The Teacher-Researcher Gap between Which Classroom Changes Matter

After many years teaching high school social studies and then graduate students while I documented the history of teaching, I have struggled with a dilemma peculiar to being a researcher/practitioner. I prize teaching and respect K-12 teachers for the daily work they do. I also prize the value of researchers being objective in describing and analyzing classroom practices. Those values conflicted, however, when I researched teacher use of high-tech devices in lessons.

Over the years, I have interviewed many teachers across the country who have described their district’s buying computers, deploying them in classrooms while providing professional development. These teachers have told me that using computers, Smart Boards, and other high-tech devices have altered their teaching significantly. They listed changes they have made such as their Powerpoint presentations and students doing Internet searches in class. They told me about using email with students.Teachers using Smart Boards said they can check immediately if students understand a math or science problem through their voting on the correct answer.

I then watched many of these teachers teach. Most teachers used the high-tech devices as they described in their interviews. Yet I was puzzled by their claim that using these devices had substantially altered how they taught. Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered or what early 20th century school reformers called “progressive” approaches to classroom instruction.

That is not what I encountered in classrooms.

I am not the first researcher to have met teachers who claimed substantial changes in their teaching in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym but hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what each person means by “change” and who judges the worth of that change.

Change clearly meant one thing to teachers and another to researchers. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers intended, sought evidence of fundamental changes in teaching. In the case of Mrs. O—from memorizing math rules and getting the correct answer to focusing on conceptual understanding. Or for earlier generations of reformers, getting teachers to shift from traditional to non-traditional practices in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc. In one instance, teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while researchers saw little fundamental “change.”

Whether those teachers’ incremental changes or the fundamental changes state policymakers sought led to test score gains, given the available evidence, no one yet knows.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies….[or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teachers’ vantage point? (p.312).

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O seldom tell their side of the story. Yet teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioners (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do. How to honor teachers’ incremental changes while pointing out few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching is the dilemma with which I have wrestled in researching the history of school reform in the nation’s classrooms (e.g., teachers’ use of new technologies since the 1980s, the New Math of the 1960s, site-based decision-making in the 1970s and 1980s, remote instruction in the 2020s).

Whose accounts of incremental and fundamental changes in classroom instruction, then, matter the most?



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4 responses to “The Teacher-Researcher Gap between Which Classroom Changes Matter

  1. Jean Sanders

    one of the earliest “research” projects that we participated in (Massachusetts). was Malcolm Provus “Time to Teach”. “Researchers, however, publish their studies ….. teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally ” The difficulty was that we only saw Malcolm Provus one time; all the other staff development objectives were conducted by local administrators– we did not have significant information as to what Malcolm was evaluating — just trying to do too much change on a broad scale without the “clinical” or “lab” applications. In similar fashion we had Goodlad and Anderson coming from Harvard to create change (in an affluent school district that could afford it); yet, they would come and “describe” or “lecture”rarely. At the end of the year they said “This is not what we have told you to do”. A different change model was from Kettering Foundation putting funds into the dissemination and printing short texts and materials to develop the concepts. There was a “league” of practitioners from across the states who actually met together and provided the leadership necessary to begin to implement changes. Some of this training was provided with Title IV-C funds and those funds were limited so only a few districts got to participate and were called “innovative{. This is where Havelock helped with understanding the ways that things need to change (not just in the classroom but with administrators and leaders who knew what it was all about and could work “at the shoulder” with teachers and students .

  2. It sounds like the teachers were not made aware of the goal here. The schools provided a new curriculum without training and reinforcement of the paradigm shift that was hoped for. Therefore, this outcome is not surprising. Once a teacher’s style is established, they must be convinced that there is a reason to change, trained on what to do, and given the chance to observe expert teachers doing it.

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