Life in Classrooms and Philip Jackson

In searching for my next project, I surrounded myself with books on teaching, teachers, and classroom life. Many of these books I had read more than once and each time in the re-reading, I learned something new. I re-learned not because I was dense the first time I read the book but simply because I had accumulated experiences since the first time I picked up the book. And that is what happened in re-reading Philip Jackson’s Life in Classrooms (1968). Rethinking my experiences over decades in classrooms pushed me again to learn anew as I read those gracefully written chapters into further reflection–beginning with the “Daily Grind.”

Like myself, Stanford University professor, Elliot Eisner, former student and colleague of Jackson at the University of Chicago said about that initial chapter: “Who can forget ‘the daily grind’? Who can forget the importance of students learning how to delay gratification? Who can forget the aroma, or should I say odor, of a place that smells of stale milk and that leaves chalk dust on your sleeves?”* I certainly have not.

In just 177 pages of text, Jackson took what he had seen in a handful of elementary schools and blazed a trail for subsequent generations of school and classroom researchers who sat alongside students and wrote up their observations. While John Dewey and others had sat in classrooms and described what they saw, by the early 1960s, many educational researchers enamored with quantitative studies and counting teacher and student behaviors to reveal narrow slices of what teachers did (e.g., how many questions teachers asked in a lesson) and what students learned (e.g., scores on a geography quiz) saw schooling as a technical process that educational engineers could improve.

Jackson’s Life in Classrooms launched a generation of qualitative studies of schools and teacher work that captured the sensibilities of teacher/student interactions within schools and what was consciously and unconsciously being taught and learned. And it was Jackson who coined the phrase “hidden curriculum,” the informal lessons taught in school (and by schooling) that often went undetected by all participants but had to be learned nonetheless (e.g. taking turns, obeying teachers, being patient). And that was nearly six decades ago.

What I took away from Jackson’s Life in Classrooms was not just one idea (“teaching is an opportunistic process. That is to say, neither the teacher nor his students can predict with any certainty exactly what will happen next.” p.166) or one approach to studying teaching and learning (anthropological approach to studying schools and classrooms). I took away the clear idea that the totality of classroom teaching and learning are complex processes where plans go awry and opportunities arise that teachers must grab to attain their goals.

Teachers make hundreds of decisions effortlessly during a lesson; they improvise as they watch the clock. Decision-making is both complex and opportunistic. A half century after Life in Classrooms appeared, only a precious few researchers have continued the observational work of Philip Jackson and written in that conversational, questioning, clear prose that Jackson patented.

Ah, I wish more researchers would re-read Life in Classrooms and update and revise the work of this gifted observer of schools.

Jackson died in 2015 (see here and here)

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*Cheryl Craig and Maria Flores, “Fifty years of life in classrooms: an inquiry into the scholarly contributions of Philip Jackson,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, September 2019 at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2019.1659417

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How Professors Teach

Jonathan Zimmerman’s Amateur Hour (a great title) documents how college professors have taught over the past two centuries. It is a worthwhile read for those who have experienced the full range of university teaching from packed lecture halls to wood-paneled seminar rooms. And it got me thinking of my experiences in college and university classrooms over many years. I have forgotten most of my professors’s names as I collected degrees except for a handful who have had a large influence upon me as both a student and human being.

Since I was a high school history teacher for many years before becoming a professor, I prized teaching before scholarship. Sure both are important, but my previous experiences as a graduate student made me very aware of the startling variation in university teaching as I stumbled through a Masters degree and doctorate. Here is one story about professors teaching that I experienced.

I came to Stanford University in 1981. After five years of teaching and writing, a new dean asked me to serve as his Associate Dean. Being superintendent for seven years prior to coming to Stanford and tasting the privileged life of a full professor I had no inclination to return to being an administrator whose influence on tenured colleagues, was at best, sorely limited and at worst, non-existent. The Dean wanted me bad enough that he and I negotiated a higher salary–I would be working twelve months rather than nine (it is, after all, a private institution where everything is negotiated)–and I would only serve two years, I could teach at least one or two courses each year I served, and I would get a sabbatical quarter after completing the second year. OK, I said.

What did I do?

I had to insure that all of my colleagues taught at least four courses over three quarters–some did not and I had to badger them to do so. I handled students’ dissatisfaction with particular professors’ poor teaching or their being habitually inattentive to students’ work. I followed up on doctoral students’ complaints about unavailability of their advisers, and I represented the Dean on occasions he could not attend campus meetings or social events. So with the help of an skillful administrative secretary, the first year went smoothly.

The second year I had an idea. University professors seldom get observed as they teach except by their students. As a superintendent I had observed over a thousand teachers in my district over the years. Even prior to that I was a supervisor of intern history teachers. Observe and discuss observations with teachers, I could do.

I sent out a personal letter (this was before email became standard communication) to each of my 36 colleagues asking them if they wanted me to observe one of their classes and meet afterwards to discuss what I had seen. I made clear that I would make no judgment on their class but describe to them what I saw and have a conversation around what they had intended to happen in the lesson, what they thought had occurred, and what I had observed. Nothing would be written down (except for my notes which I shared with each faculty member). It would be a conversation. I did ask them to supply me with the readings that students were assigned for the session I observed and what the professor wanted to accomplish during the hour or 90-minute session.

Of the 36 who received the letter, 35 agreed (the 36th came to me in the middle of the year and asked me to observe his class). None of them–yes, that is correct–none had ever been observed before by anyone in the School of Education for purposes of having a conversation about their teaching. Two had been observed by me and a former Associate Dean because of student complaints; I had discussed those complaints with the professors and then observed lectures and discussions they had conducted. Both of them invited me to their classes when I wrote my subsequent letter. So for each quarter of the school year, I visited two professors a week. Each scheduled a follow-up conversation with me that we held in their office.

What happened?

I did observe 36 colleagues. For me, it was a fine learning experience. I got to read articles in subject matter I knew a smattering (e.g., economics of education, adolescent psychological development, standardized test development). I heard colleagues lecture, saw them discuss readings from their syllabi, and, for me, I picked up new knowledge and ways of teaching graduate students I had not tried in my courses.

As for my colleagues, a common response during the conversations we had following the observations was gratitude for an experience they had not had as a professor. Simply talking about the mechanics of a lecture or discussion, what they thought had worked and had not, the surprises that popped up during the lesson–all of that was a new experience for nearly all of the faculty. A few asked me to return again and we negotiated return visits. Overall, I felt–and seemingly most of my colleagues felt similarly–that the experience was worthwhile because I and they wanted to talk about the ins-and-outs of teaching and had lacked opportunities to do so in their career as professors.

Those conversations over the year got me thinking more deeply about why universities like Stanford preach the importance of teaching–the rhetoric is omnipresent. And backing up the rhetoric are annual teaching awards and programs to help professors to improve their teaching. Yet the University had not created the conditions for faculty to share with colleagues the how and what of their teaching through observation and discussion of lectures and seminars.

That year as Associate Dean sitting in on faculty lectures and seminars led me on an intellectual journey plumbing a question that nagged at me as I observed and conversed with colleagues: how come universities say teaching is important yet all of the structures and actual (not symbolic) rewards in tenure, promotion, and salary go to research? To answer that question I did a historical study of teaching and research at Stanford in two departments–history and the School of Medicine. In completing How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990, I learned how universities like Stanford, have built structures and created incentives that insure teaching will be subordinate to the primary tasks of researching and publishing.

To my knowledge, no observations of professors and conversations about teaching have occurred in the Graduate School of Education since 1987-1988.

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The Classroom as a “Gritty” Place for Engineers and Plumbers (Matthew Evans)

Matthews Evans is headteacher of a Gloucestershire secondary school in southwest England and author of Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership. The issue of researchers–engineers who study and design projects to solve schooling problems–having a difficult time in getting practitioners–plumbers who get in and around pipes and drains–to put their findings into daily practice has been a perennial issue in the U.S. Many U.S. policymakers call it an “implementation” problem. According to Evans it is more complicated than just “implementation” as he describes the divide between teachers and researchers in the United Kingdom.

This post comes from his blog, theeducontrarian. It appeared April 25, 2021. I have lightly edited Evans’ post For the full text and references please go to the above link.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that cognitive science has, and will continue to have, a fairly limited impact on educational standards.

It is not that I reject the findings of this branch of psychology (although many of the studies, we are beginning to realise, may fail to replicate), or that I think we should turn our backs on the discipline. On the contrary: we should glean all we can from this, and other disciplines, which offer something to our understanding of education. My concern is that the implementation of cognitive science – or indeed any research in social psychology – is problematic.

There are many reasons why the application of knowledge from research, or theory, to the classroom is difficult. I will explore just one of these reasons here, which is the problem of the particular.

Access to water

The economist Esther Deflo tells the story of the effort to bring clean water to homes in Tangier in 2007. The firm responsible for this effort spent considerable amounts of money building a large network of pipes and installing taps and toilets in homes across the city. To access this infrastructure, households were offered interest-free loans to fund the cost of connecting their home to the supply. The incentive to take this offer was high (the benefits and convenience of clean, fresh water every day without carrying it from pumps). To many in poorer households in Tangier, the cost was high, but not unaffordable. The rational choice was to take the loan, and yet less than 10% did.

The designers of the programme no doubt felt that they had done everything they could to deliver clean water to thousands of households. The behaviour of those given this opportunity was mystifying; that is until they moved away from their drawing boards and observed what was happening on the ground.

What they found was that, to access the loan, numerous pieces of documentation were required. This meant that people needed to copy original documents and take these to the municipal offices. However, in most communities there was no access to photocopying facilities. When the team looking into this problem visited houses and offered to copy documentation and submit on their behalf, take up increased to 69%. The grit in the mechanism was enough to almost grind it to a halt.

The economist as plumber

Deflo points out the importance of detail in policy delivery, but suggests this detail is often overlooked by the designers of solutions. Her field of expertise is economic development, but the message has wider appeal. She admits that the role of engineer is an important one for economists faced with solving real-world problems. However, there is also a need for economists to be plumbers. Why plumber?

Plumbers try to predict as well as possible what might work in the real world, mindful that tinkering and adjusting will be necessary since our models give us very little theoretical guidance on what (and how) details matter.

The engineer will design the pipes but it is the plumber who must fit them. It is the process of fitting that reveals the messiness and diversity of reality. The plumber’s craft is in making elegant designs fit around the existing installation, to solve a particular problem, in a way that meets the expectations of the customer. The plumber’s skill is rooted in compromise and the particular, not ideals and generalisations.

For those charged with solving problems at scale, there is a tendency (a necessity) to simplify both the reason and the solution. It is expedient for there to be a single (or limited number of) root causes, an understandable causal mechanism, and a trigger – an intervention- which will set off a chain reaction to address the problem.

Duflo’s contemporary and collaborator, Abhijit Banerjee, labels the simple solutions that we long for ‘buttons’. These buttons fire up the machine. The machine metaphor is convenient to policy makers because it casts the social system as being reducible to components whose interaction can be understood, therefore whose faults can be fixed. This simplification – this denial of the complex reality – is problematic enough. But more than this, Banerjee argues, policy makers might even assume that the machine runs on its own or does not run at all (it is either functioning or stalled) and the task is therefore to leave it alone or to fire the cylinders. ‘The reason we like buttons so much,’ he says, ‘is that they save us the trouble of stepping into the machine… we avoid having to go looking for where the wheels are getting caught and figuring out what small adjustments it would take to get the machine to run properly….’

The devil in the detail

To illustrate my somewhat pessimistic point, let us turn to cognitive psychology, which is the subject of my opening critique.

I use cognitive science as an example not because it is alone in being subject to the detail dilemma but because it is currently ‘quite the thing’. I keep hearing about the various ways research findings are being rolled out in schools. In particular, retrieval practice – the idea that long-term memory will benefit from an intentional effort to recall information, bringing it to the forefront of your mind, thus strengthening neural pathways in the brain – has been seized upon by many.

I should state at this point that the ‘evidence’ behind retrieval practice appears to me to be about as robust as you can get in the field of cognitive science. Furthermore, rather than being an inaccessible, abstract concept, one can easily imagine practical applications in the classroom.

It is these two features – evidential support and ease of application – that has made retrieval practice a popular policy subject in schools, but also a useful example for illustrating the ‘problem of the particular’. Retrieval practice should work as a method by which to improve teaching and learning – it could be one of our best shots.

I’ve heard of various approaches for rolling out retrieval practice. However, I’m not interested in critiquing the method. My own view is that policies whereby, for example, all teachers are told they must do five retrieval questions at the start of every lesson is at the crass end of the spectrum, whilst coaching which promotes a more nuanced and appropriate adoption of retrieval practice are more palatable and likely to change practice in useful ways.

Rather than be distracted by arguments about how best to improve teaching practice, I will instead focus on the peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and details of the classroom that may act as grit in the wheels. I will leave you to imagine how this grit may disrupt the various policy approaches you have experienced.

So, what are the details which may disrupt? You may wish to skim the following list to reach the conclusion, but I offer it to make the point that classrooms are very gritty places.

Disrupting a regularity. The regularities of behaviour in classrooms happen for a reason and we disrupt them at our peril. Take, for example, the act of taking a register [calling the roll of students in attendance]. For some teachers this is a habitualised and effective mechanism for establishing order and signalling the start of the lesson. The replacement of this routine with another – say a retrieval starter – will have an opportunity cost that must be accounted for. New pedagogical approaches should not only be judged by their efficacy, but in comparison to what is foregone.

2. Practical constraints. If we ask all teachers to line up pupils outside before they enter the lesson we disadvantaged those for whom this is not physically possible. Similarly, classroom layout, the availability of equipment, the peripatetic room changes for some teachers, the number of text books available, and numerous other practical constraints will inhibit delivery and effectiveness.

3. Competence. It sounds obvious, but it is a factor often overlooked: some teachers are more competent than others and all have aspects of their work which they are better in than others. The support, preparation and rehearsal required will vary across the cohort of teachers. Those who go in ill-prepared to try something new will be most likely to fail and be least likely to embed the practice – therefore those who most need to improve will be those least likely to.

4. Local priorities. All teachers have pressing problems which, in their minds, are worthy of their attention. For some it is getting class 11A to behave, for others it is meeting their performance management target, impressing the observer, or ensuring a student gets the grade they need to get into their chosen university course. Our problem may not be their problem. By making it their priority, what attention do we displace from their pressing problem?

5. Relationships. The teacher’s relationship with their class will be a key determining factor in the success of any new practice. Does the teacher feel psychologically safe to take risks?

6. Timing. Is this the right time to adopt the ‘proven practice’?

7. Interdependence and group norms. The relationship between colleagues will affect a teacher’s response to pedagogical intervention. Are they competitive or collaborative? What are the group norms around teaching adaptation?

8. Pupil experience. How does the pupil perceive the change? Have they noticed the sudden flood of retrieval practice? Do they perceive that this change in the regularities of their lessons is imposed upon them and the teacher, or a small adjustment of the like that their teacher makes all the time?

9. Administrative barriers. What is the turnaround time for ordering mini whiteboards? How long is the queue at the photocopier this morning?

10. Feedback loops. Teachers receive signals about the effect of their actions continuously. These signals are rarely, if ever, in relation to whether a particular action on their behalf has improved learning. And yet, any change in teaching practice encouraged by a school will (we assume) be with the intent of improving learning. Unfortunately, teachers adapt according to more visible and immediate information: how did the pupils react?; did they get the answers right?; did I run out of time to cover what I wanted to cover? Reinforcing signals will determine future behaviour such as whether new approaches become embedded in a teacher’s practice.

11. Habits. The adoption of a new habit also often involves the abandonment of another.

12. Instrumentalising behaviour. Tools may not be used for the purpose we intended ·  them to be used for. Teachers will likely adapt a tool to meet their emerging priorities. If they want to satisfy themselves that their teaching is working, they will instrumentalise assessment to this affect by posing questions that can be answered. If they want to quieten a chatty class, they will insist on silence for retrieval practice exercises. These are not always conscious choices. If you hand someone with food stuck between their teeth a paper clip, they may use it as a toothpick.

13. The diversity of children. We conveniently call them a ‘class’, but that is about all a group of pupils have in common.

14. Workload barriers. For the teacher who has all their lessons filed on PowerPoint, ready to roll out, the insistence of the inclusion of retrieval exercises will mean changing every resource. For newer teachers who rely on borrowing resources from others to get through the week, our intervention could mean they work even later into the evening.Random events. Broken projectors. Wasps. A burp. At early stages of adoption, it does not take much to sour enthusiasm for a new approach. Sustainability. Doing something a few times is quite different from doing it continuously. Novelty fades. Variety suffers. Other initiatives are rolled out.

15. Performance anxiety. It doesn’t take much to undermine confidence. Some ill-judged feedback from an observer may be enough. Equally, misjudged praise or misunderstood expectations can lead to a superficial adoption of a method without an understanding of the conditions which may lead to success.

We could look at the above as implementation issues to be accounted for in policy design, but that is a false way to view them. Firstly, it assumes that we know ahead of time what might happen to derail implementation of a pedagogical approach, but we usually don’t. Secondly, we cannot proactively mitigate the variety of obstacles in the path of our teaching intervention. Even if we could anticipate what might happen, we often have no means by which to prevent it. the classroom environment is mischievous and spontaneous….

it is a very long road from ‘it worked somewhere’ to the conclusion you need – ‘it will work here,’ and it is not an easy one to traverse.Where does this leave us? Well, not without hope or purpose. We can roll our sleeves up and get down and dirty in the machine. If school improvement isn’t messy, you ain’t doing it right. I don’t believe it is possible, or desirable, for those in too senior positions to do too much tinkering. There is a role for engineers and a role for plumbers. However, the engineers need to not be too precious about their creations and give license to the plumbers to make things work on the ground. Practice needs to be improved up close,  case by case. If we get too distracted by high level solutions we will miss the important detail that keeps things moving forward on the ground….

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Nested Organizations: Public Schooling Is Complex

In the previous post on the complexity of teacher decision-making, I mentioned that not every teacher or parent knows that classrooms are embedded in complex organizations that affect what teachers do daily. This post tries to get at that organizational and political (yes, political) complexity that colors both how and what teachers teach and their relationships with students.

Many readers are familiar with wooden dolls made in Russia that fit one atop another. As one loosens the largest doll, the next one that appear get smaller and ditto for each one taken out. These dolls are nested in another.

The system of schooling in the U.S. is also nested. The largest organization–“doll” to stretch the analogy– that runs the nation’s schools,however, is not the federal government as it is in those nations that have centralized education as a national responsibility such as Japan, France, China, and Russia.In the U.S., it is each of the 50 states.

Because the U.S. has a decentralized system where the federal responsibility for schooling the nation’s 55 million students is restricted largely to funding states (e.g.,the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) and enacting education laws giving all children access to schooling (e.g., Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975). the federal government is not responsible for schooling the young in the nation. States are.

Each of the 50 states, operating under the jurisdiction of the governor and state legislature enact educational policies and distribute federal and state funds to the districts they have established to operate local schools. California, for example, has chartered over a thousand local districts to make policy, receive funds, hire staff, and operate schools. Connecticut has 172 districts and Hawaii is only one state-run district. That is the largest doll in the nested collection.

So every one of the 50 states represents the next “doll.” Each state establishes districts–another smaller “doll– to carry out its educational policies. Besides funding, each state sets curriculum standards, certifies teachers and administrators, administers tests, and enacts policies that guide each district’s board of education and its superintendent, including whether independent charter schools are allowed to operate in the state or district. In the U.S., There are over 13,000 school districts.

For example, When the Arlington (VA) Board of Education appointed me as their superintendent in the mid-1970s, I swore an oath to obey the state constitution and, with the Arlington County Board of Education, ensure that state policies including curriculum standards were put into practice in nearly 40 elementary and secondary schools then enrolling just under 15,000 students. I directly supervised almost 40 principals who were charged by me to implement state and district policies in each of their schools. They, in turn, supervised nearly 1,000 teachers in those buildings.

Moreover, I had to meet Virginia’s credential requirements to be a superintendent. Turned out I lacked one course in managing school facilities and had to take that course before the state certified me as Arlington’s superintendent. In effect, states are responsible for tax-supported public education within its boundaries.

Responding to their political constituencies, the governor, state legislators and board of education direct policies to these elected district school boards whose members respond to a variety of state and community stakeholders. These elected boards approve all policies from how much to spend in next year’s budget per pupil to setting attendance boundaries to salaries for employees to what curriculum teachers will teach to the kinds of soap in students’ bathrooms. In short, tax-supported public education is a state-dominated, locally operated political instrument for producing literate, engaged civically adults prepared for the workplace.

Which brings me the next smaller nested “doll” in the collection: the school and its principal. As noted above, districts vary in size of enrollment so the number of schools within a district will vary. School districts vary in size from New York City with over one million students in 1800 buildings to Indian Springs Elementary School District in California with 17 students. As noted above, when I served as superintendent between the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Arlington had nearly 15,000 students distributed among nearly 40 schools, each with one principal.

As the state mandates policies for all of its districts, each district board and superintendent does the same in directing its principals to pursue those state policies and the ones that the locally elected school board authorized. Each school is led by a principal appointed by the superintendent and approved by the school board. Individual principals do have leeway in adapting to its neighborhood and diversity of enrollments and responding to superintendent directives. As the superintendent leads the district, so, too, the principal is expected to lead the school. And the classroom teacher–the smallest “doll” in the nested collection–is charged to lead her students to learn.

The nested dolls analogy gets at the different, constantly interacting tiers of U.S. school organization and how political relationships between stakeholders at every level come into play to fund, operate, and assess student outcomes. In sum, the decentralized system of public schooling in the U. S. is a complex, open, multi-tiered organization driven by multiple goals (e.g., engaged citizenship, workplace preparation, enter adulthood with moral principles intact, etc.) and, no surprise, filled with tensions, conflicting values, and contradictions.

But there are surprises nonetheless. Do I need to mention Covid-19 and the immediate switch to remote instruction?

Therefore, elaborate blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to control complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. There is no “mission control” for the federal role in schooling the young. Nor are there “command-and-control bureaucracies” running state or district operations–although formal organizational charts hanging in superintendents’ offices give the illusion of such power. What does happen in these web-like complex systems of interdependent units is that they adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings.

And few parents, much less wannabe school reformers, understand the complexity of schooling children and youth beyond the classroom their children are in and the meaning of these many nested “dolls” of U.S. education. So what? What is the big deal about complexity of an open system like U.S. schooling?

At the minimum, knowing that working at any level in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from engineering or technical occupations and imposed from the top (e.g., federal, state, or district) in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action, i.e., superintendent, principal, and, especially the small and powerful “dolls called teachers.

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The Complexity of Teacher Decision-making

In the previous two posts (see here and here), I have argued that parents as well as grandparents, uncles and aunts who became home-bound teachers during pandemic-driven closures of schools have come to both appreciate and understand teaching as never before.

Sitting with a 10 or 14 year-old at the kitchen table figuring out how to answer the math word problems or parsing teacher-assigned paragraphs in a U.S. history text were generally unfamiliar tasks that stay-at-home parents had to do regularly when schools shut down. Parents pleading with or ordering their children to complete their homework before the home-bound children sat down at the screen to begin the next session of remote instruction is not what many felt they had to do once their children were of age to traipse off to the schoolhouse. But now they do. And many, if not most, parents see teaching hardly like what they had recalled from their own years in school but far more difficult than they had anticipated.

At-home teaching with one or more kids for maybe two hours a day parents have discovered, is hard work involving many decisions. Parents come to realize that to teach means depending upon the student to be motivated enough to respond and engage with the teacher. Hard enough as that is with one or more kids at home, parents do not face, for example,a third grade classroom filled with 30 eight year-olds for six hours a day for thirty-six weeks.

But most parents, grand-parents, uncles, and aunts are not teachers and their only memories of being a student were when they attended school decades earlier. For these ad-hoc teachers who are largely unfamiliar with the complexity of classroom teaching and especially, the rat-a-tat flow of teacher decisions during a lesson and other readers, I describe that often chaotic but essential process again stressing that teachers are dependent on students for interaction, engagement, and, ultimately learning. Teachers are not sole actors on a stage performing; they are part of a relationship where both sides depend upon one another. Later posts fill in the larger picture of teachers situated in a complex system of tax-supported public schooling.

Teacher decision-making before the lesson

To teach, one needs a college degree and able to meet state requirements for a license. Those state requirements dictate what universities offer in teacher-training programs. And nearly all teachers are college- trained to plan lessons for the particular content and skills they will teach. Training occurs in university education programs or alternative pathways to state certification as well as in the classroom as student-teachers or interns.

Depending upon how many years they have been teaching, both kindergarten and high school physics teachers plan their day’s lesson that morning, the night before, or even a week or month earlier. Typically, any day’s lesson is part of a week- or month-long unit of instruction geared to district and state standards. More experienced teachers have files of previous years’ lessons or know the content and skills to be taught so well that they keep plans in their heads (and occasionally wing it) while novice and early-career teachers usually have paper lessons sitting on their desks or on laptop screens. Thus, before a lesson is taught, a teacher’s plan includes a bunch of intended objectives, ways of reaching those desired ends through different activities, and how she will assess whether the lesson succeeded.

What complicates classroom decision-making are the myriad intentions (i.e., goals and objectives) teachers have ranging from managing the group of students to focus on lesson, getting students to learn, keeping the lesson moving since there is only so much time available, and avoiding distractions while teaching. With multiple intentions, diverse students, and limited time, conflicts and contradictions inevitably arise.

Teacher decision-making during lessons

When students appear in the classroom, planning shifts to actual decisions in real time made according to the original plan and, too often, as events unfold, on the fly. Improvising occurs when the lesson veers from the plan because of student responsiveness (or lack thereof), unanticipated events popping up, or the teacher suddenly realizing that there is another way of making the central point of the lesson. Or all three may occur in an unexpected trifecta of events.

Researcher Mary Kennedy interviewed 45 teachers at length for her study Inside Teaching. Here is what a 5th grade teacher told Kennedy about what she is thinking when teaching a lesson:

You learn to carry lots of things in your head–where the lesson is going, what you’re going to say next, who is paying attention to you, there’s a problem here. You’re carrying lots of things–I’ve got to watch the clock because at ten o’clock we have got an assembly–…. You have all of these thoughts going on–I think sometimes it affects how I speak to people because it comes out disjointed when I am having a conversation, because another thought comes in,and it rushes out, and there are all these thoughts bombarding all the time. I think that’s part of being a teacher, because you have to carry all this stuff in your head. You can write out nice little note cards and have all thing organized, but then there’s always something–the assembly is 10 minutes late because they were late getting–all these things, so you learn how to adjust and be flexible and how to carry these things around, partly through practice, I guess (p.56).

Non-teachers, then, would be amazed at the total number of decisions teachers make during a 45 to 55 minute lesson, the frequency of ad-lib, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. In questioning students, starting and stopping activities, watching the clock, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads, decisions tumble out one after another.

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-driven routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected pile up teacher decisions.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and NBA basketballers, improvise, decide on the spot–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.

Teacher decision-making after the lesson

Depending on how experienced a teacher is, post-lesson evaluation–another form of decision-making– occurs either formally when teachers write notesr to themselves on what happened during the lesson and judging what seemed to work and what didn’t in their initial plans. New teachers are encouraged by their mentors and former university teachers to do so. More experienced teachers may jot down a sentence here and there for the next time they will use this lesson. Post-lesson decision-making is judgmental. Some teachers may ask their students–another teacher decision–to rate the lesson on what they remembered or learned in class.

Hence, teachers engage in complex decision-making before, during, and after a lesson is taught. Non-teachers like parents during pandemic closures know little of this complexity in individual teacher decision-making or the organizational complexity in which teachers live daily.

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During Pandemic, More Parents Come To Appreciate Teachers and Understand Teaching

Teacher Appreciation Week begins May 3rd. With school closures over a year ago and the onslaught of remote instruction, many parents have come to appreciate not only what teachers do in classrooms (and now on screens) than ever before (see here) but also how complex the act of teaching is.

Celebrities sport T-shirts asking that teacher should have higher salaries. Actor Ron Farrell who has three children being home schooled was seen in his neighborhood picking up garbage.

Celebrity parents calling for higher salaries only mirrors now more than ever that Moms and Dads sitting in kitchens and bedrooms hovering over their children have a deeper understanding (and appreciation) about teaching being not only a complex activity but also a relationship built on trust and respect.

That appreciation and understanding were too often unconsidered by many parents prior to the pandemic some of whom, unaware of the organizational and political realities of district operations and funding, criticized teachers for assigning too much homework, having short work days and two months off during the summer.

What many parents working with children at home during the pandemic have come to fathom is how much student learning–no matter how expert the teacher is–occurs because of the emotional bonds between teacher and student. And those bonds make teaching and learning an intricate dance between two partners who depend upon one another for success.

So the act of teaching is complex either in the kitchen or school classroom. That complexity begins with non-educators grasping fully the central fact of effective classroom teaching: It is built on teacher expertise and emotional connections that fuel student learning.

Consider the basic triangle that seemingly captures what happens in classrooms.

Seems simple enough. The teacher teaches content and skills to the student who learns both. But what appears simple is hardly so when each part of the triangle is unpacked and then analyzed for what is contains and too often omitted. Then, complexity blooms.

Student

In a fifth grade class of 11 year-olds, they are all the same age but, oh, do they differ from one another in capacities, motivation, and home experiences–all of which shape their responses to the teacher and the curriculum. The interactions between each student and the teacher are influenced by what the student brings to the classroom from home (e.g., prior learning, attitudes toward school) that shape classroom behavior from paying attention to teacher directions to connecting to classmates. So complexity begins with many factors, many of which the teacher has little control, that impinge upon student academic and classroom behavior.

Teacher

Like students teachers vary in experience, training, background, capacities, and motivations. Novice teachers tend to focus on behavioral and academic rules, textbooks, and managing groups of students as they wend their way through six hours of elementary school or through a handful of hour-long classes in secondary schools. Experienced teachers, especially those who have taught in the same school for five or more years know well the content and skills that have to be taught and how to manage group and individual behavior during lessons. But variations in expertise and classroom lessons are evident.

Skills and Content

Students learning to parse words and understand what is read, write clear sentences, master math operations, grasp the concept of evolution, and consider the many factors that contributed to World War I cover a partial hop, skip, and jump through the elementary and secondary curricula teachers teach as students climb the school ladder toward graduation.

Hard as teachers try, some content and skills prove too easy for some students, just right for others, and too hard for the rest. Differences in capacity,motivation, and achievement pile up as students move through their school careers. Students appreciate those few teachers who fueled their learning while coping with indifferent teachers or those teachers simply putting in the time.

Of course, teachers vary greatly in their grasp of the content and skills that they must teach at each grade level. Teachers learn that some classes have a personality unlike other groups they have had. Those teachers in secondary schools who face four or five different groups of student daily, for example, may genuinely look forward to the third period class and dread the first period group of students. Nonetheless, most teachers manage to bond with most of their students. Thus, in age-graded schools, teachers differ not only in their grasp and execution of content and skills as students move from one grade to another, from one subject to another but also in how well they bond to individual students and classes.

Like students and teachers, much variation exists in schools because of the one-teacher/one classroom, age-graded segregation of classrooms, and the constant press for teachers and students to firm up personal relationships that are at the core of schooling

All of these differences make teaching a complex act in an intricate and elaborate organization called the age-graded school nested in an even larger organization called the school district. That complexity exists in teaching shows up during a daily classroom lesson as surely as it does in schools with 400 to 2000 students where 30 to 100 teachers teach and equally as certain when moving up another step to the district school board making curricular and instructional policy for both students and teachers. The concept of complexity nested at every level of public schooling becomes apparent.

Context

And awareness of this larger system of schooling may be the blind spot for parents during the pandemic. In their growing appreciation and understanding of teachers and teaching, they may miss the other links in the chain. Parents surely see the complexity of teaching when going through lessons with even one or four of their kids at home; they may even marvel at the simple fact that teachers teach 25-30 students at a time in one room. But each classroom is part of a larger more complex system that many parents may not see or fully grasp.

Consider that a classroom is one small part of a school; the school is one part of a district; and a district may be one of hundreds in a state. That means that classrooms, schools, and districts are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence inside and outside the system yet missing a military or police “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment.

And the last part of the previous sentence gets at where schools and districts are located in a neighborhood, community, and state. Going to school in Johnstown (PA) is surely different from going to school in Jackson (MS). Suburban Chicago New Trier high school offers parents a different menu of classes and services than those parents who send their children to Senn High School in Chicago.

And these varied contexts is why many parents who want to make schools better get aggravated. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply cannot fully grasp complex systems (i.e., classrooms nested in schools that are nested in districts that are nested in communities that are nested in states which make policy and distribute funds) with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings (e.g., hurricanes, pandemics, economic depressions) but seldom move in the intended directions that reformers desire.

The above analysis of the student/teacher/content and skills triangle is a mere slice of this larger complexity within which students, teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers inhabit daily.

What’s missing from the core triangle of teacher/student/content/ , then, is the context. The community and neighborhood in which the school is located, the families who send their sons and daughters to each school, district size, leadership, and organization, and how much the state and district spend per pupil.

The school context for what content and skills teachers teach and students learn is simply one part of the complex factors outlined above. All of this is a reminder just exactly how classrooms, schools, and districts are intricate organizations nested in one another thereby explaining why parents and reformers often see their well-intended plans go awry or get adapted and adopted making their precious reforms unrecognizable.

So while many parents have come to appreciate and understand the complexities of teaching during pandemic-induced school closures, most have yet to grasp the organizational and political intricacies of classrooms embedded in schools, schools in districts, and districts within states–the entire chain of compulsory schooling that educates children from age 4 through 18.

* KAL refers to “knowledge of language”

No easy task for even those who work daily in the system of public schooling, much less Moms and Dads.

In subsequent posts, I will elaborate further on these cascading complexities that extend from the classroom to the school to the district and state superintendent of instruction who sit atop this world of cross-cutting ties, politics, under-resourced schools. And I will connect those policy complexities to that 3rd grade teacher who, building relations with her students, constructs daily lessons that get her 30 nine year-olds to learn their times tables and fractions.

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Cartoons about Life during Covid

Vaccinations against Covid-19 have picked up, infections were down then plateaued, and now have risen a tad but the outlook is far more positive than it was in January. So this monthly feature of cartoons will look at life during Covid. It will be the last set of stabs at humor about the year of the plague and the gradual resumption of “normal” activities. Enjoy!

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Parent as Teacher during the Pandemic

Renee Enyart, 28, was across the room from her sixth-grader when it happened. She glanced over and saw her daughter Emi, who was virtually attending science class at their home in Winter Haven, Fla., reaching for her laptop’s power cable. Suddenly, a sharp voice rang out from the speakers. “It was just an instant scolding: ‘I told you to look at the screen. You know what you’re supposed to be doing. I shouldn’t have to tell you guys,’ ” Enyart recalled.

Tears sprang into Emi’s eyes. “I didn’t know she was unmuted, and I just told her, ‘Go ahead and let it die.’ Because it just annoyed me — she was still paying attention. She was grabbing our charger, trying to be present in the class,” Enyart said. “I was actually kind of glad that the teacher did hear it, because for a second it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ She instantly apologized.”

From a survey of parents six months after schools closed:

*In the early days of the pandemic, the majority of parents (78%) were educating their child at home.

Only about half (55%) of parents felt prepared to educate their child at home and 50% of parents felt overwhelmed by responsibilities to educate their child at home.

Two out of every five parents met the criteria for major depression (40%) and criteria for moderate or severe anxiety (40%).

Nearly 1 in 4 parents (24%) indicated that their child was fearful or anxious.

Over half of parents (58%) who utilized free/reduced-cost breakfast or lunch programs reported that they were no longer able to receive them during the pandemic.

090220 Riverdale, Ga. – Asia Mitchell (center), mother of seven, hairstylist, and soon-to-be tech support agent for Sprint, plays a game with her eldest daughter, London (upper left), 10, while on lunch break from virtual school at their Riverdale, Ga. home Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Siblings Paris (lower left), 7, and Sydney (right), 4, look on. PHOTO BY BITA HONARVAR

The worn but useful cliche that the parent is the first teacher who a child encounters remains true for those months that U.S. public schools have been closed. The research showing the strong influence of parental engagement with their children over schooling pays off in higher academic achievement than those parents who are less engaged (see here and here).

And then suddenly in March 2020, parents, uncles, aunts, adult cousins were drafted into an army of unpaid teachers to carry on remotely on screens what paid teachers were earnestly trying to deliver over laptops in kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms.

So what have we learned about parents as teachers in the past year?

*For the most part, they are stressed over the additional responsibility of not only parenting but also making sure that their sons and daughters are learning the required content and skills that teachers would ordinarily deliver in classrooms.

*Parents have learned teaching even one, two, or three children ain’t easy. They have increased respect for the act of teaching and expertise that teachers have in teaching individuals, small groups, and the entire class of 25-35 students.

*Teaching and parenting are emotional labor. Parental authority and children compliance with teacher-directed work delivered via screen has the potential to stretch and fray the emotionally charged parent/child bond, one that is the very basis for trust which is basic to all human relationships.

Thus, when Mom asks Tiffany to complete the worksheet that the teacher has on the screen and instead Tiffany gets on the couch and picks up the iPhone to check messages, friction erupts. And then adding pandemic math problems or reading assignments requiring students to do further research on the Internet further stretches the emotional bonds between child and Mom. No surprise that stress over home schooling has increased during the pandemic.

And many teachers have realized the new roles that parents have to play when instruction is remote.

Listen to Natasha, a 36-year-old high school science teacher in Nashville. She told a Washington Post reporter that she used to have a say in whether a student slept through class or not. Now, she said, she doesn’t.

“Since the kids aren’t in the classroom, [we’ve had] to rely on the parents,” said Natasha, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her career. She said it can be difficult for teachers to know whether kids are working. “If a student doesn’t have their camera on, I don’t know if they’re taking notes, if they’re laying across the bed asleep.”

Natasha knows that it is am adult’s job to enforce rules. Because students are now learning in their homes, parents have to enforce rules. And not every parent is either prepared or around to do it.

“As parents, when we send our kids to school, we feel assured that, you know, [teachers are] professionals, and they’re going to get the job done,” Natasha said. “But now, a lot of things that typically parents don’t have to be concerned about in the education process, they now do have to deal with.”

Natasha summed up well the shift in the parent/teacher role that occurred during Covid-19 closures of schools.

Pandemic or not, teachers need parents.

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Can Educators Teach Students To Spot Fake News (Frederick Hess)

Following up on my recent post, Whatever Happened to Current Events, this op-ed by Frederick Hess who interviewed Stanford University Professor, Sam Wineburg, goes to the crucial intersection of children and youth learning how to sort accurate from inaccurate information. Digital literacy in dealing with mainstream and social media, according to Wineburg, spans all academic subjects that children and youth take during their student careers of 13-plus years in schools.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies and writes about K-12 and higher education. This article appeared in Forbes magazine April 13, 2021.

One of the great educational conundrums of the moment is how to help Americans navigate a digital landscape filled with fake news, dubious claims, and rank disinformation. Educators, like the rest of us, are searching for practical strategies. That’s what makes Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg so interesting.

Wineburg, Stanford’s Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, studies how people judge the credibility of digital content. A former history teacher with a PhD in education psychology, he’s perhaps the nation’s leading scholar when it comes to helping people figure out what’s actually true on the Internet. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work and the practical lessons it holds.

Wineburg approaches his work with a simple guiding principle: “If you want to know what people do on the Internet, don’t ask them what they would do. Put them in front of a computer and watch them do it.”

He recounts a 2019 experiment studying how high school students evaluate digital sources, in which 3,000 students performed a series of web tasks. One task asked students to evaluate a website about climate change. Wineburg notes, “When you Google the group behind it, you learn that they’re funded by Exxon—a clear conflict of interest. Yet, 92 percent of students never made the link. Why? Because their eyes remained glued to the original site.” In other words, looking into the source of information is essential to judging its veracity—and yet, students didn’t make that leap. 

In another study, Wineburg compared how a group of PhD students and Stanford undergraduates stacked up against fact-checkers at leading news outlets in New York and Washington when it came to assessing the credibility of unfamiliar websites. He says that fact-checkers speedily “saw through common digital ruses” while trained scholars “often spun around in circles.”

Why? Wineburg concludes, “The intelligent people we’ve studied are invested in their intelligence. That investment often gets them in trouble. Because they’re smart, they think they can outsmart the Web.” The result is that when they see a professional-looking website with scholarly references, they conclude it’s legitimate. “Basically,” he says, “they’re reading the web like a piece of static print—thinking that they can determine what something is by looking at it . . . On the Internet, hubris is your Achilles heel.”

Fact-checkers employ a different approach, one that Wineburg terms “lateral reading.” This involves only briefly looking at a website, then leaving it to search for background information on the organization or group behind the original site to determine if it is worth returning to. “In other words,” he says, “they learn about a site by leaving it to consult the broader Web.”

The problem for educators, according to Wineburg, is that this goes against the grain of how teachers usually teach students to evaluate a text. Usually, students are taught to read carefully and fully, and only then render judgment. “Yet, on the Web, where attention is scarce, expending precious minutes reading a text, before you know who produced it and why, is a colossal waste of time,” Wineburg says.

In fact, the usual methods teachers use for addressing online credibility are mostly unhelpful. Wineburg laments that we often approach the subject like a game of twenty questions. We ask, “‘Is the site a .org?’ If so, ‘It’s good.’ ‘Is it a .com?’ If so, ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Does it have contact information?’ That makes it ‘good.’ But if it has banner ads? ‘It’s bad.’” The problem, he says, “is that bad actors read these lists, too, and each of these features is ludicrously easy to game.”

To help teachers wrestling with all this, Wineburg and his collaborators have created a “digital literacy curriculum” with 65 classroom-ready lessons and assessments, a complementary set of videos, and an online course on “Online Civic Reasoning” done with MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Wineburg notes that all of these materials are free and can be downloaded by registering at sheg.stanford.edu.

Wineburg thinks we should be teaching these skills from “the moment we give [kids] a smartphone” and that “we’re deluding ourselves” if we imagine that schools adding “an elective” will be enough to “drag us out of this mess.” Rather, he wants educators to ask: “How, in the face of our current digital assault, do we rethink the teaching of history, science, civics, and language arts—the basics?”

Ultimately, Wineburg says, “On every question we face as citizens—to raise the minimum wage, to legalize marijuana, to tax sugary drinks, to abolish private prisons, you name it—sham sources jostle for our attention right next to trustworthy ones. Failing to teach kids the difference is educational negligence.”

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My Next Book

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.

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