I will have a new book published by the end of this year called Confessions of a School Reformer. How an idea becomes a book even after all I have written, remains mysterious to me. In reconstructing the process which often means demystifying what occurs and making it appear linear and logical, I remain uncertain of exactly how I got the idea and how that idea morphed into a book proposal and then a contract with a publisher and voila!, the book appearing on my doorstep.
Here is what I believe occurred.
I had finished Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools (2020) and was thinking of my next project (yes, I need to have projects to look forward to). The theme of Chasing Success was how ideas of success and failure in public schools have a long history in American life and showed up repeatedly during three major reform movements that blanketed the 20th and 21st centuries. I wrote the book but I could not get these surges of reform that roiled the nation and schools, and to my surprise, my entire life, out of my head.
A century ago, the Progressive movement swept across the nation’s schools and faded away by the 1950s only to be followed by the widespread quest for equality central to the civil rights movement that then gave way in the late-1970s to business-inspired reforms tying school improvement to the nation’s changing economy. The latter efforts resulted in the standards, testing, and accountability reforms that have marked the closing years of the 20th century and have continued into the opening decades of the 21st century.
But I was stuck intellectually. I didn’t know what to do next. Slowly, I became unstuck as I began thinking of my life as a child, as a teacher, superintendent, and professor. I am in my late-80s and realized—not in any epiphany or dream—that I had actually experienced all three of these 20th century reform movements: I had attended elementary and secondary schools in the latter-years of the Progressive movement. I had been a history teacher during the civil rights era, and, finally, I served as a district superintendent during the early years of standards, testing, and accountability reforms, and then as a professor doing research on this reform movement that remains intact in 2021. Could I tie my personal experiences to these larger movements? Were my life experiences affected by these national reforms? The answers to these questions have become Confessions of a School Reformer.
How that sequence of events happened, however, remains mysterious to me.
And now I am trying to figure out what to do next. No dreams or epiphanies have yet occurred. But I do know that I want to write about the act of teaching because it has been central to my life as professional and as a person. I wanted to take a deep dive into teaching, its successes and failures, its uncertainties about outcomes for both teacher and students, and how it actually occurs daily in the nation’s classrooms.
I usually start with a big question that has no easy answer to it. I think a lot about that question and hope that the outline of a possible answer appears. It seldom does in any organized fashion. I have a few insights drawn from my direct experiences of teaching in high schools, leading university seminars, and teaching one-on-one with family members and friends. Also, over the past decades as a researcher in classrooms and schools, I have learned a great deal through observations and interviews. But how exactly to pull together all of that experiential and research-produced knowledge and say something that might illuminate the complex act of teaching for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and wannabe reformers, well, that continues to puzzle me.
So I sit at the dining room table surrounded by the best books in my home library about teaching to see if dipping into them and deciphering my notes on page margins, something will magically form in my mind and become my next project. So which books do I have on my table as I prepare to click away on my laptop?
*Williard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching (1932)
*Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968)
*Seymour Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971)
*Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975)
*Rebeccas Barr and Robert Dreeben, How Schools Work (1983)
*Richard Elmore, Penelope Peterson, Sarah McCarthey, Restructuring in the Classroom (1996)
*David Cohen and Heather Hill, Learning Policy (2001)
*Mary Kennedy, Inside Teaching (2005)
*Jack Schneider, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014)
Also staring back at me are histories of teachers and teaching in my home library that document both change and stability in classroom teaching over the past two centuries
Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984)
Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young (1989)
Richard Altenbaugh, The Teacher’s Voice (1992)
Kate Rousmaniere, City Teachers (1997)
I am sure that scholars and practitioners reading this post have in their home libraries different books or would point to some in public libraries about teachers and teaching that do not appear here. No surprise since there is much scholarship and personal accounts missing from my list that others would swear by. So be it. Yet this is how I start.
Perhaps there are shortcuts in shaping my next project to pose a serious, worthwhile question that sinks its hooks in me–as other projects have done–but I don’t have such time-savers or single click alternatives to outflank the mysterious and circuitous journey I have traveled in writing book then and now.
So faithful readers of this blog, you now have a sense of how I go about shaping a project that, I hope, will become my next book. Should you have suggestions for books and articles to read, please send them along.
Nearly all social studies lessons that I taught between the 1950s and 1970s contained at least one weekly lesson on “current events.” In these lessons, I tried to connect contemporary happenings to past events I was covering in my U.S. history and world history classes. Moreover, for at least five years, I used cut outs from Time magazine covers portraying world leaders in the 1950s–China’s Mao, Ghana’s Nkrumah, France’s De Gaulle–positioned on a wall ledge to link a particular event that occurred that week to those faces on Time covers.
By the mid-1960s, I had learned to incorporate national events (e.g., civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War) into U.S. historical topics such as slavery and Reconstruction and anti-war activism during the Mexican and Civil Wars. Even with those linkages, I still would set aside at least one weekly lesson to connect the past to the present by focusing on “current events” through newspaper articles, political cartoons, and local events in the city. And throughout those years, most other social studies teachers maintained a current events lesson (see here and here)
Looks like those kind of lessons, however, are waning. Except for those instances where national attention is riveted such as the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, or sexual harassment allegations against men in powerful positions as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, current events (data are scant on social studies and other subject matter teachers teaching such lessons) appear fleetingly in classrooms except in traditional Civics and Government courses required for high school graduation.
Current efforts (see here) to increase media literacy across the curriculum and combat “truth decay” are underway. Also there is support for schools and teachers to analyze media included in Common Core curriculum standards. Such efforts may (or may not) help resurrect “current events.”
When did current events lessons begin in social studies classrooms and why?
The Progressive school reforms of the early 20th century including the teaching of “Civics” in addition to traditional history courses. By the late-1920s, Civic courses were geared to not only understanding local, state, and federal governments but also to social action and solving community problems. Civics became the study of current happenings in American democracy. Ninth grade Civics courses in what were then called junior high schools became the norm by the 1930s as did senior high school course called Problems of Democracy (David Jeness, Making Sense of Social Studies (Macmillan 1990), pp. 84-88).
As for its ubiquity in social studies classrooms, in one late-1990s survey of National Council of Social Studies members , 95 percent of teachers said that teaching current events ranged from important to essential (Mary Haas and Margaret Laughlin, “Teaching Current Events: Its Status in Social Studies Today,” 2000), p. 11
What problems did “current events” in social studies try to solve?
In the early 1900s, traditional history courses were divorced from contemporary issues. That was the central problem according to Progressive educators. They sought to solve that problem by creating present-oriented “social studies” courses. The introduction of “social studies” courses into the curriculum was a reform aimed at getting students to become civically engaged. Progressives of the day wanted children and youth to connect history to contemporary social, political, and economic issues in order for them to understand what the pressing problems were and then to not only learn about them but even go about attacking them as students and later as adults. These reform-minded enthusiasts for civic learning depended upon teachers and textbooks (and later community service) to link the past to the present and do something constructive about persisting local and national issues (see here and here).
What are examples of current events lessons?
Teachers wrote into the New York Times about their current events lessons:
Kellyn McNamara, Charlotte, N.C., Middle and High School
I am designing an Earth and environmental science class in which students will connect a current event or issue to each unit’s content. For instance, for Unit 1, Earth as a Planet, students will explore the history of space exploration (and its funding), and prepare for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate in which they will argue either for federal funding of space exploration, or for privatized space exploration.
*Heidi Echternacht, Princeton, N.J., Elementary School
Our second-grade class explored community all year last year. First, we interviewed and drew portraits of each other in class. Then we interviewed people who worked at school and drew their portraits for a community art show. Next, we expanded into Princeton and toured the town, interviewing chefs, firefighters and the mayor, and had an art show in the town library featuring our interviews and portraits.
After that, the kids decided to invent their own town they called 2ndton. They wanted to have stores, use money and hold court to solve problems, so we did. They wanted to pay taxes, so we did that, too. We were going to have an election for mayor, but they decided against it in case people’s feelings got hurt. Finally, we started our own newspaper and wrote about topics ranging from biographies of people in the New Jersey Hall of Fame to national news about Donald Trump and the Women’s March. We reported world news, primarily through covering the Olympics. We had subscribers and delivery routes that were coordinated by students
*Elizabeth Misiewicz, Ridgefield, Conn., Middle School
Last year, my students wrote speeches on topics they were passionate about that they could tie to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They delivered these five- to six-minute speeches while also managing a Google slide presentation (like a true TED Talk!) before an audience of around 100 people made up of parents, teachers, staff and administrators.
As middle schoolers, my students are growing into their identities and trying to find their places in the world. This project essentially said to them, “Your opinions are important, and you deserve to be heard.”
*Larry Bowler Jr., Warrington, Pa., High School
A textbook cannot duplicate the current nature of politics and the global economy. As often as three times a week, my students read articles culled from The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. Traditional teaching via a textbook and testing does not engage the student of today with the tools they need to understand the ever-changing world. Students are into the now, and we as teachers must keep up with our charges, who are different learners from the ones we were as kids.
I hope to start the coming school year by letting my students know that the new normal of meanness and disrespect, from the president on down, is not, in fact, normal. Civility must be demonstrated in the classroom, if nowhere else.
Did teaching current events through civics and government courses and weekly lessons work?
Hardly. While there is scattered evidence that students who used magazines and newspapers in their social studies classes scored “significantly better” on the 1998 Civics National Assessment of Educational Progress than students who did not use such materials, that’s about it. Moreover, evidence is lacking for those students who have taken Civics and Government courses whether they were civically active either in school or after graduation.
While there is some evidence that education overall–that is, going to school for 13-plus years–may have such effects, no consensus has formed on the question (see here ). Finally, those periodic tests given to both students and adults about their knowledge of history, government, and civic duties over the past century continue to indict schools for lack of properly educating students about being civically engaged.
Why have current events lessons waned?
Beginning in the late-1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the movement to raise curriculum standards, increase testing, and hold teachers and schools accountable for standardized test results pressed U.S. educators to narrow the curriculum to what was tested (e.g., reading, math) and constrict other academic subjects including social studies (see Jennie Biser, “Current Events and the Classroom: An Investigation into Teachers’ Integration of Current Events in the Secondary Social Studies Classroom,” in “Studies in Teaching, 2008 Research Digest,” Wake Forest University, Department of Education, pp. 19-24).
Another reason–and I speculate here–is that some current subjects are controversial (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump Presidency, #MeToo) and many social studies teachers shy away from raising volatile issues in classroom lessons.
Dan Levin writes for the New York Times. “He was a foreign correspondent covering Canada from 2016 until 2018. From 2008 to 2015, Mr. Levin was based in Beijing, where he reported on human rights, politics and culture in China and Asia. @globaldan“This article appeared April 7, 2021.
At this point in the school year, Lacrissha Walton typically focuses her social studies lessons on the 50 U.S. states and their capitals. But last week, the Minneapolis teacher scrawled a question that had nothing to do with geography on her fourth-grade classroom’s whiteboard: “Have you watched the Derek Chauvin trial?”
While the murder trial of Mr. Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, might not appear to be age-appropriate instruction for 9-year-old students, Ms. Walton said she felt compelled to use the event as a teachable moment. All of her students had seen their city consumed by protests in the months that followed Mr. Floyd’s fatal arrest, and some had seen the widely circulated video, filmed by a teenager, that captured his violent, slow-motion death.
“No little kid should watch that,” Ms. Walton said. “But when it’s plastered all over the news, they have questions.”
In Minneapolis, educators have grappled over the last few weeks with how to address the trial with their students, with some using jury selection or witness testimony as an opportunity to explore the complex issues of race, policing and the criminal justice system. Teachers have cautiously given students the chance to ask questions and share their opinions during class. And school administrators and counselors have scheduled talking circles, where children can open up about how the trial has rekindled feelings of racial trauma and fears of potential unrest.
When Ms. Walton, who teaches at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, where most of the students are Black, asked her class what it knew about the trial, the children effortlessly explained who Mr. Chauvin was and his role in Mr. Floyd’s death. They knew that the person who runs the courtroom is called a judge, and their voices rang out in unison when asked to describe the 12 people who would render judgment: “the jury.”
After Ms. Walton asked which students thought Mr. Chauvin was guilty, plenty of small hands shot up. Asked why, a girl named Keyly laid out a devastating assessment of the defendant’s actions at the heart of the trial.
“He put his knee on George Floyd’s neck,” she said. “And George Floyd said he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe several times, and the police officer didn’t listen to him at all.”
Ms. Walton said she received approval from the school administration to show brief parts of the court proceedings in class, but because of the trial’s traumatic elements, she was careful to not let her students see and hear anything too graphic or disturbing.
Across Minneapolis, where nearly seventy percent of public school students are nonwhite, discussions about the trial have occurred in school classrooms and online learning. Kristi Ward, the principal for third through eighth graders at Lake Nokomis Community School, said months of conversations about racial justice, along with the city’s more recent efforts to fortify the courthouse, made it impossible to ignore. And so she has worked with her staff on developing ways to prompt meaningful discussions with their students, who are 60 percent white, even if difficult questions are raised.
“We have to engage even if we’re uncomfortable and we don’t have the answers,” she said. “I’m telling them to stay on top of the trial to make sure they’re understanding the facts, and then just leaning into the conversation rather than pulling away.”
Tom Lachermeier, who teaches social studies at North Community High School, where the student population is 90 percent Black, called the trial “living history.” Mr. Floyd’s death, he said, rippled among those who attend the school, located in a neighborhood long ensnared by poverty and the city’s worst gang violence.
After the Minneapolis school board voted in June to end its contract with the Police Department, North Community High’s head football coach, Charles Adams, lost his day job as the school’s in-house police officer. Mr. Lachermeier acknowledged that many schools around the country have avoided the court proceedings entirely, but he said that as a white man, he knew he had to address the trial with his students.
“Me not saying anything about it says a lot,” he said. Before the trial, he covered the daily proceedings of jury selection during class time, and listened as many of his students expressed fears that Mr. Chauvin would be acquitted. Students have been on spring break since the trial began, but he said he discussed the first days of it with the softball players he coached.
Kyree Wilson, 16, a junior in Mr. Lachermeier’s United States history class, said those lessons motivated her to watch hours of the trial on YouTube during her time off from school. “It’s a real eye-opener,” she said of the trial, and the cases outlined by the defense lawyers and prosecutors, though the gut-wrenching witness accounts were “kind of hard to sit through.”
As Mr. Floyd was facedown on the pavement, handcuffed, Kyree was two blocks away, passing out fliers for a modern dance company, she said. She could hear the commotion from the growing crowd that had gathered, though she did not learn about what had happened until she returned home later that day. Over the summer, she attended protests, and she said she hoped that Mr. Chauvin was found guilty.
But the more Kyree has learned from the trial, the more she has become convinced that a conviction would do little to stop police brutality, she said. “The justice system is very broken and it’s used against African-Americans,” she said. “This situation makes me afraid of adulthood and growing up in America.”
Although the trial commenced while Lake Nokomis Community School in South Minneapolis was on spring break, Amanda Martinson, a sixth-grade math teacher, said her students knew it would soon begin. So she devoted some time in class to address their questions and concerns, she said, recalling some who mentioned the helicopters flying over the city, and a video sent by one student of military vehicles driving down their street.
“A lot of our students are nervous about what might happen throughout this trial because of everything that happened after George Floyd” was killed, Ms. Martinson said. “Kids are afraid of fires, and loud noises at night, and any kind of unrest.”
In Ms. Walton’s fourth-grade class, the trial has also served to impart lessons on important civic concepts like the right to protest and the workings of the court system. “One day they might have jury duty,” she said. “So you’re entitled to your opinion but when you’ve got to work with 11 other people, how are you going to do that?”
Shortly after class ended one day last week, Janiyah, 9, said her mother took her to a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. She described a mix of anger and sadness that she said she felt when she learned how Mr. Floyd had died. Though she has not seen the video of his fatal arrest or spoken to her mother about Mr. Chauvin’s trial, Janiyah grasped the outsize impact it could have in the nation’s fight for racial justice.
“I really hope they watch it,” Janiyah said of police officers who might have a fatal encounter with a Black person, “and then understand that one of the costs is they might go to jail.”
I posted this on my blog six years ago. At that time it grew out of a conversation with a friend* about twoposts I published detailing my failures as a teacher with certain students I have had over the years. He has practiced Family Medicine for over a half-century in Pittsburgh and for years helped resident physicians in doing medical research and worked with hospital residents in improving communication with patients. He pointed out to me how similar teachers making mistakes and experiencing failures with students is to physicians erring in diagnoses or treatments (or both) of their patients.
I was surprised at his making the comparison and then began to think about the many books I have read about medicine and the art and science of clinical practice. In my library at home, I had two with well-thumbed pages authored by doctors who, in the first dozen pages, detailed mistakes either they had made with patients or errors committed by other physicians on them or their families.
In one, Jerome Groopman, an oncologist, described what occurred with his 9-month old child after a series of doctor misdiagnoses that almost caused his son’s death. A surgeon, who was a friend of a friend, was called in at the last moment to fix an intestinal blockage and saved his son.
In the other book, surgeon Atul Gawande described how he almost lost an Emergency Room patient who had crashed her car when he fumbled a tracheotomy only for patient to be saved by another surgeon who successfully got the breathing tube inserted. Gawande also has a chapter on doctors’ errors. His point, documented by a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (1991) and subsequent reports is that nearly all physicians err.
If nearly all doctors make mistakes, do they talk about them? With people they trust, yes. In public, that is, with other doctors in academic hospitals, the answer is also yes. There is an institutional mechanism where hospital doctors meet weekly called Morbidity and Mortality Conferences (M & M for short) where, in Gawande’s words, doctors “gather behind closed doors to review the mistakes, untoward events, and deaths that occurred on their watch, determine responsibility, and figure out what to do differently (p. 58).” He describes an M & M (pp.58-64) at his hospital and concludes: “The M & M sees avoiding error as largely a matter of will–staying sufficiently informed and alert to anticipate the myriad ways that things can go wrong and then trying to head off each potential problem before it happens” (p. 62). Protected by law, physicians air their mistakes without fear of malpractice suits.
Nothing like that for teachers in U.S. schools. Sure, privately, teachers tell one another how they goofed with a student, misfired on a lesson, realized that they had provided the wrong information, or fumbled the teaching of a concept in a class. Of course, there are scattered, well-crafted professional learning communities in elementary and secondary schools where teachers feel it is OK to admit they make mistakes and not fear retaliation. They can admit error and learn to do better the next time. In the vast majority of schools, however, no analogous M & M exists (at least as far as I know).
Of course, there are substantial differences between doctors and teachers. For physicians, the consequences of their mistakes might be lethal or life-threatening. Not so, in most instances, for teachers. But also consider other differences:
*Doctors see patients one-on-one; teachers teach groups of 20 to 35 students four to five hours a day.
*Most U.S. doctors get paid on a fee-for-service basis; nearly all full-time public school teachers are salaried.
*Evidenced-based practice of medicine in diagnosing and caring for patients is more fully developed and used by doctors than the science of teaching accessed by teachers.
While these differences are substantial in challenging comparisons, there are basic commonalities that bind classroom teachers to physicians.
First, both are helping professions that seek human improvement. Second, like practitioners in other sciences and crafts, both make mistakes. These commonalities make comparisons credible even with so many occupational differences.
From teachers to psychotherapists to doctors to social workers to nurses, these professionals use their expertise to transform minds, develop skills, deepen insights, cope with feelings and mend bodily ills. In doing so, these helping professions share similar predicaments.
*Expertise is never enough. For surgeons, cutting out a tumor from the colon will not rid the body of cancer; successive treatments of chemotherapy are necessary and even then, the cancer may return.
Some high school teachers of science with advanced degrees in biology, chemistry, and physics believe that lessons should be inquiry driven and filled with hands-on experiences while other colleagues, also with advanced degrees, differ. They argue that naïve and uninformed students must absorb the basic principles of biology, chemistry, and physics through rigorous study before they do any “real world” work in class.
In one case, there is insufficient know-how to rid the body of different cancers and, in the other instance, highly knowledgeable teachers split over how students can best learn science. As important as expertise is to professionals dedicated to helping people, it falls short—and here is another shared predicament–not only for the reasons stated above but also because professionals seeking human improvement need their clients, patients, and students to engage in the actual work of learning and becoming knowledgeable, healthier people.
*Helping professionals are dependent upon their clients’ cooperation. Physician autonomy, anchored in expertise and clinical experience, to make decisions unencumbered by internal or external bureaucracies is both treasured and defended by the medical profession. Yet physicians depend upon patients for successful diagnoses and treatments. If expertise is never enough in the helping professions, patients not only constrain physician autonomy but also influence their effectiveness.
While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications the physician is stuck. Autonomy to make decisions for the welfare of the patient and ultimate health is irrelevant when patients cannot or do not enter into the process of healing.
For K-12 teachers who face captive audiences among whom are some students unwilling to participate in lessons or who defy the teacher’s authority or are uncommitted to learning what the teacher is teaching, then teachers have to figure out what to do in the face of students’ passivity or active resistance.
*Failure and error occur in both medical and teaching practices. Both doctors and teachers, from time to time, err in what they do with patients and students. Patients can bring malpractice suits to get damages for medical errors. But that occurs sometimes years after the mistake. What hospital-based physicians do have, however, is an institutionalized way of learning (Mortality and Morbidity conferences) from their mistakes so that they do not occur again. So far, among teachers there are no public ways of admitting mistakes and learning from them (privately, amid trusted colleagues, such admissions occur). For teachers, admitting error publicly can lead directly to job loss).
So while doctors, nurses, and other medical staff have M & M conferences to correct mistakes, most teachers lack such collaborative and public ways of correcting mistakes (one exception might be in special education where various staff come together weekly or monthly to go over individual students’ progress).
Books and articles have been written often about how learning from failure can lead to success. Admitting error without fear of punishment is the essential condition for such learning to occur. There is no sin in being wrong or making mistakes, but in the practice of schooling children and youth today, one would never know that.
* Dr. Joel Merenstein and I have been close friends since boyhood in Pittsburgh (PA); he died in 2019.
Two decades ago, research I had done on schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley during the 1990s was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms. In 2018, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book researching 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who had integrated technology appeared. Since then, I have visited many classrooms where teachers used electronic devices seamlessly in lessons until the pandemic hit. Then remote instruction became the primary medium of teaching and learning.
What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?
The similarities are easy to list.
*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops and laptops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.
The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.
*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.
For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops and laptops to schools while districts also purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.
Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have disappeared in leiu of classroom carts holding 25-30 laptops or tablets. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.
What about differences?
* Goals for using digital tools have changed.
The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.
The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools had, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying, entry-level jobs.
But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (educators assume that engagement leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology and software are essential since students take state tests online (and during the pandemic were a necessity). And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.
*Combined similarities and differences across time.
The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.
These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as were the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.
The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was quietly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.
But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research.
These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.
Much present and past policy making to make better classroom lessons is anchored deeply in myth and memory. Both morph into one another as policymakers (aka “reformers), many of whom are parents, connect their children’s tales of what occurs in classrooms filled with iPads and Chromebooks to memories of what went on in their elementary and secondary classes.
Sure, school boards and superintendents consult with researchers and look at classroom studies, and ponder the changes that new technologies have made in how teachers teach but even research findings are sorted through memories of writing an essay for that English teacher or the 5th grade quizzes that constricted one’s intestines. So I do not discount the power of myth and memory to shape policies aimed at getting teachers to teach bettereven after a decade of new technologies being tamed by teachers to become part of their instructional repertoire.
What is too often missing from the mix of data, Golly Gees over new software and remembrances are the few accounts by historians of education who have documented–albeit in fragmentary ways–what actually went on in classrooms over the past century. Some historians, including myself, have tried to recapture yesteryear’s classrooms (see here, here, and here). Glimpsing what occurred in classroom lessons a century or more ago gives readers a sense of what has remained stable and what has changed in how teachers teach.
This post initially published in 2009 has been updated.
In How Teachers Taught (1984) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students. I found the following classroom patterns:
Between the 1890s and 2010, the social organization of the classroom became informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.
Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2010, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s scowl slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms with teachers more informal in language and dress, and exercised a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.
By 2010, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both traditions.
Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.
Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.
The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.
Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.
Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”
One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscored the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.
In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2005, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.
Amid a formidable array of new devices and software used by teachers across the nation in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, the two teaching traditions and their hybrids persist. Were policymakers, wannabe reformers, and anxious parents informed of this history of teaching–and the work of other historians of education who looked at classroom lessons–would their knowledge be useful in designing policies–in concert with classroom teachers–aimed at instruction? I believe so.
A journalist I have known for decades and have great respect for recently asked me a question that required me to think, click on a bunch of websites, and re-read the work of a popular historian who died in 2010.
The Washington Post‘s Jay Mathews has written about education for nearly a half-century.* He emailed me the following question:**
Hi Larry—I hope you are well. In any of your wonderful excursions into actual classrooms, have you ever tested the thesis that US history teaching has gotten kind of lefty in recent decades? I think it’s untrue but I have no data.—jay**
Here is my response to Mathews:
Hi Jay, Hope you and your family are in good health.
When I got your query, Jay, I looked up the most obvious “lefty” influence insofar as textbooks and readings are concerned: Howard Zinn and his People’s History.
The Poynter Institute did a piece on Zinn’s influence on teaching U.S. history in 2015 (see: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2015/apr/15/rick-santorum/book-howard-zinn-most- [politifact.com] ). There is no data on how many teachers in U.S. public schools use the book, popular as it has been since published in 1980. While many teachers to prove their lefty credentials cite Zinn’s work–critics like Sam Wineburg have demolished his credibility as a historian. There is far more rhetoric from a minority of teachers, I believe, citing Zinn than actual lessons using the latter’s concepts in class.
Now my own experiences in visiting history classes over the past decade (I did write a book called Teaching History Then and Now), support your hunch that those who charge that teachers are turning politically progressive has little basis in what I have observed. The only exception I came across was in Oakland when I visited a bunch of history lessons at one high school that was clearly pushing aprogressive agenda but not using Zinn’s book insofar as I could tell.
Overall, then, my experiences support your hunch.
Stay well, Larry
My answer to Jay’s question is short and missing much information. What got me to look at the question more deeply were the comments of national politicians on teachers turning to the political left in their teaching. For example, the question of whether left-of-center political ideology has influenced social studies teachers in what and how they teach is self-evident to some who position themselves right-of-center. Consider former Senator Rick Santorum (PA) who said in a speech to the National Rifle Association In 2015:
Do you know the most popular textbook that’s taught in our high schools in America is written by a man named Howard Zinn, who is an anti-American Marxist, and that is the most common textbook?
Then recall that in 2021, President Donald Trump created the 1776 Commission “to support patriotic education….” Trump said:
Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.
Trump continued to say that schools must end the “[c]ritical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history”, which he said was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country,”
Historians of education and informed educators know full well that tax-supported public school teachers have been pushed back-and-forth repeatedly over the past century to achieve the political ends of various groups. The central tendency, however, of most teachers is to not foist their political views, right or left of the political center, on their students (see here).
None of that knowledge entered former Senator Rick Santorum’s statement. Fact checkers at the Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets (forget fact-checking when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media) would have added inches to Pinocchio’s nose in assessing his 2015 statement about the prevalent use of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in teachers’ classes across America. Why the added inches to the nose?
First, because no one really knows how social studies teachers teach U.S. history. There are about 200,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. (2012). We know little about how they teach daily. There are a few surveys, case studies, and interviews of these teachers but few–let me stress “very few”– direct observations of what lesson plans, texts, supplementary readings, and activities they engage in during actual lessons (see here, here, and here). No one can say with even a moderate degree of confidence how social studies teachers teach except in one area–nearly all of these teachers use a textbook approved by the district and state. And that is my second point.
For better or worse, textbook teaching is pervasive (see here and here). That is not a negative or positive statement. Given that the majority of public school teachers in secondary schools face anywhere from 125-150 student each day–yes each day–having a common source of information for groups of students becomes a necessity, especially at a time when district and state curriculum standards appear on tests that cover content and skills students are expected to know.
Not only are textbooks used as a basis for most lessons taught by social studies teachers but also a high proportion of these textbook-bound teachers use supplementary materials to enhance, elaborate upon, and dispute what is in the text. Importantly, many teachers seek out sources for students to consider beyond the text. The 1619 Project created by the New York Times and made available to schools (see below photo) is a recent instance of getting at multiple perspectives beyond the textbook.
Nonetheless, social studies texts are inevitably shaded by political, economic, and social biases (see here and here).
So I now I return to Zinn’s APeople’s History of the United States which, by the way, I have yet to find on any list of textbooks researchers examined for bias. For a book supposed to be so influential upon social studies teachers’ mindsets, it is missing in action when scholars list the texts they analyze for bias.
There is one exception that I have found. A recent article looked directly at teachers who were not only members of the Zinn Education Project (at time of the survey there were 35,000 members) but also responded to researchers’ online survey (n=378) that they used the book in their lessons often, sometimes, and occasionally. Of those who took the online survey, 120 volunteered to do follow-up interviews. In a second stage of the study, the researchers identified 14 of the volunteer interviewees who used A People’s History frequently and were willing to describe their classroom practices (p.91).
And what did the researchers find from their survey and interviews of social studies teachers using the Zinn book?
The most common reasons that teachers gave for using APH (A People’s History) included developing students’ critical thinking skills, engaging students in the classroom, and exposing students to different voices in history. All of these reasons, however, were couched in an overall dissatisfaction with both traditional ways of teaching history and district- or school-provided textbooks.
Most teachers saw APH as a pedagogical resource that allowed them to accomplish curricular and pedagogical goals in their classrooms that would have been difficult to do otherwise. The most common reasons that teachers reported for using APH were (1) because students found it to be an interesting, engaging alternative to their textbooks; (2) APH allowed them to “dig deeper” into historical events than their textbook allowed; (3) APH was a useful comparative tool alongside narratives found in both the textbook and other supplemental sources; and (4) APH illuminated the “hidden voices” of history not traditionally found in their textbooks.
While this cluster of themes around APH as an alternative pedagogical source to their textbooks was present in most interviews, interview data indicated that it was very rare for teachers to report using APH to meet Zinn’s articulated goals of empowering students to take action (p.93).
Severely limited data on actual lessons taught by U.S. social studies teachers, their common use of state-approved textbooks for lessons (and the absence of A People’s History from such lists), and the reasons why a small group of teachers use the book undermine completely what former Senator Santorum and former President Donald Trump had to say about “lefty” tendencies in U.S. social studies’ classrooms.
“Jay Mathews is an education columnist for the Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He is the author of nine books, including five about high schools. His 2009 book Work Hard. Be Nice about the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network was a New York Times bestseller. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings of American high schools. He has won several awards for education writing and was given the Upton Sinclair award as “a beacon of light in the realm of education.” He has won the Eugene Meyer Award for distinguished service to The Washington Post.”
**Mathews gave me permission to publish his email.
I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.
“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.
I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.
I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.…
I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.
Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015
It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”
This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.
I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.
Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.
I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?
This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.
This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.
The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.
I’m fond of the flying firefighters.
In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.
It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?
Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.
“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”
100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.
It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.
The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.
This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.
Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.
From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):
“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”
I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.
Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.
This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.
When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.
All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.
Begin with Helen Parkhurst. A 20th century educator much taken with the Progressive approach to schooling, she designed the Dalton Plan after World War I as a way of organizing instruction consistent with Maria Montessori’s and John Dewey’s ideas of individualizing all academic work and building school community. The core of the Plan was students making contracts with their teachers to study and learn content and skills.
Deeply concerned by the grouping and lock-step movement of children and youth in American schools, Parkhurst sought to reorganize classroom work so that teachers would be able to convert traditional age-graded schools and classrooms where whole-group teaching, 55-minute periods, textbooks, and tests prevailed into laboratories where individual students contracted with their teachers to work on topics that interested them. Students then would have to make decisions on what to study when, finishing assignments, and meeting the terms of the contract to complete the teacher designed work (see below for description of Dalton Plan).
Parkhurst named the Plan after the public high school in Dalton, Massachusetts where it was first put into practice in 1920. She also was the founder of a New York City private school named after the Plan where it was the primary means of instruction for the students. In 2021,The Dalton School charges $55,000 to attend and its headmaster earns $700,000 a year making it one of a score of elite private school (see here and here).
What did the Dalton Plan look like in the classroom?
Evelyn Dewey described the plan as it would work for a typical student in a school that put the Dalton Plan of instructional organization into practice in the early 1920s.
Horace Marshall is a pupil in the fifth grade in a Dalton public school in the city of ____.
School hours are from 8:45A.M.to 4:00P.M., with an intermission from 1:00 to 2:00P.M.
From 8:45A.M.to 12:00 noon is considered free time. It belongs wholly to the pupil and it is his responsibility to organize it to suit his needs.
The half hour between 12:00 and12:30 is taken up with pupil assembly, special work, or committee meetings. During this time, the academic instructors meet for faculty conference. The following half hour is devoted to group conferences. All the pupils of a grade report to an academic instructor at this time, but they report to a different teacher each day, so that there is a weekly report for each grade in each subject. The remainder of the day may be used for work in art, manual training, recreation or athletics, any work which can be readily handled in grade groups.
The school year is ten months. Horace studies five academic subjects,—history, mathematics, geography, English literature and some form of science. Therefore, Horace has five contract jobs a month, or fifty during the school year. Besides this, he will have a certain amount of work in special subjects—gymnasium, carpentry or art. As far as the school staff permits, this work should also be managed by contract jobs in subject laboratories.
Where such instructors are on part time only, these subjects maybe conveniently handled in groups in the afternoon, or at the close of the morning’s socialized time.
Horace works in all of these subject laboratories instead of in one fifth-grade room.He has a locker for his per-onal school belongings instead of a desk. His group is under the special care of someone teacher, and will meet in her laboratory for a short period each day, usually at the beginning of the morning. Horace’s advisor talks over class plans and. problems with the children, makes announcements and suggestions to help groups and individuals in planning their day’s work.Then Horace and his class-mates get out their assignment cards. On these cards, they have copied in detail the work of the monthly contract in each subject. There is no times schedule, no bell to summon Horace from one room to another. He determines to work on his geography this morning and so goes to the geography laboratory. His work may be reading references, questions to be answered, maps to be drawn or other pertinent matter. He carries on his work independently, entering and leaving the room when and as he pleases. The time he spends there is determined entirely by his interest-span and his fatigue.
For other fifth-grade pupils are in the laboratory at the same time he may join them. The group is allowed to talk, help each other, exchange books and papers, in fact they should be encouraged to work together. As they work, they make notes on questionst hey cannot answer among themselves or on any point where the teacher’s advice is needed. She is in the laboratory during the whole morning helping groups or individuals, so Horace is free to go to her as he requires assistance. Or she may call his group to her to see what they are doing, discuss difficult questions or make suggestions about better ways of working. Before leaving the laboratory, Horace indicates on the instructor’s subject graph the amount of work completed. If he is in any doubt as to the amount covered, he may ask the instructor to assist him in this. He also indicates the amount he has done by a line on his own contract card. If he leaves before the end of the free laboratory work time, he will select another subject, go to that laboratory and work there as he did in the geography room….
In the afternoon, Horace’s grade will probably have a more regular time-table. Gymnasium, recreation, music and certain kinds of shop work, notably cooking, depend upon organized groups for their value and their success. Part of the afternoon may be spent on a time-table and part in free study for art and carpentry, or allof it may be given over to classes and time found for more than one recitation a week in the academic subjects. … [Evelyn Dewey, The Dalton Laboratory Plan (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922), pp. 12-16].
One student in a Dalton Plan school said to Dewey, I like this school because each child has ample time to do his work. In other schools,when you go into arithmetic,you have to do arithmetic for half an hour and you have to do so much that you get mixed up. Here, if you begin to get tired and can’t make your mind work right on one thing,you can go into another room and forget all about the first thing,so you don’t get muddled up.Later,you can do the arithmetic.I like it,too,because you can go on and do your work and not be held back by children who are slower. (Evelyn Dewey, The Dalton Plan, 1922, p. 1)
Did the Dalton Plan work?
Two criteria determining whether it worked can be applied to the Dalton Plan: longevity and effectiveness. The overall aim of Parkhurst and followers of the Plan was to upend the age-graded school and its lockstep manner of getting children and youth to learn. For the few years that it was adopted in various places, that occurred. But the age-graded school ended up transforming the Plan. For those scattered and few schools that adopted the entire Dalton approach, the age-graded school was altered substantially. For other schools that selected elements of the Plan, the cardinal features of the age-graded school continued as before. On the criterion of longevity, then, while there are a few instances of the Plan still around in 2021–especially in Europe (see below), it has pretty well disappeared.
And in that disappearance, the dominance of the age-graded school as the primary form of organizing instruction continues. The Dalton Plan failed to upend the prevalent way of organizing schooling in the U.S.
What happened to the Dalton Plan?
Two historians of education wrote that the Dalton Plan spread to a small number of schools in the 1920s and 1930s:
Recognizing that the Plan required dramatic changes in school organization, only a few schools adopted Parkhurst’s reforms wholesale. Many more adopted features piece-meal. By 1930, 162 (2%) of 8,600 secondary schools surveyed in a national study reported that they had completely reorganized their school to conform with the Dalton Plan. Another 486 (6%) of the secondary schools reported that they had a modified version of the Plan in their buildings.
As for the public Dalton High School in Massachusetts that piloted the Plan in 1920, it lasted only a year although features of the Plan lasted for a decade.
For the most part, by the 1950s, the few schools that had embraced the Plan had either abandoned it completely or just retrained the singular practice of teachers and students signing contracts to complete required academic work. Like most innovations, the rhetoric and a few practices continued as other innovations swirled across the U.S. landscape shoving aside older ones like the Dalton Plan. A few schools and some teachers continued “laboratories” in non-science classes to individualize content and skills. Few researchers, parents, practitioners, and administrators in 2021, however, have heard of the Dalton Plan, much less seen it in practice.
Yet the Plan remains alive in 14 nations, including the U.S. with the private Dalton School in New York City. As one would expect after a century of implementing the innovation many modifications have occurred and continue today. Nonetheless, some schools across the world continue to embrace the Plan as they adapt it to their settings. The Netherlands has the largest number of schools following the Dalton Plan (see here).
Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and history at Stanford University, He along with Susan Ramiraz and Peter Stearns authored Human Legacy, a high school world history textbook.This appeared in Education Week, June 5, 2007
History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of “How to Read Me,” and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad.
Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day.
I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks.
I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there.
So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called “Textbooks Are Your Friends.” True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written.
The main problem is their very existence.
History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But “history” has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history.
Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called “Reading Like a Historian” for their new high school series. “Well,” I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, “to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.” Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students “how historians read” can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment).
My hosts nodded. “That’s why we want you to write it.” I nearly choked on my ciabatta.
Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these “Reading Like a Historian” essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook, I drew on 20 years’ experience as a researcher of historical cognition, in which I have spent approximately 1.2 gazillion hours interviewing, probing, taping, transcribing, coding, analyzing, writing about, and generally hanging out with people who call themselves historians. All of this in an attempt to identify something common and generative to how historians—rather than, say, literary critics, electrical engineers, or horse whisperers—read.
Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny.
Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers.
In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book “know” what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille?
Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable “contingency theory” (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional “brilliance of the West” theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress.
What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first “fact.”
In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: “Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.” Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative?
Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair.
In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.
My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “Indochina should not go back to France,” a colonizer that had “milked it for one hundred years”; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for “full cooperation with the United States”; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story.
The goal of “Reading Like a Historian” is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded.
Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny.
Listen, I have no illusions about the little feature I have written. But I took on this assignment because I believed in its basic idea. Including at least one other voice in the same book—a printed court jester who pokes at readers, reminding them to slow down, to listen to words, to notice how the text spins them, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-like, in a given direction—is more than another frill in today’s frilly world of textbook publishing. When students hear a second voice questioning the first, they learn that maybe their job is not to memorize after all. Maybe their job is to find their own voice.
We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.