How Classroom Life Undermines Reform (Mary Kennedy)

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.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools

13 responses to “How Classroom Life Undermines Reform (Mary Kennedy)

  1. “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.” One of the most insightful comments I have read in recent years and one which my own recent classroom experience absolutely confirms.

    Add to this the reality that many reformers and policy makers have little if any experience of those crucial details, and you are some way to understanding why things don’t change.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Joe, that is certainly part of the story.

      • JoeN took my thunder. When I read this posting the one thought that came to mind (I am middle school teacher by the way) was that teachers don’t respond to many reform ideas because they have a job to do first (a job that they know how to do by the way). When you’re in a classroom dealing with real kids in real time you don’t have time to ponder how best to group them according to their Multiple Intelligences.

      • larrycuban

        Lots of teachers I know feel the way that you do, Iain.They have told me so. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Bob Calder

    If I might relate this to my previous life in the property and casualty insurance business, people were always telling me how to improve my practice. It isn’t that they were wrong, per se. They were wrong for me and for my public. They, of course didn’t realize it because they expected to see what they wanted to see. They had collected exemplars from across the nation to hold up for me to follow. I could see the differences easily but nobody was ever willing to entertain a serious discussion of structural differences precisely because they were expert observers and not practitioners. (I eventually found solace with statistics that validated my way of doing things.)

    I’m not saying the experts weren’t correct. There are plenty of people that swear by the guidelines they set down. If you follow those guidelines, you will never fail. Partially because the people that fund the expert advice will be happy with you and they are your suppliers. My point is that there are many paths that are not always well marked. But you see a need and you fill it.

    Current reform activities are driven and informed by “evaluation”. It seems to me that a good amount of what I do each day in the classroom is directed toward helping the evaluation process roll along unimpeded.

    • larrycuban

      The example of your former life in the insurance business I followed and the lessons you drew from those experiences with expert advice. When you switch to your teaching and reform-driven evaluation, I didn’t follow how what you do daily in the classroom is “directed toward helping the evaluation process roll along unimpeded.”

      • Bob Calder

        Let’s just take the white board. The board has to be divided into sections with daily bell work, lesson, including objective phrased as an “I can…” statement, and rubric for evaluation and the assignments. Next to the front door is a list of courses and the periods which I teach them. I found out that the list of courses has to stay there after I took it down, assuming the students were familiar with it after six weeks. It dawned on me that most of this rigid framework is necessary for evaluation, not for students. Students certainly don’t pay attention to it. Evaluation forms have checklists that include these specific things that must be posted and their presence checked off. So when an evaluation comes back that says I didn’t have this or that and the fact is that they were in fact present and obvious, I begin to wonder if this isn’t getting a bit too complicated.

      • larrycuban

        Ah, Bob, your example makes the point clearly about what you mean by “evaluation.” Thanks.

  3. “These difficulties provide an explanation for our long history of failed reform efforts in education…. Perhaps teachers need more knowledge or better guidance; perhaps we need to change their values or their dispositions…”

    I’m getting the idea that this post implies that because children are easily distracted or because off chance in school obstacles occur, and many decisions that teachers make are influenced based on those factors, then teachers themselves are not capable of applying educational reforms. I agree that those factors do affect a teacher’s ability to implement educational reforms. But, no school consists of utter chaos and just teachers that are utterly incompetent. For that reason, I don’t necessarily think that teachers need better guidance or their dispositions need to be changed. Those who formulate and expect certain educational reforms must understand that certain uncontrollable factors may deter the extent to which those reforms will be implemented.

    • larrycuban

      Your comment that “Those who formulate and expect certain educational reforms must understand that certain uncontrollable factors may deter the extent to which those reforms will be implemented” is part of what Mary Kennedy is getting at. Not sure about the rest of what you say.

  4. Warren K Weber

    Several years ago at an Iowa High School Summit, Katy Haycock from Educational Trust made what I think is the same point that Mary is making.

    If you take a high school schedule which would allow a potential of 180 class sessions for a year long course and subtract those days for assemblies, extra curricular events where students have to leave early, shortened days for whatever the reason, students being called from class for various reasons, etc. and add up how much time is left, it proves to be significant for the impact it has on the students who are affected. If I understand Mary correctly, that is only one aspect of what could interrupt teachers in the classroom as they implement any effort to improve the work with students.

    “Delivering on the Promise” as one example describes the magnitude of long term effort and focus it takes to make a significant change in school to support the learner. The implications for the leadership and staff of a school have to be that they anticipate the kinds of things that Mary talks about, do whatever is possible to eliminate and / or minimize their influence.

    Day to day can quickly and quietly trump the long run. The danger is the long run reform is what will be viewed as ineffective rather than what kept it from moving into actual practice.

  5. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Recognizing the Reality

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