Inside the Black Box of the Classroom

Insider books and films about financial finagling (e.g., “Wall Street,”) baseball (e.g.,Michael Lewis’s Moneyball), the drug trade and police (e.g. HBO’s, “The Wire”) portray in vivid and compelling ways what it is like to be Gordon Gecko or Billy Beane or detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon. These “insider” accounts, both fiction and non-fiction, draw the reader and viewer into the details of buying and selling bonds, building a baseball team, and daily police work. Revealing (and sometimes simplifying) complex processes is what insider accounts do.

Where, however, are the insider accounts  of classroom teaching? Not in the wonderful heroic accounts of teachers in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), “Stand and Deliver“(1988), “Freedom Writers” (2007). The narrative arc of these films go from the trials of teaching in tough situations to teary endings. Readers can insert their own favorites but the genre is filled with tales of teachers nearly succumbing to student resistance only to overcome one barrier after another to reach a soaring ending that brings out handkerchiefs. No sarcasm intended since I felt goosebumps and teared up at many of these films.

My candidates for descriptions of classroom teaching that approach “insider” accounts would be the French film “The Class” (based upon a book written by a teacher who is also in the film),  “Prez”  the former cop who becomes a Baltimore (MD) middle school teacher in HBO’s “The Wire,” and Philip Jackson’s study of elementary school teaching, Life in Classrooms. Readers will have their own favorites that go beyond the heroic teacher genre and capture the ups-and-downs of daily classroom teaching  (I would appreciate knowing which accounts readers prize).

Because there are so few classroom accounts that on-the-job teachers can point to and say, “yes, that is what teaching is all about,” and so many inaccurate, over-the-top, and even sloppy representations of teaching, the classroom has become a “black box.”*

I use “black box” as a metaphor for what happens daily in classrooms that remains unknown to outsiders–except for occasional films, television, and media reports–yet seems so familiar since policymakers, researchers, parents, and taxpayers have attended school. The fact is that what occurs in classrooms is largely unknown or tinged with nostalgia because memories fade and children reports of school activities are, at best, laconic, hiding more than revealing what occurs. Like that popular ad for Las Vegas tourists: What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.

Teacher memories also fade. While many retain records of daily interactions, lessons, and materials for awhile, most do not. Sure lessons are traded on the Internet, but the traffic is a fraction of what transpires in classrooms.Moreover, those written lessons fail to capture what actually occurs. As a colleague once said, teaching is like dry ice evaporating at room temperature. So some researchers collect classroom artifacts, document interactions, and observe dynamics to restore what has evaporated and capture what happens in the “black box.”

The lack of documentation and transparency about the complex mechanics and inter-relationships that occur daily in schools and classrooms—the black box–make it tough to unpack and understand. But there have been efforts to get inside elementary and secondary classrooms through, for example, videotaped lessons. Videos of lessons  in Germany, Japan, and the United States appeared in the 1990s. In the “Measures of Teacher Effectiveness” project and similar efforts, researchers capture in real time what teachers and students do. Such real-time descriptions of classroom lessons help. But far more data converted into knowledge about what happens in classrooms during 50 minute lessons needs to be captured and analyzed by teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and researchers in order to open the “black box” and see  the complex realities of teaching and learning. Inside teaching should be as familiar as inside baseball.

Why? Because school reformers and policymakers generally recognize–as parents have always noted–that teachers are the single most important in-school factor to students’ well-being and achievement.  So what happens in classrooms matters greatly yet so little is known publicly about the process of teaching and learning.

Another reason is that advocates for particular policies from pay-for-performance plans to most recently NCLB (2002-2016) and its extension, Every Child Succeeds (2016-), rely upon correlations to see into classrooms. Consider a Fordham Foundation report on declining test scores among high achievers. The report uses trends in test score data to conclude  that two of five “high flying” students fall in performance. They point to the effects of NCLB on teachers and teaching. Such associations, as one researcher pointed out, use a  “black-box approach that assumes a link between its findings and NCLB-related policies.” But none of these correlations reveal neither jot nor tittle of how teachers teach.

For these reasons, getting reliable and valid insider knowledge of classroom lessons are essential.


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7 responses to “Inside the Black Box of the Classroom

  1. The new ABC show “Abbott Elementary” does a pretty good job, and the old movie “Teachers” gave an interesting view.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Andrea, for comment. I have watched “Abbott” and liked it for its authenticity. I had forgotten about “Teachers” and after reading a synopsis, remembered it. It was a satire gone haywire, I felt. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Raaj Aggarwal

    Have you heard of the book “Education As Adventure: Lessons from the Second Grade” by pyschologist John Nichols and 2nd grade teacher Susan Hazzard, and if so what do you think? Nichols documents Hazzard’s class and provides detailed accounts of classroom interaction. The book tracks a very progressive teacher, so it isn’t really indicative of average classroom life.

  3. One of the things I try to do with my own writing–although I haven’t recently-p-is give a sense of what it is actually like teaching in schools. For me, anyway!

    You are correct that very few movies accurately capture what it’s like. I did like the book and movie “Up the Down Staircase”. As I recall, the “great moment” was a tiny little victory of a kid who never talked much taking on the role of judge in a re-enactment, rather than raised test scores. The movie didn’t end with well-behaved students increasing their learning but with the teacher cheerily living up to the title and going up the down staircase–that is, learning to accept the conditions of her job and doing the best she could.

    • larrycuban

      The film about teaching that I like best is a French one called “The Class” where the non-actor teacher plays himself as a teacher conducting lessons to many immigrant students in a Paris middle school.

    • larrycuban

      Cannot argue with you on that, Ted.

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