August 15, 2017

Cultivating Classroom Capabilities

By Transcend

What are the limits to your classroom’s capabilities?

The beginning of a new school year provides a great opportunity for teachers to step back and reflect on the accomplishments of previous years. As a classroom, what were we able to achieve? Where did we fall short? What changes do we hope to make?

While teachers strive to make improvements from year to year, forward progress can eventually stall. This may be in part due to the very design of our classrooms. As the old adage states: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”


This question is particularly relevant as our goals for our students, our classrooms, and our schools are more ambitious than ever. Transcend outlines “8 Great Leaps” toward change that challenge educators to consider how to pursue broader, more holistic outcomes for every student in more flexible, collaborative, and interconnected learning environments. However, achieving these goals will require educators to think about their classrooms in new ways, and actively work towards cultivating new capabilities.

Thinking about a classroom as an organization can help educators pursue greater capabilities.

A factory designed to build a Model T will never be able to build a next generation spaceship. Similarly, the classrooms of yesterday will never be able to achieve the goals we have for our students today and tomorrow. Achieving new capabilities requires changes to the organization itself.

Organizational theorists have long been interested in understanding organizational capabilities — that is, what an organization is able to achieve. An organization is a group of people who work together for a shared purpose. By that definition, a classroom can be thought of as an organization: teachers and students work together to learn and grow. Harvard Business School Professors Clayton Christensen and Stephen Kaufman (2008) propose that a set of three factors determines an organization’s capabilities: resources, processes, and priorities. Consequently, we can begin to understand a classroom’s capabilities by examining the classroom through this lens.


A classroom’s resources may be easily identified as the physical resources available, such as curricular materials, furniture, and space. That said, there is also a wealth of less tangible resources — human resources, for example. Classrooms also have social resources embedded in their members’ ability to work together to think about and solve problems. Each classroom member also has cultural resources based in part on their experience of the world. Additionally, families can serve as invaluable resources as they play active roles in designing and supporting their students’ learning environments. Whether these resources are brought to bear to increase a classroom’s capabilities depends on the classroom’s processes and priorities.


Processes generally refer to an organization’s ways of converting resources into something of greater value. Classroom processes may include participation structures, assessment methods, and classroom routines. A classroom resource may go underutilized unless there is an intentional process designed to leverage it. For example, a student’s experiences and perspectives will not increase a classroom’s capabilities unless there is a process for her to share them. The potential social capital among students and teachers will go untapped unless there are collaborative processes to make them come to life. The resources we identify and the processes we design will ultimately be determined by our priorities.


Our priorities, and those of our school and community, tend to filter what we see as resources and impact the processes we design and use. A teacher who prioritizes collaboration is far more likely to identify students’ knowledge, perspectives, and problem-solving abilities as resources, and create collaborative processes to take full advantage of them. While we make some of our priorities explicit, it’s possible that other, more hidden priorities drive some of our decision making. For example, we may say we prioritize creativity, but we may also prioritize efficiency. While it’s possible to have both of these priorities at the same time, the extent to which each one is expressed will have an impact on the resources we leverage and the processes we design and use.


What would a focus on resources, processes, and priorities look like for a real teacher in a real classroom? Imagine a middle school mathematics teacher who entered the teaching profession for the opportunity to ignite passion in students and help them discover themselves, and their world, through mathematics. She always imagined her classroom as a place where students would work enthusiastically on meaningful problems that captivated their imaginations while building confidence as learners and leaders. Unfortunately, in its current design, it’s unlikely that her classroom is capable of achieving any of these things. She tries to give students interesting problems to work on, but students never find them as interesting as she does. Students seem drained, and it frequently feels like she’s working ten times harder than they are. While she encourages students to work together, the collaborative spark remains evasive. As she begins preparing for her next unit, she considers how changes in her resources, processes, and priorities can cultivate new capabilities for her classroom.

Let’s imagine that she teaches in a school that identifies student autonomy, curiosity, and collaborative problem-solving as significant priorities for every classroom. In spite of this, she acknowledges that her unit on probability and statistics fails to reflect those priorities. The unit mostly consists of students working independently on several word problems and then reviewing the solutions as a full class. However, since she has explicitly identified her priorities, she will be able to see resources where she otherwise may have not.

Through the lens of her and her school’s priorities, she is able to look beyond the physical resources of her classroom and see several less tangible resources. For example, she identifies her students’ creativity and emerging collaborative skills as valuable resources to tap for this unit. Rather than having students work independently through a unit designed with the limits of her own imagination, she chooses to leverage the creative and collaborative resources of her students to generate interesting questions whose answers require probability and statistics. As it turns out, students realize that questions dealing with probability and statistics are all around them. (What are the odds that they can make it to school without hitting any red lights? What are their friends’ top lunch choices today, and what should the cafeteria stock up on for next week?) As students are tasked with generating questions, the work of the classroom starts extending beyond the class period; students begin to “see” math all around them. Rather than defining the key problems for her students to explore, she has small groups of students exercise autonomy by choosing the questions that are most interesting to them.

Knowing that creativity and collaborative skills are resources that have previously been underutilized in her classroom, she considers new processes to ensure their effective application. By developing processes for feedback and refinement, students benefit from the resource of other students’ creativity and perspectives. For example, she creates a process where the final 15 minutes of class are spent having student groups present to each other on their progress and offer each other feedback. She may also build in processes for student teams to reflect on their own goals and working agreements, ensuring that the classroom is fully benefiting from the resource of the collaborative potential of all of the students.

Rather than her previous assessment process of individual exams, the teacher creates new processes where students present their work to their class and other stakeholders, make videos explaining how complex questions can be explored using mathematics, or create a website that solicits additional questions from the school community for the class to explore next. In stark contrast to students working independently on word problems, these shifts in resources, processes, and priorities give students the opportunity to use their own creativity to actively shape their experience and produce products that are far more sophisticated and meaningful. Ultimately, rethinking how resources, processes, and priorities come together allowed new capabilities to be cultivated. While still not perfect, these new capabilities help the classroom take a giant leap toward the teacher’s and school’s aspirational vision for every classroom.

All of our classrooms consist of resources, processes, and priorities, whether they are explicit and intentional or not. Taken together, these factors determine what our classroom organizations are capable of achieving. The ambitious goals we have for our students may require classroom capabilities that extend above and beyond their current state. We must consider the necessary changes to the priorities we express, the resources we identify, and the processes we design in order to cultivate classroom capabilities our students deserve.

By guest author, Dr. Zachary Herrmann. Zachary is a Director and Lecturer at The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He received his Doctor of Education Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017. He is a former math teacher who researches and writes about teacher development, leadership, innovation, and creative problem solving. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.


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