Whose Judgment Matters in Determining Whether Teachers Have Changed Their Classroom Practices?

I am drafting a chapter on access and use of computers at Las Montanas high school that will be in my next book. I did a study of computers there in 1998-1999 when there were stationary labs and returned in 2008-2010 when the school had 1:1 computing and mobile labs (see posts of August 7, 2010 and February 18,2011). In drafting this chapter, I have run into a dilemma that has bothered me for many years as both a practitioner and scholar. The issue is about what researchers see and what teachers see when it comes to changes in practice.

An example. What does a researcher make of the teacher who says with passionate confidence that she has made a 180-degree shift in her teaching of science to fourth graders from wholly teacher-centered activities to student-centered ones; she cites as evidence the different materials and practices that she uses in daily lessons. Yet after observing these lessons, the researcher sees those very same new materials and practices are being used in ways that undercut the purposes intended by the designers of the reform and the policymakers who bought the materials and trained the teachers in their use.

Who do you believe? Other researchers have noted discrepancies between what teachers say about the changes they made and what is observed in their classrooms.

Now, let me be specific to Las Montanas. It was clear to me—and data I collected from student surveys, the media center sign out sheets for mobile carts, and extensive classroom observations confirm this point—that frequency and pervasiveness of technology use (e.g., PowerPoint lectures, Interactive White Boards, clickers, students taking notes, doing digital worksheets, and viewing video segments) had increased substantially since 1998-1999 albeit unevenly across academic subjects..

Moreover, most of the academic subject teachers I surveyed and interviewed told me that they had, indeed, made changes in how they prepared lessons and used electronic devices for administrative and instructional tasks.  They told me that they have become more efficient in record-keeping, assigning grades and homework, and teaching lessons. Additionally, they saw that their students responded well to these changes in their teaching. Now here is where the dilemma pinches me.

In my observations of lessons, I saw that teachers had, indeed, made changes in practices. They  prepared for lessons differently (e.g., some teachers had found snippets of video for the lesson that students watched). During many lessons, students used computers for assignments, projects, note-taking, Internet searches, etc. These were activities that I had seen far less in Las Montanas classrooms a decade earlier. Yet, to  me sitting in the back of the room, all of those changes added up to an enhancement of teacher-centered lessons, not a move toward student-centered instruction–what policymakers wanted, vendors promised, and techno-enthusiasts sought.

One way out of this dilemma is to explore what each party means by “change” and then determine who judges the worth of the change. “Change” clearly meant one thing to teachers and another to researchers like me. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers such as me, however, trying to keep in mind what policymakers intended to happen after purchasing and deploying computers, looked for fundamental changes in teaching. In my case, getting teachers to shift from traditional to non-traditional instruction in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc. Las Montanas teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while I saw little fundamental “change.”

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies….[or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teachers’ vantage point? (p.312).

Researchers publish their studies and teachers seldom tell their side of the story–although teacher-bloggers are now airing their views far more than a decade ago. Teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioner (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do.

The truth of the matter is that the Las Montanas teachers who swore that they had changed, had clearly altered their repertoire of practices. They blended the old with the new. They had created a hybrid of innovative and traditional practices in lessons they taught. For now I am thinking that I must honor teachers’ incremental changes in their creating hybrids of old and new practices while, at the same time, acknowledging few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching. That would be a way of reconciling this dilemma in writing about Las Montanas.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

9 responses to “Whose Judgment Matters in Determining Whether Teachers Have Changed Their Classroom Practices?

  1. Maybe Larry we worry far too much about this, and perhaps even about the wrong things. Only this week I’ve been back in the classroom, teaching secondary school pupils, and it is a profoundly thought provoking thing to do when you have been out of that highly specialised environment for so long, as I have. In the hugely complex, live event of a lesson, concepts like teacher-centric or student-centric pretty much disappear if you are focused intently on moving a group of children from a place where they don’t know something: to a place where they do. You can mess around with all sorts of tools, strategies and activities, which might enable them to make that move with minimal help from you but when you know (and you do, if you are even half decent at the job) you can do it far more quickly and effectively using other means: mimicking, repetition, mnemonics, association, humour, to name just a few of the wide range of means skilful teachers use to ensure children “learn” something…why on earth waste their time?

    In the last two days I’ve seen the fundamental skills I possess as an experienced teacher bring about the required change again and again. The depressing thing, is seeing with your own eyes, just how much change is needed, for so many children.

    If there is one thing this recent experience has convinced me of, it is how profoundly misjudged something I’ve seen written on more than one school sign in the UK is. Where one would normally expect to see “Head teacher” “Headmaster” or “Headmistress” is the utterly risible, “Head learner.”

    • larrycuban

      I applaud your returning to a high school classroom to teach. It is a humbling experience, I have found out when I have done it.

      For researchers, however, at least those who are committed to working closely with teachers and observing classrooms, the patterns of teaching that emerge over time become important. Characterizing those patterns–as researchers and historians of teaching and learning have done–helps to make sense to both practitioners and researchers of what happens in lessons. Whatever the names that are attached to these patterns (teacher-centered, student-centered, hybrids, progressive, traditional) is of less importance than knowing that such patterns exist and capture much of the teaching that occurs in formal institutions. All of that description and analysis of patterns in teaching becomes especially important in policy making because teaching practices are linked by policymakers and parents to what students learn and the results of that learning, however measured. In the U.S. the frenzy over evaluating teachers based on test scores trickles down to classroom lessons in those districts and schools where students do poorly on tests and, yes, affects teacher choices about what tasks to assign students and how a lesson should unfold.

      There is another reason why the dilemma facing researchers doing on-site studies of teaching is worth raising. Most teachers have little to no access (except for personal blogs nowadays) to media as researchers do and policymakers who use findings from research studies. Respect for teachers’ views about what they have changed in their practice often gets put in the closet and the only voice heard about what occurs in classrooms is that of the researchers who took the time to observe, analyze data, and publish findings. The researchers’ definition of change and which changes are “good”, which are “trivial’ and which are “harmful” get attention, not teachers’ definitions or views.

  2. Larry,
    From my past experience in the classroom (and many years of providing PD) I think its a matter of training teachers new ways of teaching, rather than how to use technology. Don’t you think if they were given sustained PD on things like inquiry method or problem based learning, they would move more towards the student-centric model?

    Jan Zanetis

    • larrycuban

      Actually, for me it depends if the professional development is voluntary or compulsory. If it is the latter, a large proportion of teachers will hardly embrace inquiry methods or problem based learning for many, many reasons. If it is the former, there is a higher chance of acceptance and even attempts to integrate those approaches into lessons. What I have learned over the years has a lot to do with whether teachers choose or are coerced and whether professional developers appreciate the power of organizational structures in establishing conditions for teaching

  3. MC

    It’s interesting that teaching practices can be changed by technology, but what I don’t understand is how in the end it helps achieve the larger social/ civic goals of education. I’ve recently read your book, “Oversold and Underused”, and I’m still stuck on one of your concluding questions, “In what ways can teachers use technology to create better communities and build strong citizens?” (197). I always hear about how education needs to return to its true democratic purposes, but no one gives an example of how it can be done. In your opinion, how can this transformation happen?
    Thanks 🙂

    • larrycuban

      There are some researchers and practitioners who do believe that the civic mission of remains central to public schooling in a democracy. They see a strong link between enlightened uses of new technologies to further that mission. I wrote about how this might occur and the work of some folks in: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/learning-civics-through-digital-engagement-an-oxymoron/

      • MC

        It makes sense that in a history class, students can use technology to be involved in civics. Could students do it in perhaps a math class? Or does one class fulfill the democratic goal in education?

      • larrycuban

        Those who advocate using social media, high-tech games, and other ways of tapping into the real lives of children usually see the activities included in social studies classes but going well beyond that subject. The national report “Guardian of Democracy” offers exemplars of programs across the country that go beyond disciplinary boundaries that include service learning, extracurricular activities, student governance, etc.

  4. non-compulsory… seems the change needed for everyone.

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