Inside the Black Box of the Classroom

Insider books and films about financial finagling (e.g., “Wall Street,”) baseball (e.g.,Michael Lewis’s Moneyball), the drug trade and police (e.g. HBO’s, “The Wire”) portray in vivid and compelling ways what it is like to be Gordon Gecko or Billy Beane or detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon. These “insider” accounts, both fiction and non-fiction, draw the reader and viewer into the details of buying and selling bonds, building a baseball team, and daily police work. Revealing (and sometimes simplifying) complex processes is what insider accounts do.

Where, however, are the insider accounts  of classroom teaching? Not in the wonderful heroic accounts of teachers in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), “Stand and Deliver“(1988), “Freedom Writers” (2007). The narrative arc of these films go from the trials of teaching in tough situations to teary endings. Readers can insert their own favorites but the genre is filled with tales of teachers nearly succumbing to student resistance only to overcome one barrier after another to reach a soaring ending that brings out handkerchiefs. No sarcasm intended since I felt goosebumps and teared up at many of these films.

My candidates for descriptions of classroom teaching that approach “insider” accounts would be the French film “The Class” (based upon a book written by a teacher who is also in the film),  “Prez”  the former cop who becomes a Baltimore (MD) middle school teacher in HBO’s “The Wire,” and Philip Jackson’s study of elementary school teaching, Life in Classrooms. Readers will have their own favorites that go beyond the heroic teacher genre and capture the ups-and-downs of daily classroom teaching  (I would appreciate knowing which accounts readers prize).

Because there are so few classroom accounts that on-the-job teachers can point to and say, “yes, that is what teaching is all about,” and so many inaccurate, over-the-top, and even sloppy representations of teaching, the classroom has become a “black box.”*

I use “black box” as a metaphor for what happens daily in classrooms that remains unknown to outsiders–except for occasional films, television, and media reports–yet seems so familiar since policymakers, researchers, parents, and taxpayers have attended school. The fact is that what occurs in classrooms is largely unknown or tinged with nostalgia because memories fade and children reports of school activities are, at best, laconic, hiding more than revealing what occurs. Like that popular ad for Las Vegas tourists: What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.

Teacher memories also fade. While many retain records of daily interactions, lessons, and materials for awhile, most do not. Sure lessons are traded on the Internet, but the traffic is a fraction of what transpires in classrooms.Moreover, those written lessons fail to capture what actually occurs. As a colleague once said, teaching is like dry ice evaporating at room temperature. So some researchers collect classroom artifacts, document interactions, and observe dynamics to restore what has evaporated and capture what happens in the “black box.”

The lack of documentation and transparency about the complex mechanics and inter-relationships that occur daily in schools and classrooms—the black box–make it tough to unpack and understand. But there have been efforts to get inside elementary and secondary classrooms through, for example, videotaped lessons. Videos of lessons  in Germany, Japan, and the United States appeared in the 1990s. In the “Measures of Teacher Effectiveness” project and similar efforts, researchers capture in real time what teachers and students do. Such real-time descriptions of classroom lessons help. But far more data converted into knowledge about what happens in classrooms during 50 minute lessons needs to be captured and analyzed by teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and researchers in order to open the “black box” and see  the complex realities of teaching and learning. Inside teaching should be as familiar as inside baseball.

Why? Because school reformers and policymakers generally recognize–as parents have always noted–that teachers are the single most important in-school factor to students’ well-being and achievement.  So what happens in classrooms matters greatly yet so little is known publicly about the process of teaching and learning.

Another reason is that advocates for particular policies from pay-for-performance plans to NCLB rely upon correlations to see into classrooms. Consider a recent Fordham Foundation report on declining test scores among high achievers. The report uses trends in test score data to conclude  that two of five “high flying” students fall in performance. They point to the effects of NCLB on teachers and teaching. Such associations, as one researcher pointed out, use a  “black-box approach that assumes a link between its findings and NCLB-related policies.”

For these reasons, getting reliable and valid insider knowledge of classrooms is essential.


* “Black box” does not refer to the well-publicized in-flight recorders that document cockpit communication in aircraft. Instead, I take the phrase “black box”  from systems engineering and economic production functions where inputs (e.g., money spent per pupil, facilities, teacher qualifications) go into a box called “schools” and outputs emerge (e.g., test scores, skilled and knowledgeable high school graduates, humane and community engaged adults). How inputs are converted into outputs within the “black box” is unknown.


Filed under how teachers teach

13 responses to “Inside the Black Box of the Classroom

  1. Bob Calder

    Let’s look at it from the perspective of an accepted institution; “Current Events” in the classroom. Something happens only a few hours prior to class, you drag it in, dissect and discuss it, relating it to mechanics, it’s evolution, and social precedent. Was it planned? No. Was it the best lesson ever? Yes. Because kids could reach out, see, and feel the boundaries and connections to themselves.

    • larrycuban

      A nice example of the unplanned lesson that engages both teacher and students, traveling to places that neither teacher nor students had anticipated. So hard to capture those moments and freeze them in maber for others to see and understand. Thanks.

  2. cmoffett

    This makes a lot of sense to me. I’d only add that I think the desire to “see inside the box” may be part of the narrative of schooling itself, and that some of the barriers to it are intrinsic. I say more on this in “Splitting Skulls and Poking Holes: 
Education & the perforated interior,” here:

    • larrycuban

      I will have to think more (and read your post also) on whether the need (as I put it) to “see inside the box” is, indeed, part of the narrative of schooling as told today.

  3. Do you know Etre et Avoir, a movie about a year in the life and work of the only teacher in a primary school of one class in a remote rural French village. The children are of different ages. It’s a documentary I guess, but it’s not making any particular point, it just seems to show what happens. There are lots of small dramas, some connected with learning, and it ends emotionally at the end of the school year with the oldest children getting ready to move up to secondary school in a big town miles away. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about education without trying to do so. I hope you like it if you get to see it. Thanks for this wonderful, calm, rational blog, it’s a great help! Jay Derrick, London UK

    • larrycuban

      You are the third person who mentioned “Etre et Avoir,” the film about a one-room rural French school. I have not yet seen it will will get the documentary. Thanks

  4. Richard Kassissieh

    Sal Kahn recently presented a keynote speech at a teacher conference. I was struck by how an active Twitter backchannel sprung up, educators roundly criticizing Khan’s videos as “ordinary” and “not teaching.” Khan’s popularity (and the Gates Foundation’s support of them) result from the lack of popular understanding about what actually happens in the classroom. That people could believe that well-constructed YouTube videos could replace classroom instruction speaks to the “black box” phenomenon.

  5. Mary

    Perfect timing! I’m currently taking an ethnographic research methods class, and one of our readings this week was Bud Mehan’s 1982 piece about the structuring of classroom events. Like you, he spoke of the “black box” of classroom instruction and the need for policy research to include “rigorous descriptions about the processes of education” from within the naturalistic environment. Sadly, the need seems just as great today as it was 20 years ago.

    I was a teacher for 12 years, and now I’m a doctoral student studying educational policy. Since 2009, I’ve dutifully taken quantitative methods courses such as correlation and regression, ANOVA, econometrics, and multi-level modeling. This year, however, I enrolled in an ethnographic methods course because I’m interested in elements of school organization that might be best examined using the “thick description” (to use Geertz’s oft-quoted wording) of qualitative methods. I’m not sure how I’ll negotiate a career studying education policy in a time when many in the field venerate experimental and quasi-experimental research design, but I believe there is still much to be learned through descriptive research that brings the complexities of actual classroom practice to the fore.

    Your post nicely complements Mehan’s chapter, despite the two-decade gap between publication dates. This gives me hope that there’s still a need for ethnographic and other qualitative methods in policy research. Maybe it’s naïve of me, when so much funding prioritizes large-scale, “generalizable” studies, but I think the insider’s perspective captures a lot that can be useful for people interested in the quality of classroom instruction…not to mention the intended and unintended consequences of reform efforts.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the reminder about Bud Mehan’s article on classroom events three decades ago. I had forgotten about it. And, yes, the need for studies of classroom process, from the inside, remains strong and abiding.

      • Mary

        Ah, yes. Three decades since Mehan’s piece…apparently my denial about the passage of time can outweigh quantitative methods, including simple arithmetic!

  6. Mike Atkin

    Jeez, Larry. Another insightful blog, but I don’t what kind of laptops you had when you studied seventh and eighth grade science in Pittsburgh. Or maybe you were ill the week they taught states of matter. Remember solids, liquids, and gases? When a solid changes to a liquid, it melts. When a liquid changes to a gas, it evaporates. But when a solid changes directly to a solid, it sublimates. No wonder the Soviets beat us into space.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the correction that dry ice does not evaporate, it sublimates. The metaphor that I borrowed from our colleague was inaccurate but still captured the loss of memory about lessons taught last month, last year, and a decade ago. I will try hrad to be scientifically accurate. I now know that a friendly science teacher is looking over my shoulder.

  7. Mike Atkin

    I’d better take care of my own mistakes or they’ll kick me out of the National Science Teachers Association. I meant to say that when a solid changes directly to a gas, it sublimates.

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