know for sure that certain approaches are good or certain moves are effective or ineffective. But there are lots of things where there’s not one obvious clear right answer. And when you’re having people practice, it’s not to tell them, ‘oh, you did this right or you did this wrong.’ It’s to help them say, ‘okay, they’re like really smart teachers and people whose research teaching have thought of three or four kinds of things that might work in this particular moment. Which one did you think would work in this scenario and why? What did your colleagues think would work and why?’ 

And different fields are like that. There’s probably some of the companies that work in customer service, they might say, ‘okay, for a particular kind of hostile interaction, we really just want you to follow, like this kind of script to get past that.’ And then, in this kind of practice environment, you could evaluate people like, ‘okay, did they do the script that we tell them to do or not?’ And there’s probably other things where you might say, ‘okay, for this kind of challenge, there’s really like one of a few ways of being able to resolve it. And we want you to use your judgment, your own personality, what the customer is saying or doing.’ Some teaching challenges kind of tend to fall into those two broad categories. And so some of our research is figuring out how do you practice for things where we know where there’s a right answer and how do you practice for things where we’re not sure that there’s a right answer.

Sam: I just can’t help but think as you’re talking, Justin, that there are managers and leaders throughout the workforce who may realize it or not, but they are teachers as well. Every day, you run a restaurant and you are the general manager and you’re responsible for teaching, coaching, developing back of house people, front of house people, bartenders.

If you work in a sales environment, the management role has the responsibility of coaching and development. Unfortunately, in our workforce today, in all industries, we don’t always promote the best teacher into that management role. Oftentimes it might be the best executor who gets that promotion and then is then put in a position to teach, coach, develop, train, and so on.

Have you had any thoughts around application into a workforce setting? Again, given the fact that you’re so intimately involved with coaching teachers.

Justin: Yeah, we have some, I mean, certainly what you’re describing, there’s a colleague of mine here at MIT, his name is Peter Senge. He wrote a pretty well known management book in the nineties called The Fifth Discipline, and one of the things that he introduced there was the idea of effective firms as learning organizations that the twin roles of any firm is to do whatever the thing that the firm is doing, but also to make sure that everyone in the institution is learning as they’re doing it. That’s just the exact same way of saying what you’re saying. 

And maybe a second piece to reflect on is, I think management theorists are increasingly realizing, we see this in education too, that it makes sense that no one would be a great executor and a great strategist, and a great communicator and a great teacher. None of us have all of those domains, and so one of the most important roles that leaders have is being able to say, ‘okay, of all these things that our firm needs, which of them am I good at and I’ll do, and which of them am I not good at and I need to hire other people on my management team?’ It’s fine if the general manager is not a good teacher, as long as the assistant to the general manager or there’s someone in this system who can take on those roles. And ideally all of us in learning leadership positions are also able to say things like, ‘look, I’m not coming at this as a great communicator, but these are the ways that you can visibly see me trying to get better at these kinds of things’. 

We’ve thought a little bit about the application of our technologies to other domains. Part of how we stay mission driven though is not reaching out in too many other places. I work with a group of people who just care a ton about public schooling, particularly in the United States. And every morning we wake up and we say to ourselves, what’s the work that we’re gonna do today that’s gonna be of service to teachers, and help them do a better job serving the kids that we care so much about? And it’s that focus that I think helps bring us energy and a sense of community and a sense of boundaries about what we can accomplish. So we have some ideas about how we might take some of the practice spaces that we’ve done and commercialize them in other sectors and things like that, but probably the teaching systems lab will really stay focused on the group we’re most interested in. 

But I will say that because we work in a research environment. everything that we make is open sourced and openly licensed, and people can take what we’re doing and do anything. If anybody in listening now wants to go to is one of our digital clinical simulation platforms, and anybody’s free to play around with anything that’s there. And then also like the code base for it is openly licensed. And if somebody else wants to make a version of teacher moments that’s for restaurant managers you’re they’re more than welcome to. 

Sam: Very cool. I’m glad you brought up the mission cuz you know your latest book, which is a great one called Failure to Disrupt, why Tech Alone Can’t Transform Education, I think a lot of people were very surprised during coming outta the pandemic and during the pandemic around how much technology is at our fingertips and around us, but maybe wasn’t solving the problems or more problems were emerging, even throughout and now on the other side of it. I guess can you give everybody a little background into why you wrote the book? 

Justin: Yeah. Over the past two decades, there have been a group of education technology evangelists who have been promising that we were right on the edge, right on the cusp of a dramatic transformation in society where new technologies were gonna enable very different kinds of teaching and learning in the future. And I had spent enough time in the field of education to be pretty sure that that was not true. Education technology evangelists are optimistic that new technologies will disrupt education, but instead what happens is education domesticates new technologies, education takes new technologies and say, ‘oh, you might be able to help us do this particular piece over here. This thing that we’re kinda already doing, you might help us do it a little bit better’. 

There’s a way in which, under some circumstances, people being hopeful and optimistic about new tech can be harmless. But if you’re actually really successful in that role, if you can convince people that you’re right, then you can get them to spend a lot of money to invest a lot of people’s time. The time of our educators is very, very precious. Every minute that we have them spending rearranging their curriculum or trying new technologies is a minute that they’re not spending coaching kids or reaching out to families or providing feedback. So the opportunity costs of kind of fruitless explorations of technology are significant.

And so part of what I was trying to do is to create a model where people can say, look, we can improve teaching and learning with technology, but it’s not gonna look like disruptive change. It’s gonna look more like continuous improvement. It’s gonna look like tinkering and a complex system, which has to accomplish a lot of different things. 

Sam: Seems more realistic.

Justin: That’s the hope.

Sam: As you think about technology that again, is not maybe quote, “transformative,” can you help tie that maybe again to the workforce space where people are making decisions every day around technology impacting their people. And given your work and some of your talking some of the discussions you’ve had around technology that has maybe not made access more equitable to more people maybe gone in the opposite direction. What should you be thinking about whether you’re an administrator at a school or a HR leader inside of an organization when you invest in technology that affects your people? What should you be thinking about? 

Justin: Man, that’s a great question. And I don’t know that I’ve thought about it a ton, and it it strikes me as you’re saying that there has not, as I understand it, while people have been sort of my mind unreasonably optimistic about how schools will change, I don’t sense the same sort of transformative rhetoric in workplace learning.

I don’t hear people in workplace learning saying like, ‘we’re right on the cusp of being able to supercharge our employees, what used to take them years to train for is now gonna take hours.’ One thing that I do fear, and it’s part of a broader context, a thing which I do think happens in workplace learning is in all kinds of ways firms in the United States are trying to transfer risk onto individuals.

So this was like the shift from defined benefit pension plans, defined contribution 401 k plans. Kind of everyone’s on their own. You can see a parallel happen in workplace learning where I think there used to be more of an expectation, like, if you come and join the firm, we’re gonna teach you how to be a participant in the firm.

And now there’s more of a sense of like, all right guys, you gotta go out there and get your own education and come to us prepared. And that’s a bit like a firm sort of de-risking, taking responsibility that they used to hold as cultural institutions and say, all right, individuals, you gotta figure that out on their own.

So I’m sort of optimistic, there are lots of ways to improve the human experience through education. There are lots of ways that technology can help improve that experience. And people work for lots of reasons. Because they get money. They work because they get benefits. They work because they care about what they do, and they work because we learn stuff working. And if we can make that richer and more rewarding, I think education can be a powerful part of a good job strategy. And that can be good for firms, that can be good for a firm’s bottom line, but it can also be good for society for people to say like, ‘oh, it would be great if as we leave school, we leave university, we leave trade school, we go to places where we say, oh, neat, the very best institutions in society are gonna be ones where I can expect as an employee to continue my learning and growth.’  

Sam: It makes me think of the, what’s the line, that you’re supposed to send the ladder back down? And I bring that up because so many organizations, if there’s a “labor shortage,” which we need a whole different session to argue about that position, but if we’re talking about labor, thinking about organizations are maybe have a responsibility in contributing to the K12 higher learning environments, sharing what they’re learning down to maybe affect or assist teachers. 

I work in Newark, I sit on the Workforce Development Board and I hear all day long this hope of trying to connect education with workforce programs. How do you connect education with community, private sector companies and with policy makers to bring about change? From your vantage point, are there things that private sector companies can be doing to be assistive inside of the public school systems?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. There’s very exciting stuff. A lot of thoughts are going through my head. Can private firms be helpful? Absolutely. Probably easier to do in bigger cities where most larger cities have some kind of business collaborative that has some sort of experience interfacing with the public school system.

So, in Boston, I think we are the Boston Private Industry Council. Other cities will have other kinds of institutions and they’re matchmaking institutions where there are certain schools in the system that say, Here are the ways that we’re gonna create vocational tracks, sometimes directly through vocational schools where kids choose to go to that kind of school and through high school, but there’s also lots of high schools that are trying to make sure that career and technical education, internships, those kinds of things are made available. And again, I think companies can really benefit from getting early access to potential employees, finding out who are compelling people.

But then I also just think depending upon your firm, lots of people in a firm will be like, ‘Hey, having young people around and teaching them our trade and having them learn it is satisfying. And like young people are extraordinarily talented and it’s nice having them around and they help us get work done and they’re learning and getting credit,’ and all these kinds of good things.

There are national organizations, one called NAF. I think it’s one of those organizations that used to be an acronym and now they just mostly go by NAF. But I think particularly in places that don’t have quite the same metropolitan density, they’re a good organization for helping schools and firms figure out how they connect with one another. But I think firms should also always feel free to reach out to their local high school principal, their local superintendent, most schools and districts have kind of community liaison officers of one kind or another to connect. Yeah, it’s very promising.

And the piece I wanted to mention about the pandemic is, one of the things that kind of happened during the pandemic was a lot of schools kind of reorganized themselves a bit to say, ‘all right, we’re gonna do all of our classwork online in a more concentrated way in the mornings, cuz we know a lot of our high schoolers are just going out and getting jobs, so let’s give them the afternoon to do that.’

And I think schools are a little bit more open to alternate schedules that would have a really early release on Wednesday and Friday that would let people do a 12-6, 1-7 sort of work shift. So lots of models exist. I think one thing that’s a bit challenging, in the United States we have 13,000 different school districts. That’s sort of like 13,000 agencies that organize these kinds of relationships. And to some extent it makes sense that the kinds of partnerships that are gonna emerge in Boston, Massachusetts, a huge thing we have to figure out is, how are we gonna get young people in our cities to get into our huge growing biotech industry?

That’s not the same challenge that’s in Newark. It’s certainly not the same challenge that would be in Burlington, Vermont or in small and mid-size cities in lots of places. So it’s a very local problem. I think it’s a frontier in education where lots of cities have made very interesting progress over the last couple decades.

Sam: I just love the work. Justin. We’re living in a time where so much of the talk around technology is how you maybe automate a process, not necessarily augment it, and the fact that your program is in many ways about coaching and developing teachers and using technology to do that, to build around a concept of repetition and practice, I just think that’s awesome. I think there’s just so much that workforce leaders can take from that as they think about developing their frontline managers who might be the next senior manager within their organization. And coming down to having a respect for process and practice and coaching and feedback is so powerful.

Justin: That’s great.

Sam: Justin, last question for you before we wrap. Future of work. You’ve heard that term a lot, I’m sure, over the years. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Justin: So, well, I think some of the best science about the future of work is that humans are gonna do the kinds of things that computers are not good at. The two things that computers really are not very good at are solving ill structured problems. Computers are good when you know what the inputs are and what the outputs are that you want, they’re much less good when you have no idea what the solution might be. And then computers are not very good at complex and persuasive kinds of communication. Those still remain the domains of humans. 

So as an educator, as I think about preparing young people for the future of work, I think about how we give them the skills to do ill structured problem solving and to do complex communication. My hopes for the future of work are that we really think about what is the kind of livable, sustainable society that we wanna live in. The winters in Burlington, Vermont, a little bit north of here are seven degrees warmer Fahrenheit on average than they were 30 years ago. So we need a future of work which can lead to a livable planet, and we wanna have a future of work where people don’t feel themselves trapped in wage slavery and rat race, but feel like what they’re working towards is a more humane civilization where people lead better lives. A line that I heard recently was, we got sold the idea that a really magical future would be one where we all have like private airplanes, but maybe like a really magical future is actually one where we all have awesome public transportation and good healthcare and nice vacations and the work that we do find is meaningful to one another. And not every individual firm can do that by itself. But we can all be thinking to ourselves, how would we create work environments in which the work that we’re doing together feels like it’s a livable and sustainable vision of the future.

Sam: Justin, thanks for taking the time.

Justin: It’s my pleasure, Sam. Best of luck. 

Sam: Thanks.

Topics Discussed: Hourly Workers, Leadership, Automation, Talent Development

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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