Much present and past policy making to make better classroom lessons is anchored deeply in myth and memory. Both morph into one another as policymakers (aka “reformers), many of whom are parents, connect their children’s tales of what occurs in classrooms filled with iPads and Chromebooks to memories of what went on in their elementary and secondary classes.
Sure, school boards and superintendents consult with researchers and look at classroom studies, and ponder the changes that new technologies have made in how teachers teach but even research findings are sorted through memories of writing an essay for that English teacher or the 5th grade quizzes that constricted one’s intestines. So I do not discount the power of myth and memory to shape policies aimed at getting teachers to teach better even after a decade of new technologies being tamed by teachers to become part of their instructional repertoire.
What is too often missing from the mix of data, Golly Gees over new software and remembrances are the few accounts by historians of education who have documented–albeit in fragmentary ways–what actually went on in classrooms over the past century. Some historians, including myself, have tried to recapture yesteryear’s classrooms (see here, here, and here). Glimpsing what occurred in classroom lessons a century or more ago gives readers a sense of what has remained stable and what has changed in how teachers teach.
This post initially published in 2009 has been updated.
In How Teachers Taught (1984) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students. I found the following classroom patterns:
Between the 1890s and 2010, the social organization of the classroom became informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.
Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2010, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s scowl slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms with teachers more informal in language and dress, and exercised a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.
By 2010, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both traditions.
Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.
Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.
The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.
Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.
Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”
One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscored the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.
In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2005, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.
Amid a formidable array of new devices and software used by teachers across the nation in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, the two teaching traditions and their hybrids persist. Were policymakers, wannabe reformers, and anxious parents informed of this history of teaching–and the work of other historians of education who looked at classroom lessons–would their knowledge be useful in designing policies–in concert with classroom teachers–aimed at instruction? I believe so.