Teachers and Policymakers: Different Pictures, Different Actions

This is a post I wrote over nine years ago and re-post now because I still believe it is relevant in describing the different worlds teachers and policymakers inhabit.  When a new policy (e.g., Common Core standards, “personalized learning”) travels from a school board through the superintendent’s suite, to the principal’s office that journey reveals anew stark differences between policymakers and teachers, differences that have been around for decades but, too often go steer clear of open discussion.


There is a story that has made the rounds about radio messages sent to and from a U.S. navy ship a number of years ago.*

U.S. Navy Ship: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the
North to avoid a collision.

Reply: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to avoid a collision.

Ship: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Reply: No, I say again you divert YOUR course.


Reply: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

I am reminded of this story whenever I consider the
disorderly, even messy way that policies enter classrooms.

In previous posts (September 9 and 12, 2009), I had pointed out competing images of
teachers as implementers. One picture in the heads of most state and federal
policymakers has teachers as one link in a long policy chain implementing new standards and following procedures. That image is a constricted view of teachers as technicians dutifully carrying out orders from the top—even when those orders—see the above exchange with the U.S.S. Enterprise captain—are mistaken.

Another image used to describe implementing classroom policies is pushing pasta. In this image, policymakers are helpless in determining what teachers do in their classrooms once the door is closed. Teachers are policy brokers who decide what they let in their classrooms.

I want to offer a third image nestled between the technician/policy broker ones that may be closer to the realities teachers face in implementing well-intended, even evidence-based policy decisions. That image is one of different worlds that policymakers and teachers inhabit—overlapping in some respects like Venn diagrams—but for the most part driven by different values and incentives. This picture may explain policymaker difficulties with teachers and why teaching practices seem so stable over decades. The world of classroom teachers has its own set of values and incentives that, like the above lighthouse that the U.S.S. Enterprise nearly ignored, few policymakers even notice, much less invoke.

Consider when a new instructionally-driven policy, say, hand-held electronic devices or a new reading program appears. Teachers ask: Can I learn it quickly or do I have to spend a lot of time figuring out what to do? Will it motivate my students? Does the program contain skills that are connected to what I am expected to teach and what students need? What happens if I need immediate help? Seldom do policymakers either anticipate or pay attention to such practical questions.

These questions reveal that teachers prize ideas and actions that payoff in learning and meaningful relationships with students. They seek concrete and specific solutions to practical classroom problems. The incentives that drive teachers to teach better in their classrooms come more from internal values than external rewards: the joys of seeing students learn and achieve goals, the service they render to society, and similar psychic rewards.

The world policymakers inhabit differs greatly. Their world is largely political where election cycles, budgets, media attention, and measurable outcomes determine job longevity and personal satisfaction. Incentives such as re-election, influencing others, and positive media dominate daily routines. The values of efficiency, effectiveness, and popularity rule.

Obviously, the worlds of teachers and policymakers overlap when it comes to the values of effectiveness although each would define differently which effects are most important and the measures used. Efficiency at the school and district levels—squeezing more test scores out of every dollar spent– is far more a policymaker value than one held by teachers.

In these different worlds, teachers bring moral and service values that differ from the technical, scientific, and reputational values that policy makers hold. Of course teachers seek improvement in students’ test scores but they prize far more changes in students’ attitudes, values, and actual behavior on academic and nonacademic tasks.

So which of these three pictures of classroom teachers implementing policy decisions realistically describes what happens in classrooms?

My guess is that on school health/safety issues the image of the policy chain with teachers dutifully following orders for fire drills, emergency exits, and protecting students does describes a slice of school reality. On policies that ask teachers to alter their daily habits of organizing the classroom and teaching differently, however, the “pushing pasta” metaphor is operative.

Why? Because the incentives and values of the policymaker world puts blinders on most federal and state decision-makers; they are either unaware of or choose to ignore the incentives and values that drive teachers thereby neglecting essential resources needed to help those who wish to alter their daily routines.

Most policymakers fail to inspect the pictures in their heads about school systems as organizations. Too often, they assume that teachers are like other employees in business, military, and other governmental organizations. As the fable goes, the captain of the U.S.S Enterprise used the command-and-control view until he learned that he was communicating with a lighthouse. Then he shifted course. Albeit only a story, still an excellent point to keep in mind when considering the different worlds of teachers and policymakers.


I thank Paul Kirschner at the Open University in the Netherlands for pointing out that this story has no factual basis (see here)



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Are You a Visual or an Auditory Learner? It Doesn’t Matter (Daniel Willingham)


“Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.”

This appeared October 4, 2018 in the New York Times.

You must read this article to understand it, but many people feel reading is not how they learn best. They would rather listen to an explanation or view a diagram. Researchers have formalized those intuitions into theories of learning styles. These theories are influential enough that many states (including New York) require future teachers to know them and to know how they might be used in the classroom.

But there’s no good scientific evidence that learning styles actually exist.

Over the last several decades, researchers have proposed dozens of theories, each suggesting a scheme to categorize learners. The best known proposes that some of us like words and others like pictures, but other theories make different distinctions: whether you like to solve problems intuitively or by analyzing them, for example, or whether you prefer to tackle a complex idea with an overview or by diving into details.

If one of these theories were right, it would bring important benefits. In the classroom, a brief test would categorize children as this type of learner or that, and then a teacher could include more of this or that in their schooling. In the workplace, a manager might send one employee a memo but communicate the same information to another in a conversation.

Does such matching work? To find out, researchers must determine individuals’ supposed learning style and then ask them to learn something in a way that matches or conflicts with it. For example, in an experiment testing the visual-auditory theory, researchers determined subjects’ styles by asking about their usual mental strategies: Do you spell an unfamiliar word by sounding it out or visualizing the letters? Do you give directions in words or by drawing a map?

Next, researchers read statements, and participants rated either how easily the statement prompted a mental image (a visual learning experience) or how easy it was to pronounce (an auditory learning experience). The auditory learners should have remembered statements better if they focused on the sound rather than if they created visual images, and visual learners should have shown the opposite pattern. But they didn’t.

The theory is wrong, but, curiously, people act as though it’s right — they try to learn in accordance with what they think is their style. When experimenters asked research participants to learn a new task and gave them access to written instructions and to diagrams, the people who thought of themselves as verbalizers went for words, and the self-described visualizers looked at pictures. But tests showed they didn’t learn the task any faster because they adhered to their purported style.

In another experiment, researchers eavesdropped on brain activity to show that people will mentally change a task to align with what they think is their learning style. Researchers used stimuli that were either pictures (a blue-striped triangle) or verbal descriptions (“green,” “dotted,” “square”). While in a brain scanner, participants had to match successive stimuli, but they never knew whether a picture or words would pop up next.

When self-described visual learners saw words, the visual part of their brain was active; they were transforming the verbal stimulus into a picture. Likewise, verbal areas of the brain were active when verbal learners saw a picture; they were describing it to themselves. But again, these efforts were in vain. People performed the task no better when the stimuli matched what they thought of as their learning style.

The problem is not just that trying to learn in your style doesn’t help — it can cost you. Learning style theories ignore the fact that one mental strategy may be much better suited than another to a particular task. For example, consider the theory that differentiates intuitive and reflective thinking. The former is quick and relies on associations in memory; the latter is slower and analytic.

Whatever your purported style, intuitive thinking is better for problems demanding creativity, and reflective thinking is better for formal problems like calculations of probability. An intuitive thinker who mulishly sticks to his supposed learning style during a statistics test will fail.

Although conforming to learning styles doesn’t help, we can learn a few lessons from this research.

First, instead of trying to transform a task to match your style, transform your thinking to match the task. The best strategy for a task is the best strategy, irrespective of what you believe your learning style is.

Second, don’t let your purported style be a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or an excuse for resignation. “Sorry I mixed up the dates — I’m just not a linear thinker” is bunk. Likewise, don’t tell your child’s teacher that she is struggling in class because the teacher is not adjusting to her learning style.

Finally, the idea of tuning tasks to an individual’s style offered hope — a simple change might improve performance in school and at work. We’ve seen that that doesn’t work, but this research highlights hope of another kind. We are not constrained by our learning style. Any type of learning is open to any of us.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Whatever Happened to Site-Based Decision-making?

A majority of voters–with or without children in public schools– have to say “yea” to tax levies to erect and maintain buildings, pay teachers, buy books, equipment, and supplies to cover costs of educating the community’s children and youth. Moreover, state laws compel parents to send those children and youth five and older to the age of 16 or so to school.

Governance of these tax-supported public schools reflects the history of a nation suspicious of centralized authority lodged in one person such as a king or a president. So there is no national ministry of education in the U.S. Because the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that powers not mentioned in the Constitution belong to the states and since “education” or “schools” go unmentioned in the document, states govern public schools. Every state authorizes local districts to have school boards to govern districts. California has over a thousand districts, Hawaii has one.

So the nation’s schools are decentralized: 50 states and territories make decisions about schooling in over 13,000 school districts across America. Sure there is a U.S. Secretary of Education who sits in the President’s cabinet meetings. Keep in mind, however, that the vast bulk of money spent on schools comes from states and local districts; the federal contribution to school spending is less than a dime out of every dollar spent on public schools.

State and locally elected representatives serve on school boards that decide policies from constructing classrooms, changing curriculum, and requiring teaching credentials to setting high school graduation requirements, determining which tests to give students, and establishing the format of report cards.

These elected representatives scattered across a decentralized system govern about 100,000 public schools housing over 50 million students taught by more than three million teachers. These trustees, often unpaid and part-time, make policy for the district be it small, mid-sized, or large. They are removed from the neighborhood elementary school where decisions have to be made on how much to spend on new books, whether to hire a janitor or a librarian, and what to do with obsolete computer devices.

When one-room schoolhouses dominated the topography of U.S. schooling, local trustees who lived in the rural community, hired and fired the teacher, insured that the official curriculum was taught, and maintained the school building. But as schools and districts grew larger particularly in towns and cities, states permitted locally elected school boards to make such decisions. They still do. However, in big cities with scores, even hundreds of schools and thousands of employees these elected school boards are far removed from children, teachers, principals, and daily operations of each and every school.

As long as urban and suburban schools seem to fulfill what taxpayers and voters expected, say between the 1920s and 1950s, the system seemed to be working. At different times, however, especially since the mid-1960s growing  disaffection with  public schools, anger at low academic performance, high incidence of drugs and teenage pregnancies, stories of in-school violence and gangs, rising dropout rates and low percentages of students going on to college prompted many reforms including ones that changed how schools were governed. Prompted by the report A Nation at Risk (1983) state and federal authorities searched for different ways to toughen public schools so that U.S. students could better compete with international ones. One of these reforms aimed at restoring higher academic and behavioral norms through neighborhood parents together with teachers and principals at each school either advising decision makers or making decisions themselves. Or what has come to be called site-base decision making or management.

What is site-based decision making and when did it begin?

At the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, site-based decision making varied greatly–as one would expect–in a decentralized system of national schooling. Here is how Jane David described it then:

Most variants … involve some sort of representative decision-making council at the school, which may share authority with the principal or be merely advisory. Some councils have the power to hire principals, some hire and fire, some do neither. Some can hire other personnel when there are vacancies. Some councils specify that the principal be the chair, others specify that the principal not be the chair.

The composition of site councils also varies tremendously. In addition to teachers, parents, and the principal, they may include classified staff, community members, students, and business representatives. Educators may outnumber non-educators, or vice versa. States or districts may list constituencies who must be represented, or simply leave it to individual schools…

A number of states approved policies (e.g., Kentucky, Illinois) that allowed and even directed districts to establish site-based decision making (e.g., Chicago).

What problems does site-based decision making aim to solve?

The surge of governance reforms aimed at local citizens making key decisions on school budgets, hiring and firing personnel, curriculum, and services offered occurred in the late-1980s through the 1990s when student performance on international and state tests fell short of policy elites’ expectations for U.S. schools at a time when U.S. economic competitiveness with other nations lagged. Better schools were viewed as engines for a stronger economy.

Assumptions were that top-down decision making left school staffs to being technicians hired to put into practice what policymakers thought they should be doing. Giving teachers and other staff authority to make school-wide decisions would lead to school staffs to work harder to improve schools and increased morale which, in turn, would produce gains in students’ academic performance. Another assumption was that district offices were too top heavy with administrators who were out-of-touch with local school sites; reducing district office officials through firing and re-assignment and strengthening the capacities of locals would improve both decision making and school performance.

As in businesses that had learned to restructure their operations by reducing central administration and driving decisions down to the site that did the actual work, i.e., the school, governance reform swept across states and big cities as a way of improving students academic performance. The primary assumption was that participatory decision making was strongly linked to improved test scores (see here, here, and here)

Does site-based decision making work?

No evidence that I have seen confirms the assumption that participatory decision making in of itself improves student achievement as measured by test scores. While there may be correlations between the two, no causal connection, to my knowledge, has been established (see here and here).

In Chicago where Local School Councils (LSCs) were established in by state law in 1988, each district school–there were over 550 schools–elected parents, teachers and community members to determine policy for the school. These parent-dominated LSCs hired and fired principals, made budget decisions, designed the curriculum, and determined school procedures. In 1995, the state allowed the mayor to control of schools and LSCs lost much of their decision making authority but do continue (see here and here).

Researcher Tony Bryk and colleagues in the Consortium on Chicago School Research  looked closely at these LSCs and concluded that such neighborhood decision making increased student achievement in many but not all schools governed by LSCs if they had put into place certain features (here and here).

That the process of school-site decision making improves the climate of the school, teacher morale by participating in school-wide decision making, and the sense of community–mediating variables between decision making and gains in academic achievement–there is evidence albeit a few decades old (see here).

What has happened to site-based decision making

The Chicago example of LSCs with full decision making authority lasting less than a decade and continuing into 2018 with far shrunken duties in 2018 sticks out as uncommon among governance innovations. Although surveys of district officials establish that every district has some local school mechanism for teacher, parent, and community decision making–in 1994 it was 56 percent of all public schools–but with some inspection many of these school sites have an advisory role rather than full-fledged authority to make critical school-wide decisions.

What has happened since the 1990s, has been an increase in site-based decision making in the growth of charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia allow publically funded and independently operated charter schools. In 2018, there are over 7,000 charter schools in the U.S enrolling over 3 million students. States do not require that governing boards for charter schools be elected.; they are appointed (full disclosure: I served as a trustee on a four high school charter network called Leadership Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay area for three years). Massachusetts has strict rules for governance mechanisms of charter schools with great variability among the other states that grant charters to individual schools for three to five years.

So site-based decision making continues in various districts across the U.S. that have elected school boards devolving decision making authority to schools but the largest, recent growth in school site governance has been within charter schools.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Why Principals Differ: Joe, Ralph, and Edna

The film Lean on Me portrays high school principal Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1980s rescuing a school mired in violence and poor academic performance. In one dramatic scene, over two hundred troublemakers are on the auditorium stage. The rest of the student body sitting in the auditorium watch as Clark at the microphone–played by a young Morgan Freeman– quiets everyone including those students standing behind him. Clark tells the students that those on stage have caused all the trouble and to turn around this school, they must be removed.

Facing the two-hundred mischief-makers milling around on stage, Clark points his finger at them and says: “You are expurgated! You are no longer welcome in this school.” The school security staff in blue blazers shoves them out of the doors.

Joe Clark’s kicking out troublesome students pleased movie crowds 30 years ago as it did the country when they learned about this baseball bat-toting principal. In real life, Joe Clark got in trouble with the school board over expelling the students yet he had his 15 minutes of fame and continued as an educator until he retired.


But he was a sprinter principal, not a marathoner.

Lean on Me lays out the fantasy Americans have about their principals. We want fearless school leaders but get managers with keys dangling on their belts. This expectation of principal-as-Superman (or Wonder Woman) is fairly common but few principals are Clark Kents in mufti. Most principals want to be leaders but cannot because they are caught in the middle between their district bosses wanting them to follow policy, parents wanting their requests fulfilled, teachers wanting to be left alone, and students wanting teachers who teach. Principals learn to navigate among potential conflicts by being managers and politicians juggling competing expectations and constituencies. The DNA of the job is managing and taking few risks.

Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.

As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.

Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.

A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.

In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.

Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.

Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.

In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.

Why are there more Ralphs than Ednas? The answer is: A job that forces risk-averse principals to manage bosses, parents, teachers, and students creates Ralphs. Risk-seeking Ednas relish managing conflicts and escape the trap of being caught in the middle. But too often end up leaving the principalship.



Filed under leadership, school leaders

Changing Technologies in Classrooms

A friend and former colleague, Henry Levin, recently wrote about his experience in a 1940s classroom.

I started school in 1943, and by the time we were in third grade we were introduced to writing cursive using an ink pen.  Initially these were the pens with long tapered wooden handles with replaceable pen tips or nibs, but by sixth grade we were expected to use fountain pens because they were less messy.  I remember filling carefully my pen by maneuvering a lever on its side that compressed a rubber bladder inside to draw ink from the inkwell on its release.  

Related image

I was also given the responsibility of refilling the inkwells each day or every other day.  We used huge bottles of Quink (perhaps a liter), and they had to be manipulated in just the right way to fill (three quarters), but not overfill the inkwell.  My recollection is that this was a permanent ink that could not be removed from my clothing.  Once I dropped the entire bottle on the floor, leading to a large spill.  That required initially placing newsprint and paper tissues to soak up most of it, followed by a mopping and scrubbing with water and suds.  Still, a shadow of the ink remained, and the teacher reminded me periodically that I needed to be careful not to further damage her floor.  Towards the end of high school some very expensive ballpoint pens began to replace the ink pens, and we were no longer expected to use the ink paraphernalia.But, the old desks last for a long time.  Even in the late fifties (I was in college), I visited my old high school and found that all of the student desks still had inkwells.  Students wondered what they were for.

I also have a memory of a later technology that, like the inkwell, became obsolescent.

In the late 1960s Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multi-million dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).


The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and 2 large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

student responder

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with amplification of sound, simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play. Designers created the pad for students to punch in their choices to communicate instantaneously to the lecturer their answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system and simultaneous translation) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

By 2011, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room was still in use as a regular lecture hall. I was in that room that year to hear a colleague talk about his career in education and, you guessed it, as I listened, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys.

In 2012, the LGI was renovated and the numeric pads disappeared just as those holes in classroom desks to store ink did decades ago.*

Whoever said classrooms don’t change?


*Thanks to Deborah Belanger for supplying the date of the LGI renovation.




Filed under technology

Photos of Innovations

Americans love innovations. If it is new, inventive, efficient, and effective–then it (e.g., light bulb, horseless carriage, driverless car) is good. Yet there have been innovations and inventions that range from clever to dumb and only occasionally get marketed beyond the family and friends of the inventor. Here are some photos of such innovations. Enjoy!































Filed under Uncategorized

Arranging Classroom Furniture: A Glimpse into How Teachers Teach

How teachers arrange the furniture in classrooms gives a peek into how teachers teach. Look at these photos taken last year of elementary and secondary classrooms that have different furniture arrangements.








Note the different arrangements of  desks. In the first photo, rows of movable desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk is located. The second photo has a horseshoe pattern of tablet armchairs across from one another. The third photo is of an elementary classroom that is chock-full of materials and children working on different activities with adults sitting on the rug and chair working with  individual pupils. And the final photo is one of a secondary classroom arranged in rows where each student has a tablet and a smart phone.

Now, take a look at photos of classrooms over the past century.





Five decades later when movable desks and chairs replaced the traditional bolted down ones, a photo shows a typical classroom.


Note the regimented order of these classrooms a century ago and even five decades later. True, those desks were bolted down a century ago–did you notice the small inkwell hole in each desk for students to dip their pens when doing cursive writing?  Were even a teacher then so inclined to arrange small groups of students to work together–and such teachers were around–they could do it but had to overcome the furniture arrangement. But a half-century later, with movable desks, rows were still there in many classrooms but not others.

Are the changes in how classrooms are furnished and arranged dramatically different? Yes and no.

The “yes” part is in the many different ways teachers have arranged desks and chairs in their classrooms over the decades. The “no” part is that while different ways of organizing furniture in elementary classrooms is evident and apparent for anyone who ventures into a kindergarten and first grade classroom, that is much less differentiation in secondary classrooms.

Do such photos of classroom furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach? Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.

#Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal (science classrooms with permanent lab tables facing the front of the room would be one exception). The teacher decides how to use classroom space. Furniture placement, consciously or not, expresses the teacher’s views of how best to teach, maintain order, and how students learn. Thus, an observer gets a clue to whether teacher-centered and student-centered instruction* (including mixes of both) will prevail.

#When all students face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) where directions, daily homework, textbook readings and quizzes are registered, whole group instruction is encouraged including class discussions (recitation was the word used in the early 20th century). Teacher-talk  gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.

#Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.

Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.

#If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk, student-centered instruction where student talk and decision-making are prized becomes a much stronger possibility.

Note, however, that furniture arrangements do not determine how teachers teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than clues to what teachers believe and practice in their lessons. Keep in mind  that for the early decades of this century when desks were fixed to the floor, there were still teachers who ingeniously and with much energy overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom.Such furniture may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent some from altering their teaching practices.

So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in describing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered.

Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs. They are the result of teacher decisions stemming from beliefs in keeping order and how students learn best in the age-graded school within which teachers work. So when I enter a classroom, the first thing I note and record is how desks and chairs are arranged in any classroom.


*In using the language of  “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom arrangements offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.


Filed under how teachers teach

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