How Have Public School Teachers Taught? (Part 2)

At first glance, the snapshot of a reading lesson in a rural one-room schoolhouse in the 1880s, a New York City first grade classroom in 1939 and a California high school U.S. History lesson in 2016 have little in common. A historian recounts what a county superintendent observed and wrote about in visiting one-room schoolhouses, The next classroom vignette is a retired professor’s deep dive into her memory of a hated primary school teacher, and the other is an observer’s account of a high school history lesson. Moreover, the three lessons are aimed at different age groups of students.

These accounts do share, however, one feature. That feature will be central to the book I am writing on the practice of teaching then and now. Separated in time, school level, and place, all of these lessons are instances of teacher-centered instruction.

Spanning more than a century, across elementary and secondary school grades, and varied locations, teacher-centered instruction has dominated how teachers have taught (and as this book claims), how they teach now.

There is ample historical data to back up the first part of the statement. 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 early 2000s, 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 2005, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades allowing students to face 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 blanketing the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

By the early 2000s, 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 drawing 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 tied 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 lessons. As Philip Jackson noted in his mid-1960s 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.”[i]

And since the early 2000s, 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 the early decades of the 21st century.

Teachers still 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 time from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscore the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.


[i] Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1968), p. 129.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “How Have Public School Teachers Taught? (Part 2)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, thanks for this. I find it very interesting that there’s a significant difference between elementary and secondary ed practices. In reading today’s Inside Higher Ed, there’s a essay by Steven Mintz entitled “Is Academic Innovation Always a Good Thing?”. In this he notes that the traditional goals of higher ed was a liberal education to “create leaders” and this has entailed “oral presentations, memorization, an emphasis on writing, debate and broad learning that addresses big questions and wrestles with complex, demanding texts.” https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/academic-innovation-always-good-thing

    At the secondary level (assuming a college prep curriculum) we hope to build a foundation that will allow students to do these things, often helping them learn how to write papers, do oral presentations, and tackle more complex texts.

    But what about elementary ed? It seems that engagement is the most important thing. Often students in my history classes lack any sort of background knowledge for the topics we cover, but they recall doing posters, dioramas, and fun group work in middle school. It’s often a challenge to provide that background content knowledge while also trying to prepare them for college. I’d link this to the perennial complaints about students lacking a knowledge of basic civics–if they’re not getting the background they need to understand our complex world before they get to high school, then there’s only so much we can do in the limited time we have them in a one semester secondary ed civics class.

  2. larrycuban

    I apologize, David, for the tardy response to your comment on the post. The differences between elementary and secondary schooling insofar as content in the disciplines are as you note. Yes, engagement is foremost in the primary grades and in the upper elementary grades, disciplinary content becomes more apparent. Of course, this varies a great deal across the decentralized system of U.S. schooling. There are Core Curriculum elementary schools and there are progressive elementary schools that focus far more on social and emotional skills than content. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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