Yes, even traditional teaching in public schools has changed. Incremental alterations in teacher-directed lessons have occurred over the past century. In the technologies used during lessons, managing student behaviors in large to small groups, crafting in-class assessments, and many other instances of common teaching practice, teachers have adapted and adopted innovations that have altered their teaching.
These incremental changes, however, are not the fundamental shifts in teaching that Progressive, constuctivist, and student-centered learning boosters have sought over the past century. Except in scattered classrooms and schools across the country, some teachers and principals have created fundamentally different classroom practices, say, from teacher-directed to student-driven (see here, here, and here), but most classrooms in the U.S.–or anywhere else in the world, for that matter–continue to have teacher-directed lessons.
Why is that?
Some researchers look at the constancy of teacher beliefs over time to answer the question. Those researchers point to novice teachers’ experiences as elementary and secondary school students coming through a system where teacher-directed lessons were standard fare. Much as their parents had experienced when they were in public school. These researchers reason that newbie teachers’ perceptions and judgements but most important their intentions of what to do, thereby shape the classroom practices they use during lessons. But disentangling a teacher’s knowledge, experience, intentions from core beliefs is extremely difficult for researchers to do, especially when it comes to potentially clashing beliefs (see here).
Take for example, when a teacher believes in her heart-of-heart that her lessons have to be rich in content and skills that lean on what her low-income students of color bring to the classroom from family and neighborhood. Delving into the community and family become lessons. Her teacher-education courses and prior beliefs about differences among students emphasized the importance of being responsive to differences in students’ cultures. The teacher wants to teach lessons that include students’ cultural differences in language, beliefs, and behavior.
Yet that very same teacher may deeply believe that many of her low-income children, for example, bring to school academic deficits that need careful attention and ultimate erasure. Her job is to bring children up to school standards regardless of students’ background. These beliefs clash within a teacher’s mind and only gets resolved as that teacher creates lessons that outflank the conflict. Not an easy task but many teachers do exactly that in teacher-directed lessons.
In addition to the constancy of teacher beliefs shaping their lessons there are the social expectations that parents and community have about what and how teachers should teach. The idea of a “real school,” one where teachers are in charge, expect students to obey directions, prize academics, assign homework, and give tests regularly continues to be the core idea that most parents and tax-paying citizens have about schools. They expect schools to stick to the familiar script of schooling as they knew it.
Thus, teacher beliefs and social expectations are factors that keep teacher-directed lessons as common fare for students past and present. Yet for some teachers those beliefs and expectations are not iron cages imprisoning teaching practices. There are teachers who do have different beliefs or shift in the ones they have, bend social expectations, and alter their traditional teacher-directed lessons.
Elizabeth Mack , high school science teacher:
When I first began teaching, I literally taught from the book. This is not the most engaging way to teach science. As a science teacher I wanted to do at least one lab per week. However, I was struggling with everyday classroom management, keeping up with grading, and trying to develop lesson plans.
Unfortunately, I did not have enough time in the day. Instead of doing one lab per week, I was lucky to have students complete one lab per unit. I am not proud of this. I should also mention that I took my first teaching job while still earning my credential. Basically, I was working full time, going to school full time, and was a full time mom and wife. Needless to say, my plate was overflowing. With that said, I believe my students did learn and were as engaged as they could have been with the lessons I was able to put together.
As a lifelong learner, I will continue to change what I do as my student population continues to change and as curriculum changes. Some strategies I will always use, like a daily warm up activity. Others were useful to me once, but I got tired of doing them or found them to be less effective than I had hoped. One such strategy that I loved for a long time, but gave up when I switched to high school is an exit ticket system. At the middle school I worked at, it worked great. I found that I just do not have the time for it in high school. I still believe it is an effective strategy.
Nyree Clayton-Taylor, elementary school teacher:
[Clayton-Taylor] … feels lucky that her school’s administration supports her use of hip-hop in the classroom, but she says it wasn’t always that way.
When I first started 19 years ago, I did encounter some backlash; some principals didn’t like it.” Clayton-Taylor recalls one principal who asked her to take down a display she had set up with posters featuring hip-hop artists that were designed to motivate her students. The display also featured the covers of hip-hop books and poetry that related to academic subjects her students were learning. Undaunted by her principal’s request to remove the posters, Clayton-Taylor left them up and invited the principal into her classroom to observe her lessons. “When he saw what I was doing with it, he understood that I was teaching the standards.
Despite early push-back, Clayton-Taylor found success with her approach, saw her students thrive and continued using hip-hop in her teaching. Others have taken notice of her work. In fact, Clayton-Taylor has received widespread recognition for her teaching and was selected as the 2019 Kentucky Elementary Teacher of the Year. But the problem of opposition—whether from colleagues, school or district leaders, parents or other members of the community—is familiar to many educators who seek to adopt new approaches and practices.
Both of these teachers add another reason beyond teacher beliefs and social expectations explaining why teacher-directed classes remain so stable. The classroom is part of the school and the school is part of a district and both create an organizational context that strongly influences what kind of teaching occurs.
The next post takes up the power of the organization in shaping how teachers teach.