Analysis: Choosing Classroom Materials Is Complicated. Here’s What Principals and District Leaders Can Do to Support Teachers

(RAND Corporation)

Even pre-pandemic, teachers were creative when choosing instructional materials to use with students. When presented with a recommended or even required curriculum, RAND research has found, teachers exercised great autonomy in modifying teaching materials and finding additional resources to supplement them.

So, what do teachers want when it comes to instructional materials, particularly now?

Knowing the answer to this question can help district and school leaders select online materials that teachers are more likely to use and guide curriculum developers to create resources with these features in mind. As many districts face the likelihood of continuing online schooling, part- or full-time, for many more months, the answer is more important than ever.

To find out, we recently conducted a survey and interview study of middle and high school English language arts and mathematics teachers through the American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS) Project and learned that the most valued instructional materials have three key dimensions: they are engaging and appropriately challenging for students, and easy to use for teachers.

Of course, engaging, challenging and easy to use can all be defined in different ways. Here’s how the teachers defined each term:

Engaging: The teachers described engaging materials as appropriately challenging for students — neither frustratingly difficult or too easy — and are interactive or collaborative. Games, quizzes and hands-on activities are especially sought. Materials connected to the real world and to students’ interests ­— say, using a baseball-related example to work through a math problem ­— are also important. In addition, the teachers said they value multicultural content, to make sure all students are represented, and that the visual appeal of content is critical; web pages that are too busy or dense can disengage students easily.

Appropriately challenging: The teachers prefer materials that progress in difficulty and/or have entry points for students of different skill levels (“scaffolded”). This way, students can build to a higher level of difficulty as they progress. Teachers said materials should be written in contemporary English, feature text that matches students’ vocabulary levels and focus on appropriately mature topics and themes. But they shouldn’t overwhelm students with too much information.

Usable: Teachers especially prefer digital resources that are easily accessible — a tough find, as engaging materials such as quizzes and activities are prone to technical difficulties or don’t always work on all devices. They also said they appreciate different options for advanced students and those who struggle, including those learning English. Finally, the teachers noted that they looked for materials that are editable or easy to modify according to their classroom formats (online or print) and their own students’ needs.

In the survey and interviews, teachers reinforced the idea that they regard themselves not as passive curriculum implementers, but as active educational decisionmakers. They often talked about making choices about what materials to use or how to modify or supplement them based on the characteristics of their students, class, school and community (student interests, proportion of English learners, school priorities for the year, current events).

So how can principals and district leaders best support their dedicated, knowledgeable and independent-minded teaching workforce in materials selection? The findings in our study suggest there are five things to try:

  • Prioritize the three characteristics. Consider engagement, appropriateness of challenge and usability when helping to select materials.
  • Elicit teacher input. Teachers usually know what they want and need for their students, so include them in materials previews or piloting.
  • Remember that diversity can support student engagement. How well do the materials address diverse students’ interests and experiences? Consider developing a library or list of supplemental materials that are connected to students’ interests and cultural backgrounds and, if needed, find ways to support teachers in integrating content that students identify with.
  • Support teachers by providing guidance on how they can supplement and modify required and recommended materials so they are accessible to all students. This can be done through professional development. Schools and districts can develop guidelines to help teachers find or modify high-quality supplemental materials while ensuring academic rigor. Teaching coaches can provide guidance on differentiation.
  • Find materials that invite modification. Finding easily editable materials for your teaching staff can lessen the time they need to spend on this task. Of course, online accessibility right now is especially important: While teachers prefer easily accessible digital materials in the time of school shutdowns, they may also need to know whether all their students have secure, reliable technological devices and network access.

Elaine L. Wang is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Also contributing to this essay were Andrea Prado Tuma, an associate social scientist, and Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher, at RAND.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation provide financial support tothe American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS) Project and The 74.

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