The Myth that Won’t Go Away: Teachers Seldom Change How They Teach

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.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

45 responses to “The Myth that Won’t Go Away: Teachers Seldom Change How They Teach

  1. Dit is op From experience to meaning… herblogden reageerde:
    Very relevant piece by Larry Cuban. I really think this is something “policymakers, dressed up as reformers and reformers dressed up as experts” should read. Teachers too.

  2. Thank you Larry Cuban for understanding and articulating what teachers everywhere know, but rarely are given credit for. So often our lot in life is misconstrued in an effort to fund some “outsiders” plan to capitalize off of parents, administrators and politicians misguided views of education. This article was great!

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  4. Alice in PA

    You are spot on about teachers changing slowly and incrementally as a result of many sociocultural aspects of their lives. And yet, professional development is still a one shot, outside “expert” driven disconnected workshop rather than ongoing deep conversations among teachers. With the advent of the NextGen Science Standards, I asked my state science head about professional development opportunities to help us understand the underpinnings of the standards. He replied that there was no money for that!

  5. Great piece. I work in technology integration, and while I try to avoid this narrative, it’s the teachers themselves who often bring it up. Intimidated by students’ expertise in technology, teachers feel like they can’t keep up but have to radically change what they do. In my view, technology isn’t worth integrating if it prevents a teacher from doing what they do best. A tech-free classroom is often better than a techie one if the tech isn’t thoughtfully integrated. Difficult to advocate for change and more tech while also helping teachers see value in what they’ve been doing for years, though!

    I write about this here: Thanks again for the article.

    • larrycuban

      Ah, Ben, you nicely captured the core dilemma that change-driven reformers (high-tech and low-tech) have to face.

      “A tech-free classroom is often better than a techie one if the tech isn’t thoughtfully integrated. Difficult to advocate for change and more tech while also helping teachers see value in what they’ve been doing for years, though!”

      Figuring out ways to finesse both values contained in your words is what smart folks–both teachers and non-teachers–try to do. Thanks for the comment.

  6. JMK

    Larry, this is a great post. (This is Cal.)

  7. GE2L2R

    Your observations and comments say that you truly have a grasp on what has been happening in public school classrooms and how teachers grow, develop, and change throughout their careers.

    Regarding students being “a flourishing garden in need of a masterful cultivator.” You’ve identified how I came to view my role as a high school chemistry teacher before retiring last June after 41 years. Except that I viewed each of my classes as a garden and each of the students one of the flowers. It was I as the gardener tasked with allowing and fostering each individual student-flower to grow and become the flower they were destined to become. What makes the task so much more difficult is that it was a wild-flower garden, where each flower was different from the beginning and each needed different conditions and treatment to prosper and to grow into their unique and beautiful blossoms. We can either grow a beautiful wild-flower garden full of wonderfully unique individual plants or we can grow and maintain a putting green full of identical plants – all exactly the same but lacking variety and interest. It all depends on what we want our garden to be.

    Thanks for doing your blog, and in particular this post, and for adding a needed perspective to what the current wave of corporate reformers have been advocating.

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  9. I agree with many of your points regarding how things are different in classrooms than there were 100 years ago. Some of those changes are societal changes, not instructional ones (dunce caps are repulsive to everyone in our culture, and so teaching has had to leave them behind). Some changes are the result of educators experimenting and refining their practices (like instructional strategies). Still other changes are related to teachers wanting to do more for their students (like voluntary, extra-curricular opportunities).

    It’s certainly true that teachers want to do better. The struggle rests more in being willing to objectively examine our practices, being aware of what/how to improve, and in prioritizing those improvements, all while bound by external (and sometimes counterproductive) constraints.

    I look forward to your next post 🙂

  10. Dr. Cuban,

    At last! A description of the teaching I feel I do in my classroom. I have always described my teaching as “hybrid” and now I see a far more eloquent explanation. Many thanks for your constant exploration and explanation of teaching issues.

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  12. Great post. What you say applies equally to policymakers and reformers, and to teaching and teachers in Britain, and many other places I guess. Teachers are actors and thinkers too, for better or worse, a very important point often forgotten. There was a debate in the English Parliament last week about whether teachers working in publicly-funded schools and colleges should have to be trained: after a stunningly low level of debate the motion was lost. Official: the English government doesn’t believe in training teachers. It believes teaching can, or even should, be done by amateurs. ‘What next’, as someone said, ‘brain surgeons?’ But teachers are brain surgeons, of course, it’s just that everyone gets treated by them, not just people who are ill. Keep up the fight, Larry

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  14. Paul Hoss


    Have always been a big fan, however I’ll have to respectfully disagree here – at least to a point. While I’m sure many teachers are changing incrementally, I’d be willing to randomly visit any hundred classrooms nationwide, and would be shocked if the vast majority of them didn’t spend the majority of their day teaching one lesson to their whole class.

    For me, this is an embarrassment to our “profession” of teaching. If, in fact, all students are different, how can this still be happening?

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  26. “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…” What you’ve expressed in your essay has many lessons and truths. It is in the small, incremental change that you can test, take risks, revise pedagogy. Teaching and learning is a process where change should be woven into its fabric versus ironed on, patched up, or carelessly spilled. Policy could learn a lot from contemporary teaching practices where change is differentiated, incremental, intentional, and human-centered.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Dionne, for taking the time to comment, especially connection teachers’ incremental changes with nudging policymakers to learn from teachers.

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