Two Teaching Traditions: Which Is Most Effective in Getting Students To Learn? (Part 1)

The answer to whether teacher-centered or student-centered instruction (or their hybrids) is more effective in classroom lessons is simple: No one knows for sure. One’s answer depends upon beliefs and faith, not facts.

Recall Tevye the milkman, in his foot-tapping opening to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. “Tradition!” Tevye was surely right that little is more reassuring than sticking to the beliefs and practices of years past. Especially if you have five daughters and each must get married. If one were to have asked Tevye: “how do you know for sure that tradition should guide your life and that of your five daughters?” He may well have turned his back in disgust at such an asinine question, slapped the horse and resumed delivering milk in his community.*

No, I am not saying that hewing toward religious traditions is the same as teachers following teacher-centered or student-centered instruction. While faith in what one does daily with their students is surely needed, such conviction does not need to become unquestioned dogma. And most teachers are open to shifting gears, altering classroom routines if they see those changes as being beneficial to (and for) their students. They may have deep faith in what they do daily in their lessons and their connections with individual students, but trust in those beliefs does not rule out finding better ways to teach particular content and skills in their lessons. After all, as I have pointed out often, most teachers blend practices from both teaching traditions.

That two teaching traditions and its hybrids have existed for well over a century in U.S. schools without any sustained and credible evidence to support either as successful in getting all or at least most students to learn should be puzzling–not to Tevya–but surely to policymakers, practitioners, parents, and, of course, reformers.

But few professionals and non-professionals ever raise the obvious question of which teaching tradition works best with most students and under what conditions at a time when state and local testing have driven public school reform for nearly a half-century.

Why is that?

One obvious answer is that the origins of teacher-centered instruction lay in the structure of the age-graded school and a required curriculum that must be taught to all students. Establishing first through sixth grades, assigning a teacher to a separate and self-contained classroom within the building, and requiring teachers to maintain order among their students–who are compelled to attend–while using approved textbooks to deliver the content and skills through lessons tilts inexorably teaching toward teacher-centered instruction. So authority and power is delegated to classroom teachers within the structure of the age-grade school just as compulsory attendance laws and state-required curricula shape the terrain in which teachers negotiate daily lessons and relationships with students.

And those structures bend toward, but by no means determine, how teachers should teach while leaving space for other forms of teaching such as student-centered to enter the arena. That is what happened when the “New Education” promoted by Progressive reformers well over a century ago entered debates about what and how teachers should teach. Here enters what that generation of reformers called “child-centered” classrooms and the forming of another tradition of teaching that I label student-centered instruction (see post).

So facts or evidence that such a tradition “works,” that is, using the current political definition of what works as students showing academic achievement through scores on tests and letter grades for each semester’s or year’s performance, is in a word–missing. And I might add, unnecessary in light of earlier political and economic decisions made by policymakers to establish and sustain tax-supported public schools for nearly two centuries in the U.S.

But Americans live at a time when facts and evidence are essential in local, state, and federal decision-makers adopting economic and social policies (e.g., states repairing roads and bridges, the Federal Reserve increasing or lowering interest rates) Nonetheless, the fact is that there is little evidence that can support either tradition of teaching or its hybrids clearly producing positive (or negative) student outcomes.

Part 2 examines the few shards of evidence that do exist supporting those practicing in each tradition of teaching yet the sparse evidence remains too scattered and insufficient to give confidence to true believers or ammunition for skeptics to fire.


*For readers unfamiliar with the musical (or those who want to hear the song in its entirety, see the 7-minute video here



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5 responses to “Two Teaching Traditions: Which Is Most Effective in Getting Students To Learn? (Part 1)

  1. I shall be interested in reading the rest of this, but at the outset, I have a couple observations to make.

    I believe that our Prime Directive as educators is to help students become intrinsically motivated, life-long learners. Why? Because learning should be not something we UNDERGO in the first few years of life but something that we UNDERTAKE, at some point, so that it then becomes a lifelong pursuit. That understood, I doubt that there has EVER been any committed, life-long learner who has not benefitted enormously, along the way, from BOTH teacher-centric and student-centric teachers. In this time when “the sage on the stage” is so derided, I often find myself thinking of a couple counterexamples: my fifth-grade teacher Mr. Schimezzi, who lectured to us, daily, in FIFTH GRADE. Horrifying, huh? His classroom style would not have survived any standard evaluation process being used today. But we in his classroom were mesmerized. He was endlessly fascinating and engaging He revealed to us many, many wonders on the paths of the great garden that of human cultural accomplishment through the ages. We little people blessed to have been his students wanted to know more, more, more of what he knew. We reaped the windfall of his passions and what we most learned was that we wanted to be like him. We said to ourselves, “What he has, what he is—give me some of that!” Flash forward 12 years to one of my undergraduate English professors, Alvin Rosenfeld, a specialist in Jewish studies who happened to be teaching, one year, a survey course in 20th-century American poetry that I was privileged to take. Straight-up lecture, a lot of it consisting of little more than his reading classic works aloud. But he read with such clarity, with such perfect rendering, that the obscure became plain, and out of his vast learning, he chose again and again to share just what we needed to know to make things click. Yes, I benefitted from those student-centric guides who facilitated my own work—my brilliant classical guitar professor Javier Calderon, my 11th-grade English teacher Mr. Long who discovered my writing and threw out his curriculum to nurture this. But to those other teachers I have enormous debts.

    Here’s the bottom line, IIMNSHO: there are many ways to be a good or great teacher, just as there are many ways to be an excellent musician or playwright. Ibsen is not Beckett is not Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler. Joe Pass is not Paco de Lucia is not Julien Bream is not Yngwie Malmsteen. But all of these—masters.

    And, ofc, in the English Language Arts, the standardized testing that purports to measure achievement and by means of which various pedagogical and curricular approaches are purportedly measured are purest numerology. Those tests don’t measure much of what is important in ELA and don’t measure what they purport to measure at all validly. Anyone who takes them seriously is deeply deluded and hasn’t thought carefully, or at all, about the chasms between the sham, pseudoscientific tests and what they supposedly measure.

    • cxs: of the great garden of, IMNSHO [the NS stands for “not so”], the standardized tests that purport

      My apologies for the typos! Oh for an editing feature for posted comments on WP!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Bob.

      You say: “there are many ways to be a good or great teacher, just as there are many ways to be an excellent musician or playwright. Ibsen is not Beckett is not Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler. Joe Pass is not Paco de Lucia is not Julien Bream is not Yngwie Malmsteen. But all of these—masters.”

      I agree.

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