Look back at schooling in 1900 and compare to schooling today.
Then: bolted down-desks and wood-burning stoves, teachers teaching a lesson to the whole group, students standing to recite textbook answers, dunce caps, teachers disciplining students with switches and sticks, and classes running to 50 or more students in city schools.
Now: movable desks and tables where students sit and face one another, air-conditioning and central heating, students giving PowerPoint presentations, small groups and pairs of students working together, computer devices strewn around the classroom, after-school drama, athletics, and robotics clubs and cafeterias where students eat breakfast and lunch. And classes that have between 20-30 students. And many states have banned corporal punishment.
Schools have, indeed, changed. What about teaching?
Policymakers, dressed up as reformers and reformers dressed up as experts, peddle the myth that while schools have changed, teaching has not. The fairy tale runs like this: “For better or worse, teaching has hardly changed over the last century.” Teachers keep on teaching as they have done for years, they say, because they resist change and want things to remain the same. This is why generation after generation of teachers do the same things again and again.
Selling this tale to the public, of course, provides a rationale for reformers to push their favored changes such as test-driven standards, expanding parental choice of schools, and getting more students to learn online. Thus, Common Core standards. Thus, more charter schools. Thus, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores. Thus, the deluge of tablets, mobile devices, and smart boards. Thus, “flipped” classrooms.
As useful as a myth can be in the hands of decision-makers to justify changes they seek in classroom practices, the fact is that teaching has changed over the past century in small and big ways.
An historical glance backwards shows that two traditions of teaching have competed with one another in the U.S.: teacher-centered and student-centered. Imagine a continuum with each tradition anchoring an opposite pole and the middle of that continuum being hybrids where teachers forge blends of both ways of teaching.
In teacher-centered instruction, knowledge is often (but not always) “presented” to a learner (via lectures, textbooks, and testing) who is–and the metaphors vary–a “blank slate” or a “vessel to fill.” In student-centered instruction, by contrast, knowledge is often (but not always) “discovered” by the learner (via individual and small-group work, projects blending different subjects and skills, and inquiry and questioning), who may be described as “rich clay in the hands of an artist” or “a flourishing garden in need of a masterful cultivator.”
Within these competing traditions of teaching, different forms of teacher-centered instruction have dominated U.S. classrooms for the past century. And yet that pattern has not stopped many teachers slowly changing their practices and migrating to the hybrid center of that continuum.
Re-read, for example, the above “then” and “now” descriptions in which changes in teaching are apparent.
1. Most teachers now use a mix of grouping arrangements from whole-group, small-group, pairing of students to students working independently.
2. Many teachers design activities where students actively participate in lessons.
3. Many teachers use multiple sources including the required text in lessons.
4. Many teachers include many new technologies to advance student learning.
And there are other changes in teaching that are missing from the above descriptions:
5. Many teachers create new curriculum materials tailored to their students.
6. Many teachers experiment with different ways of teaching a subject with apps and software.
Obviously, I am not speaking of every single U.S. teacher. Historically, I speak of those experienced teachers, not novices, who have made incremental changes anchored in their practical classroom experiences; teachers who try out different approaches, experiment with different materials, and figure out what works best with their students.
Seldom do most teachers make grand changes in their activities. More often than not, the changes they make are small and accumulate over time into a manner of teaching, a signature that students recognize after a few lessons. Because of age-graded schools, teaching tends to be a private affair in self-contained classrooms where these small changes seldom get noted by district office administrators, parents, and even colleagues. But these changes–some superficial, some deeply substantive–add up over time and give direction to what teachers do daily in their classrooms.
Such changes are not in plain sight. Policymakers, gurus on teaching, supervisors, and journalists who step in and out of classrooms for a five-minute peek have insufficient data points on a single teacher over time to see, much less understand, whether changes have occurred. In some cases where principals practice going into classrooms frequently, they can see changes that others cannot.
Given the prevailing myth of teachers resistant to change, how do teachers made the kinds of changes I have described?
Classroom teachers are not passive actors that societal expectations and school structures pour into a mold. Teachers bring their experiences, formal and informal knowledge, and personal beliefs about children, learning, and serving the community that also influence what and how they teach reading, math, science, and social studies.
Both constrained and autonomous, teachers accommodate to external demands and organizational structures while carving out space for themselves in which they can make independent decisions about how they arrange classroom furniture, organize their classrooms, group students, pick and choose different topics to teach, and design activities for students.
While there is much in teaching that has remained stable over time, teachers have constrained autonomy to make changes in how they teach students. They have done so year in and year out for the past century.
Whether these changes have added up to improvement for both teachers and students, however, is another matter, one that I take up in a subsequent post.