“Traditional”: An Unpleasant Word to Reformers

I was startled last week when one of my students was presenting her project report to our seminar. She had been examining a “flipped” course that she and 41 other Stanford students were taking along with 40,000 other in this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A “flipped” class means that students see professor-made video lectures at home rather than the professor taking up class time to lecture and ask students questions. During the one afternoon a week allotted to the seminar, they would then discuss in small groups, pairs, and the large group the concepts covered in the video. Thus, a “flipped” class mixes online instruction for homework with a seminar where the professor and students explore concepts, raise questions, collaborate with one another, and practice analytic skills. At least that the theory of a “flipped” class. Whether it turned out that way, I do not know.

What startled me was her comparison of that course to the class I was teaching. She said my seminar was “traditional” as opposed to the “flipped” course she and the other students were taking. I did not sense criticism in the word and I felt none. She had compared the two courses and clearly my seminar was “traditional” compared to the “flipped one.”

To be quite honest, I had not thought that my seminar was “traditional.” I did not lecture for 30 or 40 minutes. While I did structure the class around central questions for the seminar to answer, I had small groups and pairs of students wrestle with data I presented to them or that appeared in the readings they had for that day’s seminar. I would have groups report out their findings and discuss the results. Often I would ask open-ended questions and then have students make a forced choice on the options I presented them, followed up with questions that got at the reasons for their answers.

Yes, I did have a syllabus. Yes, students had readers and they were expected to have completed the selections prior to our twice weekly seminar. Yes, I planned the questions and activities for our sessions of an hour and 50 minutes each. Yes, I guided the discussion with the questions although on many occasions, student responses took the discussion in a direction I had not anticipated. And, yes, I made all of the decisions on which question I would pursue with the group, who to call upon, and when to segue to the next activity. When you total all the above “yesses” up, my student’s description of the seminar  as a “traditional” course is accurate compared to a “flipped” course.

So why was I startled by my seminar being characterized, innocently to be sure, as “traditional?” I suspect that it is the word itself that got to me. As a high school teacher for many years, as a professor for decades, and as a researcher who delved into the many reform efforts to alter  how teachers have taught over the past century, the word “traditional” had connotations that bothered me.

Traditional meant boring classes. Traditional meant that the teacher was the fount of all knowledge and authority. Traditional meant that students were passive listeners.

Yet as both a teacher and researcher I had seen peers and other teachers masterfully teach traditional lessons where students were thoroughly engaged, rapt with attention, and deeply involved in the activities that the teacher had prepared.

What it came down to was that as a reform-minded teacher and administrator for decades in public schools I had styled myself as someone who was non-traditional in both the way I taught and the reforms I sought out in curriculum, instruction, school organization, and governance.

“Traditional” was a negatively-charged word. Among reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, the word meant the no-good past, boring lessons, teacher-controlled classrooms, and little learning. It was the opposite of constructivist, progressive teachers and principals who sought student-centered learning. With the current spread of online learning, blended schools, and “flipped” classes “traditional” has come to mean everything thought to be ineffective and tiresome in teaching and learning.

I think I was startled by my student’s report because I, too, had become caught up in the reform rhetoric that dirtied the word “traditional.” Of course, that is foolish. When applied to teaching, “traditional” covers a wide range of lessons and classroom experiences that have diverse effects on both teachers and students–some thrive in such settings, some make-do, and others shrivel. I knew that before my student labeled my seminar “traditional.” I just had to learn it again.



Filed under how teachers teach

16 responses to ““Traditional”: An Unpleasant Word to Reformers

  1. I’m often struck by the seeming need for labels. In any given week, I might have an inquiry lesson, a constructivist lesson, a flipped lesson, a traditional lesson, a workshop lesson…

    What bothers me about the hype is the need to identify a teacher as one type of teacher. For me to be highly effective, I need to be able to pull from a great variety of instructional styles. Depending on the groups, I may teach the same objective using two completely different instructional techniques.

    We become expert instructors when we can anticipate the way to inspire learners using instructional techniques that help them grow. Who cares what we call the techniques.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Janet, for pointing out the obvious about labels and that as teachers having a wide repertoire of practices is essential to match the differences among our students.

  2. Hi Larry,

    This is what I wrote in July of 2011:

    “It is called the flipped class because what used to be classwork (the “lecture” is done at home via teacher-created videos and what used to be homework (assigned problems) is now done in class.” Jon Bergmann, Jerry Overmyer and Brett Wilie

    My teacher had us read the text book at home so we could use class time to discuss the contents.

    Today’s “flipped” teacher has the students listen to a lecture at home so they can discuss the contents in class.

    Other than the information presentation media (print vs video), what’s the dif?

    I applaud the concept as good teaching methodology, but is this really new?

    Maybe every generation has to discover and rename good teaching practices before they can own them?


    • larrycuban

      Thanks for noting the “flipped” class definition. It is consistent with what I know of Khan Academy videos and what I see occurring at Stanford. As always, Doug, you ask the right questions.

  3. Two thoughts struck me after reading this. The first is that the use of “traditional” pejoratively, by individuals wishing to be seen as educational reformers or innovators, has become in itself…traditional. All it shows, as you note Larry, is their lack of understanding about what constitutes strong, effective teaching.

    The second is perhaps less obvious and more interesting. I taught for many years in some of the UK’s most traditional schools. The school I attended as a boy was established in 1520! One of the things these schools possess that is absolutely invaluable educationally, is a depth of purpose, identity and stability which transcends all the pupils and teachers (heads especially!) who either learn or teach in them. If you are lucky enough to work or study in a school like this, you leave it a richer person carrying something of its character and identity with you for the rest of your life.

    In my career I’ve seen two schools like this quickly shake off ineffectual head teachers like a brief cold. This doesn’t mean they are staid, dull or complacent. Anything but. One of the most frustrating experiences of my post teaching career has been the refusal of so many less stable, confident, successful schools to acknowledge this truth, show a bit of humility and to learn from it.

    • larrycuban

      I have not had the experiences that you have had, Joe, but the comments you made about the traditional schools you worked in are both helpful to me and consistent with what I know. Thanks.

    • saurilio

      “The first is that the use of “traditional” pejoratively, by individuals wishing to be seen as educational reformers or innovators, has become in itself…traditional.”
      Nice point, Joe.

  4. Pingback: “Traditional”: An Unpleasant Word to Reformers @larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: “Traditional”: An Unpleasant Word to Reformers @larrycuban « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  6. Hi Larry, Not sure whether it is “traditional” or “flipped” but I just spent an interesting few days with some of the Stanford Education Digital Futures people…..it is a fascinating discussion which I think you would enjoy? http://edf.stanford.edu/education-digital-future

    I thought you might find it more engaging than the MOOC in AI?

    I also spent a couple of hours with Mike Kirst exploring the developments in education policy in US and England which was fascinating.

    Hope you are well?

  7. Oh man! You are striking such a chord with this one. One writing project I was involved in from around 1998-2002 concerned the preparing of math resources for a particular jurisdiction. There was a LOT of consultation from curriculum designers, math educators (not practicing teachers) and the like. As an author I did what I was supposed to, namely write to the curriculum guide and using the specifications given my the production team. That’s what I did and the drafts would go out for review from the groups mentioned above. I recall the most common comment, specifically. It was, “Too Traditional.” We took the comment seriously and wrote in new content based on the publications and materials provided by those ‘forward thinking’ individuals. The pilot teachers did not like the stuff but their wishes were not met. It stayed in. Guess what–the materials were not well received at all by anyone and the audience reverted to their own ‘traditional’ materials. The students, by the way, did just fine before, during and after the process. I had quite a few take aways from this (such as listen to those who actually teach–not those whose inclinations are not based on actual contact with students) including, most importantly the simple fact that the word ‘traditional’ which is spat out so easily by those who, apparently, are too smart and too good for the classroom, is synonymous–mostly but not always–with ‘tested and proven.’ :>)

  8. BB

    Sometimes “traditional” is rightly applied to methods that have become rigid. Sometimes “traditional” is applied, whether rightly or wrongly, to what is tried and true. To my mind, if a given group of students shows that they can learn effectively from “traditional” methods, those methods are completely up to date, at least for that group of students. Me, I love a good lecture. And a good pre-planned seminar. And reading the readings ahead of time so that class time can be a free-for-all or a group tutoring session or a chance to work through problems with help. It’s all good. Actually, group work is only good if the other students are as well-prepared as I am . . . .

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