Mary Kennedy is a professor in teacher education at Michigan State University. She has written extensively about teaching, teachers, and assessment of teaching. This post is taken from pp. 1-3 of her 2005 book How Classroom Life Undermines Reform (Harvard University Press).
I never understood the phrase “knowing everything and knowing nothing” until I examined my knowledge of teaching. Like most educated adults, I knew everything, and yet nothing, about teaching. The “everything” part of our knowledge has to do with what teaching looks like. As children, we spent many days sitting before teachers. As adults, many of us have visited our own children’s classrooms. From these experiences, we have a sense of the variety of ways in which teaching occurs, and we have a sense of what counts as good teaching or bad teaching. Some of us also have strong views about what teaching should look like, and some of us become education reformers, devoting substantial energy to trying to improve teaching.
But reforms typically fail, forcing us to acknowledge that although we know a lot about what teaching looks like, we know almost nothing about why it looks like this. We don’t understand why teaching seems so intractable to reform efforts, why teachers seem to ignore the guidance offered to them by so many concerned groups. Most American teachers are highly educated and highly dedicated. They are members of professional associations, receive various kinds of continuing professional development, and have access to textbooks and other materials. They care about their students and work long hours preparing their lessons and reading their students’ work. The question we have to ask is this: How can it be that people who are well educated and committed to their work engage in practices that receive so much criticism?
The study I describe shows how classroom events appear to teachers and how routine conditions of classroom life often dictate teaching practices. It reveals that teachers are not unaware of reform ideals, and indeed are sympathetic with them. But they also have to attend to many other things, simultaneously orchestrating time, materials, students, and ideas. They must finish a lesson by 11:33 so that students can be in the cafeteria at 11:35. They must make sure that all students are on the same page, digesting the same ideas, gaining the same understandings. They must make sure that the right diagram, chart, or globe is readily accessible to show to students at exactly the right moment, and that the handouts students will need are also nearby. They must be prepared to respond to individual confusions, misunderstandings, and tangential observations without distracting or boring the rest of the class.
They must also be prepared to have the entire plan disrupted or defeated by some unforeseen event. Someone from down the hall may enter the room and interrupt the lesson midstream. A student may poke another student or ask a question that other students don’t understand or don’t care about. The projector may break, or there may not be enough copies of a handout to go around. Though such distractions appear everywhere, schools seem more susceptible to them than other organizations. Perhaps because schools are teeming with children, they are subject to much higher levels of distraction than most other organizations. And in schools, distractions are not merely temporary setbacks; they are obstacles to intellectual progress. They get in the way of good teaching. All these interruptions and complications can distract teachers from the thread of their own thought and make it harder for them to present coherent lessons. Ironically, schools are places where sustained thought is rare.
These difficulties provide an explanation for our long history of failed reform efforts in education. Reform movements have come and gone for decades without much visible impact on teaching practices. The problem is so widely recognized that historians are now chronicling these movements. Yet reformers continue to try, and others continue to generate hypotheses to account for the failures. Perhaps teachers need more knowledge or better guidance; perhaps we need to change their values or their dispositions. The sad fact is that most reforms don’t acknowledge the realities of classroom teaching, where both God and the devil are in the details.