Looking Anew at How Teachers Teach

Today, reformers from both ends of the political spectrum push Common Core Standards into classrooms. They champion charters and more parental choice of schools. They want teachers to be evaluated  on the basis of student test scores. Policymakers, philanthropists, and vendors send tablets to classrooms. Look at these reforms as blood relatives fixed on changing how teachers teach so students can learn more, faster, and better. An old story to be sure.

Why old? Two traditions of teaching have competed with one another for millennia.  Each has had a grab-bag of names over the centuries: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, teacher-centered vs. student-centered, mimetic vs. transformational.

Each tradition has its own goals (transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings);  practices (teacher-centered vs. student-centered); and desired outcomes (knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society versus an outcome of moral and civic engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities). No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. These are choices anchored in beliefs. While posing these traditions as opposites, I, Philip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers  taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the early 1990s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing with No Child Left Behind (2002-2015), Common Core standards and tests (since 2010), and Every Student Succeeds in 2016. How, then, in the past quarter-century of standards and accountability-driven schooling have teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and research studies describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I  and others have gone into scores of classrooms across the nation. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms

All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and school closure threats.

On the whole, then, since the early 1990s when standards, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

Even so, research-backed efforts to add further fuel to the embers that  have burned over the centuries glow between Progressives and Traditionalists are found in the push for Direct Instruction. Often scripted materials for teachers to follow with their students, researchers have found time and again that such instruction shows gains in student test scores ( here, here and here). Yet from Distar to Open Court, elementary school teachers in particular, have been reluctant to embrace such materials.

The struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–turn up in classrooms in 2016 call up anew the persistent progressive and conservative beliefs that have divided policymakers, practitioners, and parents for decades.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

12 responses to “Looking Anew at How Teachers Teach

  1. David Callaghan

    Larry – is there now not enough evidence to do a retrospective longitude study of traditional vs progressive? I tend to be on the fence myself – originally a progressive, then age & articles like Kirschner et al* persuaded me that looking for a one-size-fits-all pedagogy is a distraction – we should instead select an appropriate approach for each audience / situation / context. Perhaps this is what educators do already?
    Very kindest regards
    * http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

    • larrycuban

      The problem, David, is as you would guess: what constitutes “traditional” and “progressive” teaching? So much variation in classroom approaches occurs within each word. The second issue is that most teachers, I have found, mix both “progressive” and “traditional” methods (however defined) in their lessons. Thanks for comment.

      • Alice in PA

        Perhaps another methodological issue is that the outcomes of these traditions would then have to be assessed according to the assumed goals of the tradition. How do you assess “moral and civic engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities” or even adults who were “knowledgeable and skilled … and ready to enter the labor market and society” and THEN attribute that outcome that you see in these adults to the teaching practices they experiences in their K-12 years and not just SES issues.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Alice, for taking the time to comment. Measurement of intangible goals is difficult but hardly impossible. Better to try than lament, I say.

  2. We are killing Mosquitoes in an infested pool here. None of these archaic approaches will work in this day and age. We have to immerse kids in using learning technologies to develop deep understand, content mastery and Cognitive Transfer. It’s what what we teach but how we teach that will bring about a paradigm shift in teaching and learning. We got it all wrong.
    Dr. Ronelus

    • My all means. Let’s plunk kids down in front of computers for some depersonalized learning and throw out the passing from one human to another of what we consider important enough to preserve for the future, which is how education was always conceptualized. In other words, let’s write Billy Gate’s autism spectrum vision large–plastering it across the landscape of the training (“Sit up. Roll over. good boy.”) of children of the Proles.

  3. I would add that the “progressive” camp made Titanic strides in recent decades, on the back of the exponential growth in new technology. New technology to a wholeheartedly progressively minded teacher is as irresistible as a Christmas present to a toddler.

    And when you add the contemporary faith placed in “innovation” per se, another strategy education has been coerced into adopting from business, then you have a veritable tidal wave of progressive practice, which is in turn why you have the UK’s schools minister making Gradgrind counter news yesterday like this.

    I agree with you Larry, balance is everything in this.

    • LT

      While a lot of progressive techniques can be GREATLY facilitated by technology, even when the kids don’t have access (I use it in my classroom to find lessons, ideas, and communities to help support my mostly student-centered/”doing history” sort of ideas) the current educational technology movement is mostly being used to support rote memorization tasks and student data collection and tracking.

      The new tech might say “student centered” on the package, but all that means is that students move through each preprogrammed module at their own pace and are judged by teachers and admin for not getting far enough; not that they are investigating and coming up with ideas on their own (true learner-centered teaching). It’s essentially no different from a student moving forward through a textbook at their own pace, but then being graded on how much textbook they were able to read.

  4. Alice in PA

    Thanks for recognizing, as always, the complexities and nuances in teaching. I fall quite a bit to the progressive side, but that does not mean that I reject all of the goals and methods of the traditionalists. Perhaps these labels better serve as discussion starters rather than enders and then we can spend less time and money arguing which one is right and which is wrong.

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