Category Archives: higher education

Teaching Teenagers and Graduate Students

I offer my experience in teaching high schoolers and graduate students as an honest, perhaps naive, way of self-consciously reflecting on how I taught both during the same day for an entire semester. While the teaching that I describe occurred many years ago, I believe that those experiences apply to both teachers and professors now. Readers will have to decide whether my hunch lights a bulb for them.

I taught a high school economics class in the afternoon while teaching two graduate courses in education at Stanford University in the mornings. I kept a journal of what occurred in each and wrote of the similarities and differences I noticed across both settings. Based upon those experiences and analyses of my journals, here is what I found.

First, the differences. They are obvious insofar as student maturity and motivation, one is compulsory and the other is elective, the subject matter, and working conditions. The similarities, however, did surprise me as I taught 28 seniors Economics every day for 18 weeks and two graduate classes of 57 students in The History of School reform and 17 in Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction twice weekly.

  1. I faced identical teaching dilemmas in both high school and graduate courses. By dilemma I mean two conflicting values that I prized and wanted to see enacted in my classes but because of time constraints and other obligations had to strike a compromise that left me dissatisfied in order to complete the lesson. When I chose to straddle both values, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth and lashed myself momentarily at the end of the lesson.

The most common dilemma I faced was trying to cover subject matter while at the same time strengthening students’ conceptual understanding and deepening their reasoning skills. I placed a high value on in-depth study of facts and concepts as being necessary for students to use as an anchor to grasp other bodies of knowledge.

This value conflicted with another one I prized. Cultivating students’ grasp of reasoning skills to use the factual knowledge they acquired to solve problems and make decisions that will help them now and in later years. Both values are essential, I believe, but time constraints and the inevitable uncertainties of student-teacher interactions forced me to forge compromises in the teaching moment. This teaching dilemma came into play constantly in my high school and graduate courses.

An economics lesson on supply and demand curves that I taught to high school seniors, for example, involved their making graphs in their notebooks, my explaining some common errors in thinking about the concept of supply-and-demand, and their applying what they learned to rising and falling gas prices and the cost of Air Jordan sneakers.

I had planned what I thought was enough content for a 50-minute class yet here I was with 10 minutes to go in the period and I could see some students’ glazed eyes and others with heads on desk signaling that about half of the class was lost in grasping supply-and-demand. Yet I had barely gotten through explaining a few of the key points and had not even introduced examples with which they were familiar. I had to make a decision: should I plow through the content or split the class to work with those who appeared lost and let the other half who seemed to have understood the concept move on to the examples that were on the worksheet I had prepared.

I decided to compromise. I split the class and worked until bell rang. Not the first nor last time I had to make such a choice.

The same thing occurred for one of the graduate classes I had taught earlier in the day. In a large group discussion, we had worked our way through an article written by historian of education David Tyack on compulsory attendance laws in the late-19th century as viewed from different disciplinary lens used by economists, sociologists, political scientists, and organizational theorists. Because these “ways of seeing” is a central concept in this course on the history of school reform that both David and I taught, I had to make sure that the students understood what a “way of seeing,” was, how Tyack applied it to compulsory attendance laws, and which perspectives students preferred. Also, all of this discussion had to be completed now since the next two-hour session two days later moved onto another subject.

So I was a clock-watcher as the discussion unfolded. I asked questions on the Tyack article. Students asked questions. Examples were given. Different ideas were explored. But time was running out. Fifteen minutes were left in the class and I was uncertain as to whether half or two-thirds of the class understood “ways of seeing” and could apply it.

I had to make a choice. Should I plow through and repeat the main points as students took notes? Should I give an example of a current reform such as national curriculum standards and ask the graduate students to apply one of the “ways of seeing” to the reform? Or should I just let the discussion go on until the end of class?

So I decided in a split-second what to do. I assigned three students who had contributed to the discussion to summarize what the main points of this article and discussion were at the beginning of the next class. And I then asked everyone in class to write for a few minutes on a clean sheet of paper–without their names–what they learned from the article and discussion about “ways of seeing.” I asked them to include what they do not yet understand and questions they have. I collected their unsigned papers.

Using their responses, at the next class I would have a better sense of what they got, what was missing, and what I had to re-teach about “ways of seeing.”

The coverage vs. understanding dilemma continues to pinch me whenever I taught youth and adults.

2. Diversity of students at both levels require constant calibration in teaching practices. I had expected the high school class to be more diverse in academic achievement, motivation, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity than my graduate classes. After all, everyone who wanted to graduate high school had to take economics. And the graduate courses were elective.

So I adapted my teaching to make sure that I had something in every lesson that appealed to one-third of the high school students, mostly–but not all–white students from middle- and upper-middle class families who took Advanced Placement courses and the other two-thirds, mostly–but not all–minority from middle and low-income Latino and Black families who ranged from barely being able to read text and write an essay to those who handled both tasks very well. Nearly all of these low-income and minority students planned to go to college. Because of this mix, I just didn’t know for sure how the lesson I planned would unfold.

Every day as I began the sixth period high school class–yes, after lunch, with a hearty “good afternoon” and my lesson plan engraved on my brow, it was up for grabs as to which way the class would go. Sure I had a lesson but I had learned that I had to improvise, improvise, improvise as the clock hand moved from 1:24 to 2:14, keeping in mind constantly to whom I would address tough, moderate, and easy questions. Shifting activities to keep some academically sharp students from putting their heads on their desks and again, and starting different ones to sustain the interest of those left out of the discussion because it was too abstract or removed from their immediate interests. This juggling of content, questions, and activities went on for fifty minutes.

What I hadn’t expected or even thought about until I taught at both levels, however, was that the range of academic skills, experiences, ethnicities, motivation, and age among my graduate students varied as much. Some students told me privately during office hours that they had no experience as teachers and were intimidated in the large group discussions about speaking up because they lacked the classroom stories that classmates told. Other students came to me after the two hour class and asked me why I didn’t focus more on different kinds of research studies on school reform since they were doctoral students and wanted to see how a range of scholars engaged in inquiry. Then even other students came to my office hours to explain again concepts we had covered in class or ask about lines of research they wanted to explore in the history of reform.

So here I was for two hours, twice a week with over 50 graduate students, some seeking a master’s degree and others a doctorate, drawn from programs preparing researchers and practitioners, again with a lesson plan embedded in frontal cortex, managing questions and activities not unlike what I did in the afternoon with my high school seniors. I hadn’t seen such graduate classroom diversity in a sharp light until I traveled the four miles between campus and the high school.

Why the Similarities?

On reflection, these similarities (and there are others) should come as no surprise since the fundamental teaching roles in both settings are the same: A subject matter specialist communicating knowledge, judging students’ responses and the quality of what they learned, and acting as a model of how students might inquire, think, and act as adults and professionals.

Moreover the act of teaching within organizations erects expectations that cross institutional boundaries even two that seem so unlikely as high schools and universities. Yet these similarities startled me for the settings and the social status attached to each are so different than I had imagined.

Are these ties that I found binding together professors and high school teachers as unlikely colleagues? Perhaps. After all, I could be criticized for making too much out of one experience. It is, as academics would say, an N of 1. At best an anecdote. Little data. How much can one generalize?

Readers will have to judge the worth of what I extracted from one experience of self-experimentation in teaching across institutional boundaries.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, higher education, how teachers teach

Teaching Remotely During the Pandemic

Cartoonists have acerbic pens. read some stories. In the New York Times, kindergarten teacher Rachel Miller in Georgetown, Massachusetts described teaching her class from home.

Last week, I ran my first virtual small-group kindergarten class. We read a book, practiced our letters and sounds, and did some math; all this to the tune of a dying, chirping fire detector, the clanging of dishes being put away, a dog barking and radio silence from the child whose audio wasn’t working. One student would disappear and return carrying her cat, then lie down on the couch, while another wriggled and squirmed, clearly uncomfortable in his too-big chair.

It was every bit as awkward and wonderful as I’d imagined. Not only did I see my kids, but I saw my kids in one of the most authentic ways possible: at home, in their space, with their families (and pets). Don’t get me wrong. Virtual teaching and learning is less than ideal. But I’m beginning to get a glimpse into the lives of my students outside of school in a way that has never been possible. Also, they saw my dog walk by in the background, and it dawned on them that teachers have houses and families, too.

In public schools across the United States, we rush and race to get through content to prepare students for a standardized test. All of it feels (dare I say, is) inauthentic and procedural, but on that Thursday, as I sat in my kitchen with three of my kindergartners, in all of its awkwardness and discomfort, all I felt was gratitude. I saw their smiling faces and knew that they were OK.

Inside Higher Education interviewed Kim Yi Dionne, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside about her teaching and research.

“I have done exactly zero writing,” said Kim Yi Dionne, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. That doesn’t mean Dionne hasn’t been working in the last few weeks, however. She’s been transitioning her courses to remote formats and helping more senior colleagues do the same. How do you lecture via Zoom, they’ve asked her. How do you schedule office hours on Google Calendar?

As a scholar of public health, Dionne had the mental jump on many of her peers: she foresaw campus shutdowns weeks ahead of time and began to prepare. She was lecturing online and telling students not to attend class in person if they felt uncomfortable doing so, or ill, before it became official policy. Dionne also gave her graduate teaching assistants clear guidance on how to adapt their winter quarter grading, for their benefit as much as undergraduates’. Don’t sweat the details, she told her TAs. Focus on whether each student demonstrated learning, tried but didn’t quite get it and so on.

Dionne is also thinking about research projects — including those inspired by the present public health crisis.

But mostly, she said, “I’ve been trying to triage and think what responsibilities do I need to bow out of in order to make the next couple of months work.”

Dionne is convinced her own children, ages 7 and 12, will be out of school until the end the academic year. In the meantime, she is managing their homeschooling — no easy feat with two children who are several grades apart.

Dionne’s partner is also working from home and contributes; he does most of the after-school stuff and cooks dinner during the week.

The pandemic also coincided with Dionne earning tenure, so there’s less pressure on her to publish — for now.

Still, Dionne and others have noted that COVID-19 disruptions will disproportionately affect the careers of female academics given that women, on average, take on more household and child-rearing duties than men. And women already face bias in personnel decisions, especially in certain fields.

Such descriptions of the major shift from face-to-face teaching to distance learning are common in mainstream and social media in these strange days. What happens when schooling resumes during the summer and fall, few experts can say with any certainty. Don’t blame them, however,

Medical experts are in the same boat when it comes to knowing for sure all of the features of the actual coronavirus and its hit-and-miss effects across the world and within countries. Count the paradoxical outcomes thus far. Some tropical countries are spared, others have spikes in cases and deaths; developed countries with national health care systems the envy of the world get hit hard, others do not. Densely populated cities suffer enormous casualties while others escape with far less illness and fatalities.

Why the differences? Geography? Culture? Demography? Luck? No one in authority or any expert can say with confidence. Which means that opening businesses, schools, and “normal” activities is a roll of the dice. So why should teachers be any different in figuring out what to do while schools are closed and when they will re-open?


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, higher education, how teachers teach

Why Are Lecturing and Questioning Still Around?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture).

Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staple instructional practices while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and higher education. And they exist amid a revolution in teachers and students using high-tech devices in and out of the classroom.

Are these ways of teaching simply instances of traditional practices that stick like flypaper because they have  been around for a long time–inertia–or have these practices changed with the times because they are useful ways of communicating knowledge and learning?


Lecturing has been panned by pedagogical reformers for decades.  Over and over again, critics have said that lectures are inappropriate because students forget the facts and learn better when they interact with teachers. Furthermore, with so many high-tech ways of presenting information, prepared talks are obsolete. Yet lecturing remains the primary way professors teach undergraduate courses, high school teachers present information, gurus, and officials across business and government communicate with followers (e.g., TED talks, podcasts, U.S. Presidents speaking from the Oval Office).

If lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around? Surely, it is more than inertia or hewing to a sacrosanct tradition of  transmitting knowledge. With new technologies and media (e.g., the printing press, television, computers) no longer is the familiar (and medieval) dictation of text to students necessary. Yet the lecture persists.

As Norm Friesen argues (see The Lecture ) , the persistence of the lecture as a teaching tool for 800 years is due “to its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in media and technology ….” Lecturing is performing, a way of conveying knowledge in a fresh way, a way of bridging oral tradition and visual culture that teachers, professors, and so many others have continually adapted to new media. The expansion of online learning in higher education and during the 2020 pandemic have not lessened lecturing. Savvy lecturers now use PowerPoint, YouTube, and elaborate technical aids such as Elluminate Live, Prezi, and Zoom to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are tech-savvy; lecturers span the spectrum running from thought-provoking talks to eye-glazing tedium. So continuity and change have marked the path the lecture has taken over the centuries.


Socrates, according to Plato, was one sharp questioner. The persistence of teachers questioning students, seldom in the Socratic tradition, is familiar to both kindergartners and graduate students.

In U.S. classrooms, patterns of teachers questioning students based on what is in the text began with the creation of mid-19th century age-graded schools and self-contained classrooms; teachers were expected to complete chunks of the curriculum by a certain time. Students reciting text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question–what became known as the grammar of instruction.

*A researcher (p.153) cited an 1860 book on teaching methods: “Young teachers are very apt to confound rapid questioning and answers with sure and effective teaching”

*A classroom observer in 1893 described a teacher questioning her students’ knowledge of the text: “In several instances, when a pupil stopped for a moment’s reflection, the teacher remarked abruptly, ‘Don’t stop to think, but tell me what you know.’ ” Persistence of Recitation, p. 149)

*Between 1907-1911, a researcher using a stopwatch and stenographer observed 100 high school English, history, math, science, and foreign language lessons of teachers who principals had identified as superior. She found that teachers asked two to three questions per minute (pp. 41-42).

Many other studies document the historical use of questioning as the basis of classroom lessons.

What is not recorded in many of these studies is the teacher’s ever-present follow-up to a student’s answer: “correct,” “very good,” “incorrect,” “well done.” When a student’s answer is not what the teacher expected or wanted, the teacher will prompt the student with another question or give a clue to the right answer. In effect, teachers judge the quality of the answer and then move on to the next question. Using sociolinguistic theory researchers have analyzed these persistent forms of questioning as a cycle of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE).

IRE is pervasive in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school seminars. Not the only form of questioning, but it is inextricably tied to the transmittal of information–a task that remains central to teaching, past and present.

Then there is the “Essential Question” that many school teachers and professors use to frame a unit they teach in order to get their students to figure out answers. Examples:

*Is there ever a “just” war?

*How can I sound more like a native speaker?

*What do good problem solvers do, especially when they get stuck?

*What is the relationship between fiction and truth?

Such questions are the basis of units that look very different from content-driven units in a textbook.

And that is why lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools. They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Deeply embedded social beliefs that transmitting knowledge is a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.


Filed under higher education, how teachers teach, technology use

I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers (Robin Lee Mozer)

All teachers  have to read and evaluate student work. It is part of the territory that teachers inhabit. To classroom comrades we voice our occasional distaste for the inexorable round of homework and papers that pile up on our desks and at home waiting for comments and grades. Robin Lee Mozer, Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville wrote the following piece that surely picked up on a lot of negative feelings I had over the years about grading and commenting on student papers as a history high school teacher and university professor. Be prepared to laugh out loud.

Thanks to David Labaree for his blog where he posted the piece.

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.

I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.

I would rather stay up past midnight pecking out an essay about not wanting to grade your Final Papers with one finger on my tiny outdated smart phone touchpad than grade your Final Papers because I do not want to read them.

I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.

I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.

I do not want to be disappointed.

I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.

I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.


Filed under higher education, how teachers teach

Final Office Hours*

By the end of June, I have to move out of my office in Cubberley.

I retired from the Graduate School of Education in 2001 and since then GSE has allotted offices in one of the two education buildings on campus to retired professors who, like myself, are located in Cubberley (named after a long-tenured dean and benefactor). I see occasional students, use the library located on the second floor, keep books and papers–yes in those metal-gray four-drawer file cases–and read.

The importance of office hours in my career as a professor

After a quarter-century of work in public schools as a teacher and administrator, I came to the GSE in 1981.

Being a tenured professor is a privileged position. Especially at an elite university at a time when recently-minted Ph.Ds getting tenure-line offers has shrunk dramatically and part-time instructors and adjunct posts have mushroomed across higher education.

Compared to being a high school teacher with five daily classes of 50-minutes each, the teaching load is light. I had to teach four courses a year. For each course I would teach, I met students twice a week for two hours each session. I would then hold office hours for three hours each day that a class met. My seminar students and doctoral candidates I advised could sign up for 15-minute to half-hour appointments. Those one-on-ones were two-way conversations prompted by my students’ questions or ones that I would raise, given the topics we discussed.

One story: I came to GSE directly from a superintendency. Before the superintendency I had been a high school history teacher. As school chief, conferences with school board members, subordinates, principals, teachers, and parents were often brief, problem-centered, and specific. Many times, I had to make swift, if not smooth, decisions. Even as a high school teacher, unscheduled conferences with students, fellow teachers, and administrators were quick, on-the-run, and succinct.

Not so after I arrived at Stanford. The first quarter I taught two courses and posted office hours on my door for students to sign up. The list for each day was filled. Student after student appeared for either 15- or 30-minute sessions during each days I held office hours.

By the end of the second week I was having severe headaches. I would bike home and have to take a nap. My wife was a psychotherapist and over dinner I would tell Barbara about my headaches, the teaching, and the stream of students coming to my office each week. She was an astute listener and since we had been married for decades knew me very well. After a particularly bad day and over dinner, Barbara asked me to compare my conferences when I was a superintendent and the ones that I was having with students at GSE.

The question was unexpected. I thought about those brief, fast, and decision-driven conferences as superintendent with the ones I was having with graduate students. The major difference was that I had to listen carefully for extended periods of time to a student while as a superintendent, I had to listen only to the point when I identified the problem to be solved (maybe three to five minutes), considered the pros and cons of a decision and then decided what to do (or deferred it to a later time). Bang! Meeting over.

Not so for students. I listened intensely for extended amounts of time 15-20 minutes, something I was unused to for the seven years I served as superintendent. Barbara thought, and I came to agree with her, that conferences with students required long bouts of careful listening that drained me cognitively and emotionally unlike my short bursts of attention and decision-making as a superintendent (and high school teacher). That difference in longer and sustained attention to a student sitting in a chair a few feet away, she suggested, may account for those headaches. Turns out she was correct.

Slowly, I learned how to relax and still pay close attention to what students were saying. Didn’t happen immediately but the headaches got less painful and eventually disappeared. I came to look forward to those sessions with my students. Office hours were no longer a strain for me. I realized, as one of the commentators below noted, that these conversations were a different form of teaching, it was part of my job as a professor. Over time, I came to appreciate the give-and-take with students, some of whom after I retired in 2001 became close friends.

Because after I retired I still occasionally taught seminars and advised students, I continued to post office hours. Because I was no longer a full-time faculty member, I was assigned another office which I shared with a colleague.

Once a storage closet, room 126 was large enough for the facility manager to put in two desks, new carpets and six floor-to-ceiling book cases. We thought the space was just right. The only argument my colleague and I had was over replacing the name “Storage Room” on the existing placard outside our door with our names. I convinced him to keep the current title for the space since I thought that name was appropriate for emeriti faculty.

And I have used room 126–conveniently located next to the men’s bathroom– as my office for conferences with students and faculty whose intellectual interests overlapped with mine for the past decade.

Moving out

But I have to leave the Storage Room. The GSE is renovating this 80-plus year-old building , that is, it will be gutted and reconfigured for faculty, staff, and students. So everyone will be relocated. The renovation will take at least two years, I’m told. Perhaps longer, I suspect. Since I do most reading and writing in my home office, I do not plan to ask for space when the refurbished Cubberley Education building re-opens its doors. I have been grateful to GSE for providing space to talk with others, write, and, yes, keep a few hundred books in three tall shelves bolted to the walls. No more, however.

Staff has given me three options for my books and papers. I can take some home. Since I already have books at the house and garage I have no space to take that option. The second choice is to designate which books the movers can place outside the second-floor library as freebies for students, staff, and faculty. A third option is to have the rest of the books that I choose not to give away, be boxed up and sent to other colleges where they may be needed such as in developing nations. I have chosen the second and third options and have begun deciding what goes where.

But a fourth option came to me. Prior to sorting books to give away from those that will be shipped elsewhere, I could invite former students in the Bay area, high school teacher friends, and GSE faculty to come to 126 and choose books they would like for their libraries. I did send out invitations and people I had not seen in many years, indeed, have come by, and we caught up with one another. After the conversation, they went about selecting books from the shelves. Ergo, “final office hours” with people I wanted to see.

I have enjoyed re-connecting with former students, friends, colleagues, and young GSE faculty. Our conversations have given me a lift. These one-on-one occasions have reminded me about the importance of both people and books in my life and the technological changes that have occurred in reading habits.

My emotional attachment to particular books

Surprising to me were the feelings that I had for particular books that I had not read for years but as soon as I began sorting and picked one up, a flood of memories swept over me. Seymour Sarason’s The Culture of School and the Problem of Change (1971), for example. I have not read the book or even parts of it for years yet the faded orange color and dog-eared pages with my notes jotted in the margins brought me immediately back to discussions I had with teachers, principals, school board members, and other superintendents about the regularities of schooling that remain intact year after year. Sarason’s observations about schooling put me onto the imperatives built into the age-graded school decades ago. Faces, names of people, actual rooms, and chunks of discussions flashed through my mind. Yes, I kept that book and others that triggered strong remembrances and feelings.

Technology-spurred changes in reading habits

As I listened to my former students–many now in their late-40s, early 50s and mid-career as teachers, policy researchers, administrators, and academics–I sensed changes in how they (and myself as well) look upon our personal libraries at home and in their offices. Yes, books remain important but e-books, Kindle readers, and PDFs dot our screens. Conversations on how each of us spend far more time staring at screens than flipping pages in an actual book came up time and again. I doubt that professional books will disappear but reading formats and picking out books from shelves to read at home have clearly changed for those working in schools, for consulting organizations, and academia.

I will miss my office at Cubberley but not for its snug comfort but for the many people I have met, talked with and listened to, over the years.

Traveling an uncommon career path to academia, I have been lucky in being in the right place at the right time in my life as a high school teacher, superintendent, and professor. While I would like to say that my talent and hard work earned me these positions, I know well how chance–when and where you are born, into what family, and timing of what jobs become available–has a lot to do with life’s ups-and-downs. So being at Stanford for 20 years was fortunate for me in coming to know and admire treasured colleagues and at least three-to-four generations of doctoral and masters students in many venues but especially during office hours.


*I thank Janice Cuban for suggesting the phrase “final office hours.”


Filed under higher education

The Puzzle of Similar Teaching in Universities and Schools: The Case of Technology Use

Why does so much teaching in K-12 schools and universities look the same over time? To be accurate, however, what appears as timeless stability and similarity in teaching has obscured incremental changes. Now professors ask more questions for students in lectures,organize more small group work, and more use of new devices–from clickers to moodles–than academics had done a half-century ago. So, too, for K-12 teachers who have, again over time, made small and significant changes in their classroom teaching. There is more guided discussion, more group work, increased academic content in lower and upper grades, more adventurous teaching by larger fractions of teachers, and, yes, more and more teachers using high-tech devices for instruction.

Yet looking back on one’s experience in most university and secondary school classrooms, the teaching–even accounting for these incremental changes over the decades– sure looks like the same o,’ same o.’

Here’s the heart of the puzzle: In universities, student attendance is voluntary; in K-12 attendance is compulsory. Note also that the complexity of the subject matter, freedom of movement, course choices, student ages, and teachers’ deep knowledge of their subject are other critical markers that distinguish university classrooms from those in K-12 schools. Yet–and you knew there was a “yet” coming–with all of these essential differences many studies point out the similarities in teaching. Including the use of technology for instruction.

Technology Use in Universities

Academics use computers at home and in their offices to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and compose syllabi and handouts for their courses.  Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics use computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and data analysis (see here and here). A 2018 survey noted that 75 percent of responding faculty adopt and adapt new technologies to their instruction. That same survey reported only 11 percent of professors opposed increased use of classroom technologies. Moreover, many professors blog, make podcasts, create web-based classes and teach online courses.

Yet using computers and other new technologies to improve instruction has had little tangible effect on undergraduate classroom teaching or learning. The lecture has remained central to undergraduate instruction.

Except now lectures are often conveyed through Powerpoint and similar software. According to a 2008 national student survey, 63 percent of professors use PowerPoint software in their undergraduate courses. At some institutions, the percentage runs higher. Except for a small fraction of faculty, abundant high-tech hardware, software, and services have hardly made a difference in how professors teach and students learn in most undergraduate classrooms.

While the exact same statement cannot be made for K-12 teaching, there are enough similarities to make even the most ardent high-tech advocate wince.


Unlocking this puzzle of same o,’ same o’ for university and school teaching requires different answers for for each institution. For universities, look at institutional goals and organizational structure. Consider that a primary goal of universities is to produce knowledge (i.e., doing research) and disseminate it (i.e., teach and publish). Structures and incentives to achieve that goal are faculty rewards in tenure and promotion for research productivity rather than effective teaching. To insure that faculty have time to do research and publish, university administrators reduce teaching obligations by creating large lecture classes in the undergraduate courses and small classes in graduate courses. Those goals, incentives, and structures shape how classes are organized and influence how professors teach.

Technology use in K-12

Rather than cite again all of the surveys (, ethnographic studies, and reports (Bebell_04) of direct observation of classrooms over the past thirty years, the evidence seems clear, at least to me, that nearly all teachers endorse the use of technology for both administrative and instructional tasks but prevailing use falls short of that endorsement. Nonetheless, an increasing fraction of teachers are integrating high-tech devices into their daily lessons. A larger group of teachers use laptops/desktops/ hand-held devices occasionally–say once a week–and now, only a fraction of teachers in most districts, both urban and suburban, refrain from even minimal use–once a month or never.

Reasons for this frequency and type of use by K-12 teachers? When I and others (David K. Cohen on Teaching PDF) look at the organizational conditions of teaching in the age-graded school, the flaws in the technological innovation and its implementation, and the lack of incentives for teachers to go the extra mile even when they endorse technology, it becomes understandable why there have been far more laggards than early adopters of technology among schoolteachers. But that is slowing changing.

Two crucial educational institutions differ in governance, organization, curriculum, and authority to compel attendance yet show similar patterns in instruction and use of technology. Changes in both institutions continue to occur. Will the patterns of instruction diverge or remain the same ‘o, same o’?


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Professor Quits Teaching Because of Students’ Use of Technology in Class

The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals…. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship [between professor and students] goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.

Tim Parks, 2019

In the above epigraph taken from “Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom,” Novelist, literary scholar, and translator Tim Parks gives the reasons why he is leaving his professorship at the University Institute for Modern Languages in Milan, Italy.  Parks describes his experience with students using devices in his class teaching translation:

In the late 1990s, I had my first experience of students bringing laptops into the classroom. At that time, there was no question of their having wifi connections. Since these were translation lessons, students argued that their computers were useful for the fifteen or twenty minutes when I invited them to translate a short paragraph. They translated better on their computers, they said; they could make corrections more easily.

Nevertheless, I noticed at once the tendency to hide behind the screen. Who could know whether a student was really taking notes or doing something else? The tippety-tapping of keyboards while one was speaking was distracting. I insisted laptops be kept closed except for the brief period of our translation exercise.

When the University renovated classrooms with laptops at each desk, Parks requested an “old fashioned” classroom and got it until the University had no more such classrooms for Parks to use. Bad as that was for Parks’ struggle with students using laptops during translation lessons, the advent of the smart phone did him in.

I continued to fight my fight and keep the laptops mainly closed, and I was holding my own pretty well I think, until the smartphone came into the classroom….

So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

So Parks retired.

Is Parks’ experience as a professor in a Milan university who vainly tries to cope with students use of electronic devices common? I cannot answer for the European professoriate but there is data on U.S. faculty attitudes and actions when it comes to computers in classrooms..

There have been U.S. professors who have complained about student use of laptops and phones in their classrooms (see here, here, and here). Yet few leave the privileged job as Parks has done. Is he an anomaly, a singleton, or is he in one of the familiar categories that capture the range of classroom use by both professors and K-12 teachers?

For example, Everett Rogers divides users of innovation, in this instance, classroom technologies into groups. Put Parks in the laggard category.


A recent survey of U.S. faculty attitudes toward technology use in their classrooms, however, would place Parks in a tiny minority of just over 10 percent of faculty. That same survey puts 90 percent of tenured professors describing themselves as early adopters or inclined to adopt when seeing peers using classroom technologies effectively.


I cite Tim Parks’ experience as a professor to illustrate the many changes–I do not use the word “improvements”–that have occurred in higher education’s embrace of classroom technologies. That embrace has been duplicated and enlarged among K-12 teachers. I take up access, use, and results of putting technology in public schools in the next post.


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Do We Know What History Students Learn? (Wineburg, Breakstone, and Smith)

“Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and of history (by courtesy) at Stanford University. Joel Breakstone is the executive director and Mark Smith is director of assessment at the Stanford History Education Group.”

This article appeared in Inside Higher Ed, April 3, 2018

“What are you going to do with that — teach?” Uttered with disdain, it’s a question history majors have been asked many times. Clio’s defenders have a response. The head of the American Historical Association says that the study of history creates critical thinkers who can “sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it.” A university president asserts that the liberal arts endow students with the “features of the enlightened citizen” who possesses “informed convictions … and the capacity for courageous debate on the real issues.” Historians pride themselves on the evidence for their claims.

So, what’s the evidence?

Not much, actually. Historians aren’t great at tracking what students learn. Sometimes they even resent being asked. Recently, however, the winner of the Bancroft Prize, one of history’s most distinguished awards, washed the profession’s dirty laundry in public. The article’s title: “Five Reasons History Professors Suck at Assessment.”

Anne Hyde described what happened when accreditors asked her colleagues to document what students learned. They paid little heed to the requests — that is, until Colorado College’s history department flunked its review. Committed teachers all, her colleagues “had never conducted assessment in any conscious way beyond reporting departmental enrollment numbers and student grade point averages.”

Among many college history departments, this is routine. To address the issue of assessment, the American Historical Association in 2011 set out on a multiyear initiative to define what students should “be able to do at the end of the major.” Eight years, dozens of meetings and hundreds of disposable cups later, the Tuning Project produced a set of ambitious targets for student learning. But when it came to assessing these goals, they left a big question mark.

Which is one of the reasons why we were convinced of the need to create new assessments. With support from the Library of Congress, we came up with short tasks in which history students interpreted sources from the library’s collection and wrote a few sentences justifying their response. For example, one assessment, “The First Thanksgiving,” presented students with a painting from the beginning of the 20th century and asked if the image of lace-aproned Pilgrim women serving turkey to bare-chested Indians would help historians reconstruct what may have transpired in 1621 at the supposed feast between the Wampanoag and English settlers.



In the March issue of the Journal of American History, we describe what happened when we gave our assessments to students at two large state universities. On one campus, we quizzed mostly first-year students satisfying a distribution requirement. All but two of 57 ignored the 300-year time gap between the Thanksgiving painting and the event it depicts. Instead, they judged the painting on whether it matched their preconceptions, or simply took its contents at face value — an answer we dubbed the “picture’s worth a thousand words” response.

We weren’t terribly surprised. When we tested high school students on these tasks, they struggled, too, and many of these college students were in high school only months earlier. But what would happen, we wondered, if we gave our tasks to college juniors and seniors, the majority of whom were history majors and all of whom had taken five or more history courses? Would seasoned college students breeze through tasks originally designed for high school?

What we found shocked us. Only two in 49 juniors and seniors explained why it might be a problem to use a 20th-century painting to understand an event from the 17th century. Another one of our assessments presented students with excerpts from a soldier’s testimony before the 1902 Senate Committee investigating the war in the Philippines. We asked how the source provided evidence that “many Americans objected to the war.” Rather than considering what might prompt a congressional hearing, students mostly focused on the document’s content at the expense of its context. Rare were responses — only 7 percent — that tied the testimony to the circumstances of its delivery. As one student explained, “If there hadn’t been such a huge opposition by Americans to this war, I don’t believe that the investigation would have occurred.”

We suffer no illusions that our short exercises exhaust the range of critical thinking in history. What they do is provide a check on stirring pronouncements about the promised benefits of historical study. In an age of declining enrollments in history classes, soaring college debt and increased questions about what’s actually learned in college, feel-good bromides about critical thinking and enlightened citizenship won’t cut it. Historians offer evidence when they make claims about the past. Why should it be different when they make claims about what’s learned in their classrooms?



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Observing College Professors Teach

I came to Stanford University in 1981. After being at Stanford for five years, a new dean asked me to serve as his Associate Dean. Being superintendent for seven years prior to coming to Stanford and tasting the privileged life of a full professor I had no inclination to return to being an administrator whose influence on tenured colleagues, was at best sorely limited and at worst, non-existent. The Dean wanted me bad enough that he and I negotiated a higher salary–I would be working twelve months rather than nine (it is, after all, a private institution where everything is negotiated)–I would only serve two years, I could teach at least one or two courses each year I served, and I would get a sabbatical quarter after completing the second year. OK, I said.

What did I do?

I had to insure that all of my colleagues taught at least four courses over three quarters–some did not and I had to badger them to do so. I handled students’ dissatisfaction with particular professors’ poor teaching or their being habitually inattentive to students’ work. I followed up on doctoral students’ complaints about unavailability of their advisers, and I represented the Dean on occasions he could not attend campus meetings or social events. So with the help of an skillful administrative secretary, the first year went smoothly.

The second year I had an idea. University professors seldom get observed as they teach except by their students. As a superintendent I had observed over a thousand teachers in my district over the years. Even prior to that I was a supervisor of intern history teachers. Observe and discuss observations with teachers, I could do.

I sent out a personal letter (this was before email became standard communication) to each of my 36 colleagues asking them if they wanted me to observe one of their classes and meet afterwards to discuss what I had seen. I made clear that I would make no judgment on their class but describe to them what I saw and have a conversation around what they had intended to happen in the lesson, what they thought had occurred, and what I had observed. Nothing would be written down (except for my notes which I shared with each faculty member). It would be a conversation. I did ask them to supply me with the readings that students were assigned for the session I observed and what the professor wanted to accomplish during the hour or 90-minute session.

Of the 36 who received the letter, 35 agreed (the 36th came to me in the middle of the year and asked me to observe his class). None of them–yes, that is correct–none had ever been observed before by anyone in the School of Education for purposes of having a conversation about their teaching. Two had been observed by me and a former Associate Dean because of student complaints; I had discussed those complaints with the professor and then observed lectures and discussions they had conducted. Both of them invited me to their classes when I wrote my subsequent letter. So for each quarter of the school year, I visited two professors a week. Each scheduled a follow-up conversation with me that we held in their office.

What happened?

I did observe 36 colleagues. For me, it was a fine learning experience. I got to read articles in subject matter I knew a smattering (e.g., economics of education, adolescent psychological development, standardized test development). I heard colleagues lecture, saw them discuss readings from their syllabi, and, for me, I pick edup new knowledge and ways of teaching graduate students I had not tried in my courses.

As for my colleagues, a common response during the conversations we had following the observations was gratitude for an experience they had not had as a professor. Simply talking about the mechanics of a lecture or discussion, what they thought had worked and had not, the surprises that popped up during the lesson–all of that was a new experience for nearly all of the faculty. A few asked me to return again and we negotiated return visits. Overall, I felt–and seemingly most of my colleagues felt similarly–that the experience was worthwhile because I and they wanted to talk about the ins-and-outs of teaching and had lacked opportunities to do so in their career as professors.

Those conversations over the year got me thinking more deeply about why universities like Stanford preach the importance of teaching–the rhetoric is omnipresent. Moreover, professors and graduate students receive annual teaching awards, and there are programs to help professors to improve their teaching. Yet the University had not created the conditions for faculty to share with colleagues the how and what of their teaching through observation and discussion of lectures and seminars.

That year as Associate Dean sitting in on faculty lectures and seminars led me on an intellectual journey plumbing a question that nagged at me as I observed and conversed with colleagues: how come universities say teaching is important yet all of the structures and actual (not symbolic) rewards go to research in tenure, promotion, and salary? To answer that question I did a historical study of teaching and research at Stanford in two departments–history and the School of Medicine. In completing How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990, I learned how universities like Stanford, have structures and incentives that insure teaching will be subordinate to the primary tasks of researching and publishing.

To my knowledge, no observations of professors and conversations about teaching have occurred in the Graduate School of Education since 1987-1988.





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Whatever Happened To MOOCs?

The splash began in 2012 when Massive Open Online Courses were touted as the coming revolution in higher education.

Wait, Larry, that was only five years ago, a mere blip in the life-cycle of an educational innovation.  Why are you including MOOCs when you have featured posts asking “whatever happened to” half-century old innovations such as Open Classrooms, Total Quality Management, and Behavioral Objectives?

With advances in digital technology and social media, the life cycle of a “disruptive innovation,” or a “revolutionary” program has so sped up that what used to take decades to stick  or slip away now occurs in the metaphorical blink of the eye. So whatever happened to MOOCs?

Where Did the Idea Originate?

One answer is that MOOCs are the next stage of what began as correspondence courses in the late 19th century for those Americans who wanted to expand their knowledge and found going to college was next to impossible. From home-delivered lessons to professors on television delivering lectures to online courses since the early aughts, MOOCs evolved from the DNA of correspondence courses.

Another answer is that in 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened up its list of courses for anyone to take online at no cost. Through Open Courseware, professors’ syllabi, assignments and videotaped lectures were made available to everyone with an Internet connection.

And a third answer is that in 2008, two Canadian professors George Seimens and Stephen Downes who offered a course through the University of Manitoba creating the first officially labeled MOOC called “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge” from a regular class they taught for 25 students to over 2200 off-campus adults and students for free who had Internet-connected computers.

All three answers suggest that the lineage of MOOCs has a history located in higher education seeking to educate students who lacked access to college and universities.

What erupted in 2012 was a lava flow of MOOCs from elite U.S. universities accompanied by hyperbolic language and promises for the future of higher education becoming open to anyone with a laptop. Since 2012, that hype cycle has dipped into the Trough of Disillusionment and only now edging upward on the Slope of Enlightment. Verbal restraint and tamed predictions of slow growth, smart adaptations, and commercial specialization have become the order of the day. And, fortunately, a humility about the spread and staying power of innovations initially hyped o steroids. All in five years.

What is a MOOC?

Taught by experts in the field, a Massive Open Online Course in higher education is accessible and free to anyone with an Internet connection. College students, those who work and are not registered in a college or university, and others who simply want information about a topic in which they are interested take courses. See a brief video made at the beginning of the MOOC innovation that explains what they are.

What Problems Did MOOCs Intend to Solve?

Limited accessibility to knowledge and skills offered in higher education. High cost of going to universities. MOOCs offer broader accessibility to students who because of geography, age, cost, and having a family could not take courses. Now anyone with a computer can learn what they wanted to learn. MOOCs are, as one reporter put it:  “Laptop U.”

Do MOOCs Work?

Depends upon what someone means by “work.” Since the usual measures of “success” in taking courses are attendance, grades, test scores, and similar outcomes, only one of these familiar measures has been applied to MOOCs: how many students completed the course?  Attrition has been very high. About ten percent of enrolled students in the early years of MOOCs did all of the assignments, communicated with course assistants, and took the final exam. Sorting out claims of “success” amid sky-high attrition rates has been an issue for both champions and skeptics of the innovation See here, here, here, and here)

What Happened to MOOCs?

They are still around but strikingly downsized and in the middle of being monetized and re-directed. The initial cheerleaders for MOOCs such as Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, and Andrew Ng formed companies (e.g., Udacity, Coursera) that either stumbled badly, and subsequently altered their business plan. Many of these founders also departed for greener pastures (see here, here, and here).

MOOCs persist but as in the case of so many other hyped innovations using new technologies, a slimmer, more tempered, and corporate version exists in 2017 awarding certificates and micro-credentials (see here and here).



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