Classroom Teaching Then and Now

Most policymakers, researchers, and parents believe that good teachers and teaching are the keys to school improvement yet these very same folks know little about how teachers teach daily. And that is the rub. Good teachers and teaching are the agreed-upon policy solutions to both high- and low-performing students yet reliable knowledge of how most teachers teach and what are the best ways of teaching in either affluent or low-income, minority schools are absent among policymakers, researchers, and parents.

At a time when remote instruction has dominated the practice of teaching during the pandemic year, it is useful to take a moment to consider how teachers have taught for the past century and the traditions of teaching that teachers have straddled since the first age-graded school opened in the mid-19th century.

So how have most teachers taught and teach today?

The long answer can be found in many books such as Mary Kennedy, Inside Teaching (2005), Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975), Philip Jackson, The Practice of Teaching (1986), and Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984).

The short answer is that teachers today draw from two traditions of teaching.

From the early 19th century, teacher-centered and student-centered traditions have dominated classroom instruction (see photo below of a classroom taught within this tradition a century ago).

The teacher-centered tradition refers to teachers controlling what is taught, when, and under what conditions. Were you to sit for a few minutes in such a classroom you would note that the furniture is usually arranged in rows of desks or chairs facing the front whiteboard, teachers talk far more than students, the entire class is most often taught as one group with occasional small groups and independent work, and students regularly use texts to guide their daily work. Scholars have traced the origins of this pedagogical tradition to the ancient Greeks and religious schools centuries ago and have called it by various names: “subject-centered,” “teaching as transmission,” and “direct instruction.”

Teacher-led high school classroom early 20th century

Student-centered activities in early 20th century classroom

The student-centered tradition of instruction refers to classrooms where students exercise a degree of responsibility for what is taught and how it is learned. Teachers see children as more than brains; they bring to school an array of physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs plus experiences that require both nurturing and prodding. The above photo shows a degree of student-centeredness in an early 20th century classroom with bolted to the floor desks arrayed in rows.

Were you to sit for a while in such a classroom today you would see that the furniture is arranged and rearranged frequently to permit students to work independently or together in large and small groups. Student talk is at least equal to, if not greater than, teacher talk. Varied materials (e.g., science and art centers, math manipulatives) are spread around the room. Guided by teachers, students learn content and skills through different tasks such as going to activity centers in the room, joining a team to produce a project, and working independently. Scholars have tracked this tradition to its historical roots in ancient Greece and labeled it over the centuries as “child-centered,” “progressive,” and “constructivist.”

A 21st century Fairfax County (VA) elementary school classroom

Champions of each tradition believe that all students, regardless of background, grasp subject matter, acquire skills, cultivate attitudes, and develop behaviors best through its practices. Yet the accumulated evidence of actual classroom practices producing desired student outcomes for each tradition has been both mixed and unconvincing. And for good reason. Most observers confuse “good” teaching with “successful” teaching. Moreover, researchers have yet to link ways of teaching to student test performance because so many variables influence achievement such as family background, teacher experience, peers, school safety, and dozens of other factors including, yes, pedagogy.

Lacking evidence to support one form of teaching over another, faith–not facts–has driven proponents of each tradition. Fierce rhetorical struggles over which ways of teaching and learning are best for all or some students—often mirroring larger conservative vs. liberal ideological battles over religion in schools, ending poverty, child-rearing practices, and song lyrics–have ebbed and flowed.

Since the early 20th century, these so-called “culture wars” spilled over newspapers, books, educational conferences, and scholarly journals. More recently, outbreaks of these media-amplified fistfights—again reflecting the ideological divide between political conservatives and liberals have engaged federal, state, and local officials in arguments on over how best to teach reading, math, science, and history. In 2003, for example, New York City Chancellor of schools Joel Klein mandated “Balanced Literacy”—a progressive whole language approach–as the preferred way of teaching children to read in nearly 750 elementary schools rather than a phonics-based approach.

And in the “math wars” between progressives and conservatives, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a report in 2006 urging that math teaching in elementary and middle school concentrate on knowing multiplication tables, how to do division and manage decimals. Yet their 1989 report called for engaging students in learning concepts and applying them to real world situations rather than memorizing rules for adding, subtracting, and dividing and other familiar ways of grasping mathematics. And that struggle continues into 2020.

These historic traditions of teaching practices, then, are alive and well now. Yet these media-hyped “wars” between progressive and traditional ways of teaching have obscured the mixing of traditions. For instance, in the past quarter-century, state standards in math in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia include both traditional and progressive language to describe teaching. Current math textbooks (e.g., University of Chicago School Mathematics Project) blend traditional practices (e.g., whole class drill on math facts) with progressive ones (e.g., connections between math and science, students working in small groups, writing in journals). Ditto for reading and, yes, the use of technology in classroom lessons. Note well the progressive language surrounding “personalized learning.”

My research into teaching over the past century and particularly in classrooms over the past decade that I have directly observed, most teachers have, indeed, blended both traditions of teaching.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

2 responses to “Classroom Teaching Then and Now

  1. Caitlin

    Hello Larry!

    I enjoyed reading your piece. It reminds me of a NY Times opinion article that my grandmother, who is a former teacher, sent to me, a current teacher, a few months ago. The OP ED spoke about the idea of teacher-centered teaching and how the world of education, according to test and achievement, has fallen when we turned desks to their peers and not the teacher. Your post here contributes to the narrative, that there is a change in how teachers are teaching students, but rather there is not sufficient data to suggest one way is better than another both in the physical way a student learns, but the language/approach teachers use to teach.

    What captured me from your piece was that faith is driving these decisions, not data. Which, as an educational model, we should be using data and facts to drive instruction.

    I think this article may be of interest to you. It talks about the idea of teaching math the “old way” aka rote memorization and processes vs the “new way” conceptual, visual models that demonstrate not how to solve a problem but why the answer is solved in that way. The study follows African American parents who see themselves as critical stakeholders in their education, but due to the “new way” of teaching can not feel empowered to support their child in their learning. I think that this conversation of teachers and practice of style is not just the teacher fight. It also involves a key stakeholder: the parents.

    Janine T. Remillard & Kara Jackson (2006) Old Math, New Math: Parents’ Experiences with Standards-Based Reform, Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 8:3, 231-259, DOI: 10.1207/s15327833mtl0803_3

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Caitlin, for taking the time to comment on post. I found the article link you sent very helpful. Appreciate that.

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