The Persistent Quest for “Successful” Teaching

In my office I have an old text used for beginning teachers called Hall’s Lectures on School-Keeping. It was published in 1829. “While the class is reading,” Samuel Read Hall tells novices, “the entire attention of the teacher should be given to that exercise.” Ditto for writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and other subjects taught in one-room schoolhouses. Why? “In this way, everything will be done, and done without confusion.”

Now fast-forward to 2010. In a forthcoming book called “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College,” Doug Lemov gives advice to teachers on “What to Do” in a classroom. Lemov shows a video to a seminar of teacher Bob Zimmerli getting a fifth grade class of all black students, mostly boys, to pay attention.

“One is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of class in a neat tie. ‘O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,’ he says. ‘I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.’ Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. ‘So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.’ He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. ‘Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,’ Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. ‘Thank you, sir.’ ‘I appreciate it,’ he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student–‘Nice…nice’–the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.”

Were Samuel Read Hall to have seen Zimmerli, he would have tipped his hat in appreciation of a “good” teacher getting students ready for the lesson.

For nearly two centuries, teachers and academics have sought to identify just those techniques, teachers use minute-after-minute that will first engage students then lead to improved performance. That quest continues today. Wannabe experts draw up lists of do’s and don’ts that teachers seeking student success should use in their classrooms. Or at least, that is what emerges from “What Makes a Great Teacher” and “Can Good Teaching Be Learned?”

What these well-intentioned efforts–these sequels to Hall’s Lectures on School-Keeping– often trip over are the many versions of “successful” teaching that have emerged over the years. Well publicized lists of what teachers should and should not do in classrooms to get students to score higher on tests, have been around for decades. The work of researchers such as Nathaniel Gage in the 1970s on “effective teaching” (PDF on research on teaching),” lists from Madeline Hunter in the 1980s on what every lesson should contain, scripts associated with Open Court reading in the 1990s, and Direct Instruction models are blood-relations of current list-making authors.

So what? Why hassle hard working, sincere reformers such as those in Teach for America (TFA), Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Doug Lemov who are certain that with their 49 techniques or their check-lists of teachers saying and doing particular things in classrooms, students will do better on tests? I have three reasons for raising a red flag. First, what these reformers have done is draw their findings from those urban teachers who they have identified as “successful” but then leap from those classrooms into saying that how these teachers teach should be the way all teachers teach. Second, whether or not particular teaching practices cause–not merely are associated with–but cause student gains in test scores continues to remain unknown. How “successful” teachers are identified, how they are studied–see what researchers say about the design and methodologies that are used (PDF truth and consequences)–leave big holes in the argument that what they do actually causes students to learn, and not other factors that might come into play. Finally, without knowing for sure what the causal linkages are between teacher actions and student test performance, pay-for-performance plans are hypotheses searching for evidence.

Stories told about “successful” teachers and the counting of what these teachers actually do in classrooms are very compelling, even persuasive at times. But such evidence remains stories and lists. They neglect systematically collected data from comparison groups of teachers and students to sufficiently pass muster as evidence of what teacher actions cause students to learn. Any lists of “successful” teacher behaviors, then, remain suspect in my mind.

Of course, none of what I say will stop ardent believers in collecting the acts of “successful” teachers, listing them in detail, and then prescribing them for all teachers to put into practice. That has been going on since 1829 and no blog or bleat about causality will alter that habit.



Filed under how teachers teach

14 responses to “The Persistent Quest for “Successful” Teaching

  1. >and then prescribing them for all teachers to put into practice.

    That would make Lemov’s book problematic, wouldn’t it?

    One difference blogs make is that huge numbers of teachers will be doing this voluntarily, evaluating the results for themselves in their own classrooms, and discussing it with one another online.

    Although it’s still anecdotal and not the rigorous research you mention, there is a different gestalt to it. The teachers, as professionals, eager to increase their expertise in the art of teaching, will be deciding what works and what doesn’t, and will be trying together to figure out why some of Lemov’s strategies work more widely and others seem particular to the individual teacher.

    I’m looking forward to those discussions.

  2. Delia Turner

    Thank you for putting into words what I have been grappling with since I read the New York Times article.

  3. I certainly understand your skepticism–and your concern that anecdotal evidence from one set of classrooms in mainly urban schools would offer prescriptions for classrooms everywhere. Would it blunt these dangers at all to present the teaching strategies as possibilities rather than prescriptions? Sue VanHattum’s comment is suggestive.

    One of the reasons why I found Green’s article in particular refreshing was that it departed from the more common stance these days, which is that teachers are born rather than bred. Just this week, Newsweek ran a major story claiming that we could save urban schools simply through hiring and firing strategies.

  4. tim-10-ber

    Interesting comments —

    Question — has any one truly considered the fact that urban schools need a different strategy than rural or suburban schools? If yes, who is implementing this and is it successful? My school district has urban, suburban and rural schools. The one size fits all does not work. The FARM percent has been climbing and today is 75+%!!! But this ranges from 99% at a few schools to less than 10% at one or two others. We are a district of 137 schools…one size fits all failed the students, teachers, community et al years ago but no one is doing anything different (other than charters and magnets). The default schools, well…they remain default schools…suggestions, links, etc would be welcomed…thanks!!

    • larrycuban

      You raise an excellent point and I am stuck for an answer that might help you. A number of commentors on this blog are far more knowledgeable than me on your question. So I hope that someone will reply to your request for suggestions. In the meantime, I will poke around.

  5. Taking your two key points: the “leap” from one set of circumstances to all, and the total absence of reliable evidence connecting teacher action to pupil learning as given, I’d offer this from my own personal experience.

    I noticed over many years in the classroom that successful teachers varied in character, style, demeanour and pretty much everything else. There is clearly no single practice which one can equate with successful teaching, whatever the teacher training industry wants to sell. What I did notice was these people all had one quality in common. They all commanded respect from their pupils.

    When I worked for Teach First in the UK I spent a lot of time watching potential, often quite brilliant graduate recruits “teach” a practice lesson as part of their recruitment process. I sat in on many of the observing panels who were in effect, role playing children.

    It was fascinating to discover how quick and easy it is to form an accurate opinion of who could and could not teach. There were hardly any people who fell into the grey area where the panel had to discuss that they might be able to do it, with help. I assessed most, almost immediately as definite yes or definite no: because it was glaringly obvious the moment they started to make eye contact and talk, whether or not they could command respect in a classroom.

  6. Here’s the dilemma.

    If we wait for research to prove that certain techniques are effective, we could end up waiting forever. There are a lot of arguments to the effect that we will never be able provide real scientifically valid research.

    On the other hand, if we adopt the “practice of the month” we may end of doing more harm than good.

    And on the third hand, if we do nothing, we’ll continue to slowly fall behind.

    I wish there were a simple answer.

  7. Diana Senechal

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post. Here’s one of my concerns about the Lemov Taxonomy (or what little I know about it so far). It is now considered irresponsible of a teacher to expect a student to know what to do (or to make one of several choices). Instructions must be detailed, step-by-step, and explicit, so that if a student fails to complete any step, that omission can be addressed immediately.

    Now, this means that a student has no choice about whether or not to take notes, to follow the teacher with the eyes, to do exercise A at moment B. This specificity may be helpful for some students, but it is deadly for those who enjoy making leaps in their minds, who stare off into space in order to figure something out, who look ahead in the book, and who skip taking notes so that they can think better. Those kids would be miserable in a class where they had to follow instructions step by step.

    There is something to be said for the idea that the teacher teaches and the student learns. I recognize the problems such an idea can create. But when students are given responsibility for their own learning, they also have the freedom to go about it in the way they like, within reason. If taking notes helps them, they take notes. If they participate in every discussion, so be it. If they sit back and listen, so be it (again, within reason). They have some privacy of mind, some room to differ, some room to think.

    I do not mean that kids should just pursue their own interests in class. The teacher should teach them the subject. But as the teacher teaches, the student may do what he or she needs to do to grasp the lesson–or even think ahead of the lesson, or back to other lessons that connect with it. That should be the student’s business, so long as he or she is not bothering others, is not developing bad habits, and is learning the material.

    It seems that we are giving up a certain subtle privacy too willingly.

    • larrycuban

      Teachers vary in their beliefs on teaching and learning from teacher-centered to student-centered. Most hug the middle of this continuum because they–at least those that serve more than a few years–know from experience that students also vary in their motivation, interests, and attention to classroom tasks and the best approach is to blend both ways of teaching.
      Those who urge (and have urged for decades) urban teachers to pursue techniques that focus on gaining student attention and self-regulation are, more often than not, in the teacher-centered tradition. Your comments, I believe, Diana, lean toward the student-centered tradition. Both ways of teaching are essential when students vary in motivation, interests, and attention.

      • Diana Senechal

        Thank you for your reply. That is interesting–I would not normally consider myself student-centered. But as you say, most teachers hug the middle of the continuum. It is possible to be teacher-centered in some ways and student-centered in the other.

        It is possible, for instance, to uphold the role of the teacher as presenter of the subject, and still give students a little room to choose how to learn it. The teacher delivers the lesson but does not tell students what to do at each moment. I see the value, in certain situations, of breaking it down into precise instructions, but I also see loss. My concern is that Lemov and others do not consider the loss.

  8. teachingbattleground

    I think part of the problem is that even if we did identify genuinely effective techniques, the methods used to enforce those techniques on teachers could be counter-productive. Firstly, we can’t monitor what teachers do in the classroom, so we often end up asking for paperwork to “prove” that the required technique is being used. Secondly, once you have set up a bureaucracy for enforcing teaching techniques (no matter how effective) on teachers then people will fight to take control of the bureaucracy and use it to promote their own ideas.

    Both of these problems seem to have affected British attempts to improve teaching, with the fairly sensible AfL (Assessment for Learning, i.e. formative assessment) techniques being transformed into the paperwork-heavy APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) process, and the fairly sensible and evidence-based techniques of the NNS and NLs (National Numeracy Strategy and National Literacy Strategy) being replaced overnight with the groupwork and project work based teaching methods they had been brought in to replace.

    At some point we have to admit that all we can ever do is identify broad and useful principles for teaching and hope teachers listen.

    • larrycuban

      I agree that once organizations hit upon “effective” techniques then the following logic applies. Everyone has to use the techniques. Since we cannot monitor you daily but can visit from time to time to evaluate your performance, those visits will become a basis for your performance evaluation. Performance evaluations can mean securing tenure (or not) and even salary increases (or not). To do these, more employees need to be hired to visit and judge performance….a bureaucracy emerges. This has occurred in Washington, D.C. and other cities where pay-for-performance schemes have been introduced that hinge upon the latest evidence about “effective” teaching techniques.

  9. Good post, Larry. I remember as a young teacher being frustrated by studies that purportedly showed what it takes to be a good teacher. A list of adjectives, I decided, is not all that helpful. Yes, I know that a good teacher is “fair, but firm”.

    This post reminds me of something Robert Pondiscio talked about a few months ago over on the Core Knowledge Blog. I believe he called them “cargo cults”. After World War II was over people in some Pacific Islands wanted the American planes to come back, so they build primitive airports and in various ways imitated what they had seen American soldiers do, and hoped thereby to cause the planes to return. It didn’t work, of course. The war was over. Are we doing something like that in education?

    We’re educated people, of course. We don’t confuse correlation with causation, do we? Well, to me it appears that we don’t, except for the times that we do. Or maybe we don’t when we think about it, but usually we don’t think about it.

    I have argued that we need more description in education, and I believe that. But making lists falls short of description, and description falls short of analysis. Analysis requires thinking about causes, and that leads to thinking about necessary causes, sufficient causes, contributing causes, limiting causes, indirect causes, and probably a whole lot more.

    I haven’t read Lemov’s book, and from what I’ve been reading about it, I don’t think I’ll give it high priority.

    Larry, I have another bone to pick, if I may. In your reply to Diana you bring up “teacher-centered”, versus “student centered” perspectives. I realize that dichotomy is deeply rooted in the history of education, but I have always thought it was not helpful. “Teach” requires both an indirect object and a direct object. If I throw a ball to Joe, and you ask me if I am “ball-centered” or “Joe-centered”, I really wouldn’t know how to answer. In such a situation you can bet the wheels in my mind would really start turning, but I wouldn’t be thinking about the answer to that question. I would be thinking about the question.

    Is it better to use “noun-centered” sentences or “verb-centered sentences? Is that a helpful dichotomy, or continuum?

    Of course there could be situations or contexts when the questions I ask, about “noun-centered” sentences or “verb-centered” or about “ball-centered” or “Joe- centered” would be valid and sensible. I can’t quite imagine what those situations might be, but I grant that there could be. But that is a long way from saying the perspectives are helpful and merit serious thought, or ought to be the basis for further thought.

    Things change a little when we switch from “teacher-centered” to “subject-centered”, but not much.

    Will Diana be a better teacher if she figures out where to place herself on one of those continua? Will I?

    Call me a grinch. I’ve thrown a few stones without offering much. I have said a few things on my website, for what that’s worth.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Brian,
      I do not think placing anyone on a continuum, in this case teacher-centered to student-centered including Diana is very helpful in teaching lessons or managing other practical classroom details. It is, however, helpful, I believe, in showing that historically there have been ideological differences among teachers, parents, and policymakers over the best ways to teach and the best ways for students to learn. Knowing where you are on that continuum acknowledges that differences in how best to teach and learn are both deep and abiding. Differences, important ones, that are not
      easily erased by ignoring that they exist.

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