Why Has Teacher-Directed Instruction Largely Remained Stable over the Past Century? (Part 4)

This series of post examined the remarkable stability over time of certain teaching practices that I have labeled, teacher-directed instruction. What I offer is an explanation, not a verifiable fact, about this dominant pattern of classroom teaching in public schools over the past century. I ended the previous post with a question:

Do these schools and teaching practices, shaped as they are politically, culturally, and educationally, meet the needs of the larger society which initially established and have continually supported tax-supported public schools?

No surprise that my answer is yes. After all, since the beginning of tax-supported public schools in the early decades of the 19th century, taxpayers and voters (once only white males but in 2021 inclusive of anyone meeting the age requirement), public schools, criticized as they have been decade after decade, nonetheless remain a prized community institution in rural, suburban, and urban America. In this post, I want to elaborate why I answer ” yes” to the question. I lean heavily upon the work of historians of education, David Tyack and David Labaree.

What David Tyack called the “Grammar of Schooling,” that is, the combination of the age-graded school organization shaping both teacher and student behavior and what the larger society expects of its public schools–a point that David Labaree stresses–explains the long-term practices of teacher-directed classrooms–which can also be called the “grammar of instruction.”

I want to unpack the above sentences.

Because it is taken-for-granted, as common as the air we breathe and seemingly as essential to schooling Americans as solid sleeping is to decent health, few reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, donors, researchers, and parents challenge the age-graded school organization and its daily grammar of instruction including teacher-directed instruction. Let me explain.

Since the late 19th century, the age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) has become the mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers, voters, and readers of this blog have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma. In proceeding through their student careers, Americans experienced teacher-directed instruction as the way to teach lessons.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a “success” it is the age-graded school and its grammar of instruction. In providing access to all children and youth, longevity as a reform, and global pervasiveness, the age-graded school is a stellar success.

Think about its longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Within a half-century, it had begun to replace one-room schoolhouses in urban and rural schools.

Or consider access. Between 1850-1913, over 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the U.S. The age-graded school and its underlying grammar of instruction have not only enrolled millions of students over the past century and a half, assimilating immigrants into Americans, sorting out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduating over eighty percent of those entering high school, but also been the accepted way that a school must be.

Why have most U.S. school reformers, donors, and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization and its enduring ways of teaching generation after generation that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children or one-sixth of all Americans in the early 21st century? Surely, habit and tradition play a part in the longevity of the age-graded school and its accompanying teacher-directed instruction. The lack of recognizable and durable alternatives that have been around sufficiently long to compete with the prevailing model is another reason for its spectacular stability.

What is too often ignored in explaining the durability of the embedded grammar of schooling in the age-graded organization, however, is the widely shared social beliefs among parents, educators, and taxpayers about what a “real” school is. After all, nearly all U.S. adults—save for the tiny number who are home schooled—have attended both public and private age-graded schools. Learning how and when to take turns, listening to the teacher, following the prescribed curriculum, reading textbooks, doing homework, taking tests–all of that abides within the grammar of schooling. Adding, subtracting, and multiplication are learned in primary grades, the nation’s history in 4th, 5th , 8th , and 11th grades is what a school is and does. Teacher-directed instruction and age-graded schools are American as apple pie and the Thanksgiving holiday.

This scaffolding of tradition–nearly two centuries of age-graded schools–powerful social beliefs among policymakers and parents about what “real schools” should be, and multiple public and private goals for tax-supported schools combine to make the “grammar of schools” and its teacher-directed instruction seemingly invulnerable to alternative ways of organizing schools and teaching lessons.

Consider the spread of charter schools in cities (e.g., New Orleans, 93 percent of schools; Detroit, 55 percent; Washington, D.C., 46 percent),  where charter advocates are free to organize the school, governance, curriculum, and instruction, nearly all are age-graded (see here for one exception).

The grammar of schooling with its teacher-directed instruction as the norm, then, is historical, ubiquitous, and thoroughly accepted by Americans as the primary way of schooling children since the late-19th century. It does (and did) meet two essential requirements of the U,S, system of schooling. First, the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling achieved the social aims of tax-supported schools, that is, fulfilling American ideals of individual liberty, equality and merit) and, second, providing a practical and efficient way of moving millions of students through a system that supports the larger economy by signaling which students in school can go on to higher education and which enter the job market upon graduation (see here and here).

So this is why I believe that U.S. age-graded schools, their grammar of schooling including teacher-directed instruction, shaped as both are (and have been) historically, politically, culturally, and educationally, have met (and continue to do so) the needs of the larger society on being legitimate and eminently practical in achieving American social aims. And that, to me, explains the extraordinary stability of teacher-directed instruction.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

14 responses to “Why Has Teacher-Directed Instruction Largely Remained Stable over the Past Century? (Part 4)

  1. I wonder if your excellent analysis could benefit from being elaborated a bit in three areas. The first is that what contributes to the grammar of schooling may not be so much age grades as the tight coupling of curriculum to each grade. This linkage pushes teachers to teach the entire class at a single pace and to concentrate on preparing a series of lessons that will do so rather than focusing on more individualized and constructivist approaches. The second point is that by limiting the instructional resources teachers have at hand, self-contained classrooms further encourage teachers to engage in whole class instruction. One reason differentiated instruction has not gained more traction in classrooms is that it takes more time than many teachers have available. Easy access to more instructional resources would help. My final point is that whole class instruction helps solve a difficult political problem, which is how to address a range of student abilities in the same classroom. On the high end, whole class instruction limits the learning of the fastest learners without acknowledging that it is doing so. Imagine how much more some students could learn over twelve grades if they could move at their own pace. But it would be a political challenge for any school to acknowledge that it permitted such a wide range of learning. To some degree public schools owe their continuing vitality to the fact that advantaged parents don’t often think about how much more their children could be learning unless they view their public schools as very deficient. On the low end, whole class instruction allows teachers to spend only a modicum of additional time on slower learners, although that time is often inadequate. The need to cover the curriculum provides a reason why teachers are justified in moving on to the next lesson even when some students have not yet mastered the previous one.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Jim. Your suggested elaborations are most helpful in exploring different facets of the teachers’ dilemmas in working within the age-graded school organization.

  2. EB

    I’ve noted before that I think that efficiency and transparency underlie the strong pull of tradition that keeps teachers (and curriculum directors) wedded to the age-graded school and especially teacher-directed instruction. In other words, it’s not just that school folks (including parents) like to do things the way they’ve always done them, it’s that those ways help them cover the material that the students are expected to learn AND those ways (and the student experiences they generate) are not so complicated as to cloud parents’ ability to see what their children are learning.

    But today I will add another factor that encourages teacher-directed learning: the reality that children spend more time out of school than in, and the learning that they do at home or in their communities is far more free-form, individual-oriented, and differentiated than what they find in school. That is to say, those bases are being covered, just not in school. Recently, of course, some children don’t have these varied and individualized learning experiences out of school. Wealthier ones are programmed with activities that are adult-led for the most part, and poorer ones may be confined indoors because of safety or other reasons.

  3. John Olson

    I was interested in what you say about charter schools.
    They could have set up the school quite differently but they didn’t.
    I am with you on the reluctance of reformers to consider why schooling as it is endures.The zeal of reform?
    I saw this v clearly when CAI was first introduced to schools in Ontario.
    Based on a grammar of schooling presupposed that did not exist in schools shaped by the technology of CAI quite unawate of the homeostatic techniques of schooling. The impacts unanticipated and supposed benefits of the encounter assumed but not tested at least at the outset.
    John Olson
    Schoolworls/Microworlds: Computers and the Culture of the Classroom.
    Pergamon Press.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, John, and applying to introduction of CAI in Ontario. What’s applicable, I think, is that CAI is software-directed instruction that reinforces the traditional teacher-directed lesson.

      • John Olson

        Forms of computer use that promoted student entered inquiry ran in to problems of absorption. LOGO type approaches seemed to have been promoted with little awareness of the limitations teachers face in preparation and the classromm structure. Students in the end had to guide teachers through these more freewheeling forms I found. Teachers found this unsettling. But no doubt the scene has evolved.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking the time to comment, John.

  4. I’m a retired math educator (I grew up on Pittsburgh’s South Side) and agree with you that the default go-to method for most math educators is the teacher-directed model. But over the past few years, I’ve noticed major changes in the math community to move towards a more student-directed classroom. Notice the strands for the upcoming in-person math conference. Link: https://www.nctm.org/Conferences-and-Professional-Development/Annual-Meetings/Atlanta2021/Schedule/Strands/. The young teachers and in particular the elementary ones are using the student centered models. Even at the high school level, there is a strong movement for alternative teaching methods. The BLM movement along with the Pandemic’s impact is driving changes in the curriculums (especially in the use of technology) of math education. This movement is taking hold as I write, but since math scores will not improve, there will be a return to teacher directed models in the near future though in a hybrid form.
    Ihor Charischak

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ihor. I want to believe you that the changes you have noticed, i.e., that math teachers have moved toward student-directed lessons, are more widespread than I suggest. Were you to cite studies of math classrooms, that is, actual observations of lessons or even math teacher surveys of daily practice, I would be more inclined to accept your point. But until I see such evidence, I stick with what I have said.

      • There is plenty of research on the use of student centered learning in math ed. Here’s an example: https://studentsatthecenterhub.org/resource/exploring-the-impact-of-student-centered-learning-on-mathematics/

        However, the kind of research I think you are asking me for is mostly available for grades K-8. This is where the shift is happening big time. At the high school level teacher-directed still dominates and will continue so despite the efforts of NCTM to instill more student-centered teaching & learning. So in my opinion it’s a split decision. Elementary schools – more student centered. High school – teacher driven.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Ihor, for the link to research on student-directed lessons in school. The distinction you make between lower and upper grades in public school is one I share as well.

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