Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

18 responses to “Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

  1. JoeN

    The complaint that it is easy to identify and articulate problems: but far more difficult to design solutions, is a commonplace in business. Everyone (including me) is looking for solutions but not everyone is good at recognising them when they see them.

    This is especially true of education where so many involved in strategising or policy making lack a high quality teaching background and where so many in the profession itself lack perspective. (How they perceive themselves as employees is a good example.)

    I think you offer a perfectly credible solution Larry, one which I have tried again and again to get technology companies to grasp, when you say: “Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and include building on their existing expertise.”

    That, to me, is a solution. If only it were pursued seriously.

  2. JoeN

    What timing. The OECD below report published today states this: “To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.” How many times does it need saying?

  3. Reblogged this on Erika Maren Steiger and commented:
    I almost always agree with things Larry Cuban says about education. This post of his seems especially worth sharing, so I am reblogging it in full.

  4. Gary Ravani

    This post reminded me, once again, of my encounter with Neil Postman, co-author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity and then Teaching as a Conserving Activity. I had an opportunity to chat with him in the mid-1980s.
    The first book, “Subversive,” created quite bit of upset as I was entering the teaching field in the early 1970s. By the time he wrote the second book he had rethought his original thesis, “throw out everything in the classroom as we know it,” to conclude much of what was in the classroom was there because it was the product of a lengthy “evolutionary process” (not his words exactly) and we should be cautious about losing the baby with the bathwater. He also “joked” about the strategy of selling new books based on a repudiation of your old books. Not too many years ago there was a much abused cliche circulating in education circles about some metaphorical time-traveler who being transported from the 19th century to the dawning of the 21st would find everything strange and awe inspiring except the public schools which would be entirely familiar. And this was a bad thing.This, of course was yet another indicator of the need for “reform.” I think Postman’s second book, as well at this latest post, explains why change occurs slowly in schools and why it needs to be that way.

  5. I come from the perspective of a classroom teacher of over twenty years now who is passionate about some of the affordances ICTs offer some aspects of classroom routines, which were difficult to achieve in traditional ways. Google docs, for example, offer amazing collaborative opportunities for teaching writing. Simulations offer some benefits for Science teachers. Some Maths programs allow functions to be visualised and for students to play with different variables.

    I’ve also learned that ICTs are also limited. The disruptive power of ICTs has largely passed teachers by because we have slowly integrated some aspects of new technologies, that we find useful, and have rejected those that are not that useful. The process is organic and bottom-up, and every classroom looks different.

    • larrycuban

      Dorian, thanks for commenting. I read the post that you wrote and paraphrased a statement in a piece I wrote 20 years ago. You ended the post by saying: “As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.” I agree.

  6. educationstate

    Larry, so true.

    However, isn’t it also that what you say is not unknown to the powers that be? Isn’t it rather that there’s now so much invested in education (eg careers, profit, pride) that to do as you say – however much many of us want it to – just isn’t going to happen without the type of struggle most aren’t up for?

    For example, isn’t this why bad education ideas (eg merit pay, missionary teaching progs) never ever die?

    • larrycuban

      I would be more direct in responding to your comment (thanks for doing so) by saying that amnesia about past efforts to improve schooling is behind the reappearance, like zombies, of dead ideas. True also for other sectors beyond education.

  7. Pingback: Cuban’s Guiding Principles | Notta Stuff

  8. Pingback: NO ONE WAY TO TEACH | Montrose42 Blog

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