From Whence Come Ideas for Reforming Teaching Practices?

Over many years I have written about reforms aimed at classroom teachers and how they have fallen flat. Think about major past efforts–and yes, in the present moment also–to alter how teachers taught reading, math, science, and social studies. Or reform-driven decision-makers making enormous investments to get teachers to use new technologies in classroom lessons, past and present. Teachers have selectively adopted bits and pieces of these reforms and, yes, even ignored such efforts. No surprise, then, in this super-heated hothouse of reform, teachers have been called resistant, hostile, and even blamed for failed reforms.

Rather than keep reminding people that there is a long chain that extends from policymakers adopting a new reading program to that third grade teacher working with three groups in a 30-minute lesson or pecking at teachers, a mild version of blaming, for reasons why they have been selective and even closed their doors to reformers’ ideas, I would like to ask about these ideas (e.g., small high schools, better math and science curricula to engage students, everyone takes college prep course) that teachers are pressed to put into practice. Where do these ideas come from?

A quick answer is that these ideas come in response to the larger (and historical) pattern of public schools being deputized to solve national problems. For the past three decades, policy elites have drafted public schools to grow the human capital for the nation to compete globally as it shifted from an industrial-based to information-driven economy. Another answer is the influence efficiency-minded business and civic leaders in league with donors and social scientists for the past half-century who have focused on results rather than traditional educators’ usual focus on process (i.e., how something is done and learned rather than outcomes).

Yet those facts do not fully account for the persistence of particular ideas targeted at teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, skills, and actual classroom practices—e.g., teachers expecting more of all students, their learning more about math and science, implementing five-step lessons. Where do those reform ideas come from?

Here I want to suggest a commonplace observation that has a deep truth buried in it, one that while mentioned often, is tossed aside. And that is: every reformer went to kindergarten, finished elementary school, and spent six or more years in secondary schools going from classroom to classroom watching teachers teach. If I add four years of undergraduate schooling and then a year or two for a masters degree (let’s omit those reformers who spent 4-8 years in doctoral work), you have your typical reform-driven policymaker, analyst, politician, foundation officer, and CEO having sat in classrooms for nearly 20 years forming beliefs and ideas about what is good and bad teaching, how subjects should be taught, and what should be done to improve the art, craft, and science of teaching.

There is a “yet” coming and here it is. I draw from Mary Kennedy’s Inside Teaching to elaborate that “yet.”

“Yet children are not privy to the whole of teaching. They are unaware of the decisions teachers make, the plans they make, and the work they do outside class. Moreover, they are emotionally dependent upon teachers, so their interpretation is not likely to be based on a close analysis of events. Yet from those naive experiences, many durable values are formed about the nature of school subjects, how teachers and students should behave in classrooms, and what constitutes ‘good’ teaching.

“Notice that all of us share these early experiences, so the ideals that drive reformers can derive from their personal responses to their teachers…. [Thus] a complex set of beliefs and values about the nature of classroom life–both how it is and how it should be–continues to influence people’s thinking even into adulthood….(p. 14)”

From Bill Gates who went to Lakeside School (private) in Seattle and then onto Harvard before dropping out to President Barack Obama who attended public and private schools in Indonesia and then Punahou (private) in Honolulu to Diane Ravitch who went to public schools in Houston, school reformers formed ideas from observing and interacting with their teachers day-in and day-out; they hardly shed these experienced-produced beliefs about what is “good” teaching and what constitutes a “good” school when they became adults.

Sure, reformers beliefs are often stated in sophisticated language seemingly far removed from their less articulate ideas formed when sitting 10 feet away from their teachers but should those glossy phrases be stripped away, the provenance of reform ideas can be found in the daily experiences of sitting in classroom many years ago. And those ideas, as Mary Kennedy reminds us, are distorted because children are emotionally involved with their teachers and  know little about the planning, the improvisational decision-making during lessons, and work outside of school that teachers do.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

10 responses to “From Whence Come Ideas for Reforming Teaching Practices?

  1. Your commented that “policy elites have drafted public schools to grow the human capital for the nation to compete globally as it shifted from an industrial-based to information-driven economy.” If they really wanted to compete, they wouldn’t do what they are doing. Creating failure, stress, and narrowed curriculum with standardized tests has been going on since the 1990’s and it hasn’t worked. Time to stop spinning our tires and look to Finland. Policy makers can start with my sum mary of “Finish Lessons” by Pasi Sahlberg at They should also read my summary of “The Myths of Standardized Tests.” Thanks for this post and keep up the good work.

  2. You provide an interesting perspective on the source of data that reformers are operating from. As a career-switcher to teaching (does that make me a reformer?), I have noticed in my graduate education classes that those of us in our 40s have had a very different educational experience as those of us in our 30s and 20s. The challenge as you say is getting behind the data that is our experience to find practice that is effective which we may or may not have experienced.

    Thanks for the tip on Kennedy’s book, I will definitely take a look.

  3. Paul Naso

    This post, like so many in this blog, illuminates the unpredictable ways teachers and students interact. Thank you. I am reminded of two similar “yets”: Freire’s explanation that we are “nostalgic to our own origins” and David Cohen’s observation that the “predicaments of teaching” exist because teaching is a “profession of human improvement” dependent on clients’ perceptions and influenced by persistent doubts that the profession actually has a special or certain expertise.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Paul, for the comment and reference to Freire and Cohen. Coincidentally, I had just read David Cohen’s essay on “professions of human improvement” such as therapists and teachers.

  4. Cal

    I’m not completely convinced, although it’s an interesting idea. I think reformer ideas come from elitists with an idealized version of what they think education should be. And, as I know you’ve mentioned before, their ideal always starts with a fascinated and engaged class–even though research hasn’t really shown much of a relationship between engagement and achievement (as I think you’ve also mentioned). In reformers’ minds, education is engagement, and good teachers always engage their kids and make education meaningful.

    Of course, this is usually at odds with their own values and behavior.

    When I was in ed school (I think you know where I went?), a lot of my classmates would initially go on at great, starry-eyed length about how they wanted their students to value education, not to just go through the motions, to really embrace learning in all its forms. They were determined to create a meaningful experience for all their students, differentiate instruction and assessments, and help their students understand what education should be.

    I would always ask those students how much of the class reading they’d done. Most of them belonged to study groups where each person would take a page or two of the reading and then summarize it for everyone. (In contrast, I, the educational cynic, was known to be one of the few who did all the reading.) Then I’d remind them how many of them complained mightily about the insanely detailed classroom management plan and how stupid it was and how they just did it by the numbers, and how grateful some of them were that their supervisors only wanted brief writeups of their post observation instead of the detailed document that was formally required. I then asked if this great institution we were at, the one telling us how important it was to differentiate instruction and assessment, was allowing us different methods of meeting assignments, or if we all had to do exactly what was on the assignment sheet–and, for that matter, was not the program director’s exhortation to us that we shouldn’t be perfectionists about our assignments, that the motto is “better done than perfect” (or something like that)? In other words, I pointed out that they were describing an ideal for education that neither they nor the institution promoting that ideal educational method lived by–or had any intention to live by.

    I wasn’t particularly interested in the hypocrisy, but rather the cognitive dissonance between their ideal and their own attitudes towards education. I am reasonably certain that if you go around to all the reformers and ask about their own attitude and priorities to their high school and graduate education, you’d find the same disconnect.

    • larrycuban

      Cal, your point about reformers having in their heads idealized versions of what teaching and learning are about–engaged students and teachers on joint learning ventures– is cognitively dissonant from what they experience and do in their teacher ed programs reaffirms one of the points in the post. That point was that what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation,” when students watch teachers teach as they go through the grades, does not fully capture the full range of what teachers do outside of the classroom (e.g.,planning, preparing lessons, decision-making about tasks,the improvisation teachers do while teaching the lesson, and the emotional connection they had with their favorite teachers. All of that is invisible to children and youth as they move through the grades watching their teachers. The cognitive dissonance you experienced in observing their behavior in your program–yep, I do know where you went for your Masters–is, in part, I believe due to their coming to terms with the multifaceted workload teachers have.

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