Category Archives: how teachers teach

How I Studied the Teaching of History Then and Now

From time to time, a few readers ask me how I, as a historian of education, go about collecting and analyzing data about teachers at work in classrooms especially those who have taught many decades ago and those who teach now. In my next book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools, I reconstructed how I taught history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s and then returned to those same schools in 2013-2014 to determine how history is taught there now (see here).

This post is for those viewers and curious readers who have asked me the direct question of how I dig into the past and recapture the present in answering the central question I asked in the forthcoming book: What has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history?

In carrying out this study to answer that central question, I had to deal with the following methodological issues. 

How did I reconstruct my teaching of history at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967?

The design of the book is basically two case studies that answer the question: to what degree did the larger context of national and local reform-driven policies influence the teaching of history then and now? I used the common historical methodology of seeking out multiple primary and secondary sources to describe and analyze the macro- and micro-contexts, that is, national movements (e.g., civil rights, the New Social Studies), city and school district settings, and what happened during the decade I taught in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Primary sources included district school board minutes, local newspaper articles, available school archives, and district and school reports and studies published in the late-1950s through the late-1960s for both Glenville and Cardozo High Schools.

I used secondary sources to establish national socioeconomic and political forces at work that influenced each city (e.g., Civil Rights movement, demographic changes, shifts in economic base). Other secondary sources included descriptions of how teachers taught elsewhere in the nation during these years. For each of the cities I tapped histories of the District of Columbia’s and Cleveland’s black communities, the political and socioeconomic forces at work in both cities in the 1950s and 1960s, and their linkages to changes in both school districts in these decades.

These primary and secondary sources permitted me to recapture the macro-contexts within which my classroom teaching unfolded. I used a similar mix of sources to portray the micro-setting of my classrooms in each district and how history teachers in other locations taught.

For my teaching at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967, I used the following primary sources:

  1. Student “study guides” I used in my U.S. history and world history classes at Glenville (two former students kept copies and sent them to me). Lesson plans and readings (in my possession) I used in classes at Cardozo High School.
  2. Student assignments at Glenville that I had graded and commented on (one of the above students sent a packet of her work to me from 1960).
  3. Personal journal I kept for 1961-1967.
  4. Annual yearbooks at Glenville called “The Olympiad” and at Cardozo, “Purple Wave,” for the years I taught.
  5. Glenville student newspaper articles for the time period.
  6. Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper articles on Glenville for those years. The Washington Post and Washington Evening Star for articles on Cardozo High School.
  7. Cleveland School District documents including Board of Education minutes, special reports, and memos.
  8. District of Columbia documents including Board of Education minutes, memos, and official reports.

In returning to the two high schools I taught in a half-century ago, what methods did I use to describe what I saw and heard?

I spent two weeks at each high school. I visited Glenville High School for a week in November 2013. The media center specialist set me up in a room adjacent to the library filled with yearbooks and uncatalogued issues of the student newspaper for the years just before, during, and after I taught there. For recent years, I found scattered issues of the yearbook for the years 1990-2010.

At Cardozo, I spent a week in December 2013 navigating the school library and closets within the school for past and current school reports, evaluations, yearbooks and student newspapers. The high school had just reopened after a two-year long renovation of its facilities. Many materials had been tossed and destroyed in the move to prepare for the renovation and some had been stored at other sites but I could not locate any staff members who knew where.

After some digging, I located a room in the basement that did contain issues of yearbooks only from the period of 1990-2010. Issues of the yearbook for 2011-2013 had not been published. I also visited the District of Columbia school collections at the Charles Sumner Museum and located newspaper clippings about Cardozo High School covering the years 1975-2007.

In the next round of visits to each high school, I observed lessons and interviewed teachers. I went to Glenville for the week in April 2014. I interviewed the principal and three of the four social studies teachers at the school. I observed a total of nine classes (scheduled for 45-minute periods) of these four teachers. Overall, I spent an entire period in least one class of each of the four teachers. For one world history teacher, however, I observed three back-to-back classes and the other world history teacher I visited three different classes over two days. One of these teachers had invited me into his classes on my first visit to the school in November 2013 (but did not agree to be interviewed). None of the teachers had syllabi available for me or had posted any on the school website.

My final visit to Cardozo High School occurred during the week of May 2014. I interviewed two history teachers and observed three classes (each scheduled for 80-minutes). Another teacher permitted me to observe two of his classes but did not agree to an interview. In total, then, I observed eight lessons of three history teachers. In preparation for the observations, I reviewed the syllabi that all three teachers had placed on the school website (

What did I do when I observed classes? In four of the 14 classes I observed in both schools, I was introduced as a professor who had taught at the school a half-century ago. In three of these classes, at the end of the lesson, the teacher invited students to question me about what teaching at Glenville and Cardozo was like then. A handful of students asked questions and I answered them.

During each lesson I observed, I sat in classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students did during the 45-minute period at Glenville or 80-minute period at Cardozo. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen was divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I recorded the seating organization of the classroom, what was on chalkboards, what was on the walls and bulletin boards, and what electronic equipment was present in the room. Then after the lesson began, I would note every few minutes what the teacher was talking about or doing and student responses and actions they were engaged in. I also noted when the teacher segued from one activity to another and directed students to the next task.

In the narrow column, I commented on what I saw. That included connections (or lack of connections) I saw between what teacher said and what students did. I scanned the classroom every few minutes and commented on whether some, most, or all students were on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students and teacher were to what was happening in the lesson.

The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom climate or ethos that often goes unnoticed.  As an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in teacher-directed lessons, I can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students, subjectively to be sure, that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.

The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and inevitable biases that any observer including myself brings to documenting lessons. To minimize my biases, I worked hard at separating what I saw from what I interpreted. Thus, the wide and narrow columns I used to record what happens during a lesson and my comments. I described objectively classroom conditions in diagrams of student and teacher desk arrangements, listing the content of bulletin boards and chalkboards. I noted the electronic devices available in the room and their location on the diagram of the room and whether the lesson included students using the devices. I described and did not judge teacher and student behaviors. But eliminating biases completely is hard to do. As in other approaches researching classroom lessons, some biases remain.

After observing classes, I sat down and had half-hour to 45-minute interviews with teachers at times convenient to them. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turned to the lessons and asked a series of questions about what happened during the period I observed. I asked what the teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I asked about the different activities I observed during the lesson and whether they thought the lesson I observed was typical or not.

In answering these questions, teachers gave me reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons.  In most instances, individual teachers were eager to provide a rationale for doing what they did, thus, communicating to me a cognitive map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they typically teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I made no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or of the lesson itself.

Like any methodology to describe what happens in a lesson, there are inevitable trade-offs between using protocols with trained observers who seldom depart from the instrument, videotaping the lesson with or without commentary, the approach I used, and other methods of classroom observation. Each approach and in combination may increase objectivity and subjectivity but trade-offs remain.

In what ways did my skills as an historian and writing about my classroom experiences in the past help and hinder the account I constructed?

History is what historians say about the past and can document what they claim; memory is what individuals believe occurred in the past. So when a historian writes personally about what he or she has experienced, analytic skills, remembrances, and perceptions get entangled in one another and sorting out one from the other becomes essential.

I have tried to disentangle documented facts, memories, perceptions, and analysis particularly in identifying sources for the reader that may be unreliable but nonetheless usable because they add a dimension to the account that would be missing if this were another of my academic studies.

To be clear, then, this book describing two urban high schools in which history was taught then and is taught now is neither a memoir nor an autobiography; it is a combination of facts that can be documented by reliable sources (therefore I use endnotes to establish a factual basis for statements or raise doubts about what I and others have said and done) and personal experiences of teaching history. It is not an academic study of teaching history nor is it a personal recollection of then and now but a hybrid, or an “unconventional history” of teaching a high school subject laced with full documentation and personal experiences.

Moreover, I take my memories and that of former students and others as to what happened in order to construct a story of how I taught history a half-century ago. I drew from my previous studies such as How Teachers Taught to give a context for how and what I taught from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s. As for how history is taught now in these two high schools, I draw from the current movement among social studies educators of teaching students the skills and concepts that working historians use in describing, analyzing, and interpreting the past.

This hybrid of memoir and history tries to combine two disparate impulses that have characterized my career as a high school teacher and historian: As Patrick Hutton put it: “what is at issue here is not how history can recover memory but, rather, what memory will bequeath to history.”  Both history and memory, then, are necessary to recover what has occurred as policy decisions travel their zig-zag path into classrooms. Those policies and practices got filtered through the remembrance of one participant who was deeply involved in both teaching high school history and researching the history of education.

Combining history and memory in this hybrid study of teaching history then and now also reinforces my longstanding commitment to teachers and teaching as the core, the very essence, of public and private schooling in the U.S. Understanding that centrality of teachers and teaching to the enterprise of formal schooling has been the mainstay of my academic work for the past forty years.

So being a historian who also traffics in personal stories, I have had to be careful in how I documented my remembrances and those of my former students. Here is one example of decisions I made on personal accounts.

I have cited student comments in the Glenville High School chapter covering my seven-year stint there. As an historian, I have to be clear that such decades-old recollections are neither representative of all of my students nor constitute a majority or even substantial fraction of those who were in my classes. For the truth is that no more than 20 of my former students in the years I taught at Glenville have contacted me. They have written about their experiences to me in emails and in published venues. Even though the vast majority of my former students have not contacted me in the decades since I left Glenville, those that have are less than one percent. Moreover, for even that less than one percent of students, memories decades old are selective and often subject to bias. Yet I also know that perceptions and memories provide a shaft of light on past events and experiences. As a result of believing, in the name of memory, that what they have to say, given these caveats, may be worthwhile, I placed them in endnotes rather than the text to give readers the opportunity to judge the worth of their remembrances as a source of information about my teaching. In each instance, I contacted the writer of the email and asked for their permission to quote from it

All in all, then, creating this hybrid of the history of classroom teaching mixed with personal recollections has been a boon, I believe, to a deeper and fuller description of what teaching history over a half-century ago was like in two different high schools. It has been also a barrier since personal recollections are selective and can give undue weight to stories rather than documented facts.

The foregoing description of the methods I used in describing and analyzing the teaching of history then and now hardly removes the difficulties and dilemmas built into any reconstruction of the past. I wanted to be explicit in detailing the ways that I captured the past and compared it to the present.



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Cartoons: Charles Schulz and Peanuts on Schooling

The 65th anniversary of Peanuts is upon us. Cartoonist Charles Schulz has had an extraordinary hold on U.S. popular culture with his characters of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, et. al.  I have gathered here a few of the Peanuts panels that Schulz drew about his characters either in school or talking about school. For those who wish to read more about Schulz and the gang, see here and here. Enjoy!



























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Classrooms Around the World: What Do You See?

This post is composed of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I would like viewers to offer their impressions in seeing these classrooms around the world.  I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.

enhanced-buzz-wide-30661-1444017181-7                                                               Class 11 girl students attend a class at Zarghona high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-26855-1444017702-8Art teacher Hanna Snitko poses for a picture with final year students of the Ukrainian Humanities Lyceum in their classroom in Kiev, Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444017966-7Master Mohammad Ayoub poses with his fifth-grade students at a local park in Islamabad, Pakistan. ( Caren Firouz / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-21478-1444018071-7Tahfiz or Koranic students in Madrasah Nurul Iman boarding school outside Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. (Olivia Harris / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-29919-1444018208-7Teacher Marcos Paulo Geronimo with first-grade high school students from the Dante Alighieri school in São Paulo, Brazil. (Paulo Whitaker / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-25251-1444018350-7Students of the Don Bosco Technical Collegue in Quito, Ecuador. (Guillermo Granja / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-15540-1444018411-7Teacher Moulay Ismael Lamrani with his class in the Oudaya primary school in Rabat, Morocco. (Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-20158-1444018562-11Year 9 Biology boys class with teacher Suzanne Veitch at Forest School in London, England. (Russell Boyce / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-17503-1444018650-7First-grade students with their teacher Teruko Takakusaki during their homeroom period at Takinogawa Elementary School in Tokyo, Japan. (Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-692-1444018731-7Teacher Hanan Anzi with Syrian refugee students at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)


Teachers Carla Smith and Laura Johnson pose for a picture with their third grade class at Jesse Sherwood Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, United States. (Jim Young / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-27620-1444018880-8Teacher Ana Dorrego with students of the rural school Agustin Ferreira on the outskirts of Minas city, Uruguay. (Andres Stapff / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444018815-15A teacher leads a class session at the ecole primaire Ave Marie in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-1941-1444019527-7Teacher Kahon Rochel with students at the the EPV Sinai primary school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Luc Gnago / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-19365-1444019475-8Nguyen Thi Phuong teaches a third-grade class in the primary school of Van Chai in Dong Van district north of Hanoi, Vietnam. (Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-920-1444019195-7Mohammed Zurob marks an exercise for his first-grade students during an English lesson inside a classroom at Taha Huseen elementary school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-10544-1444019039-8Students of the 10th form of the Gymnasium 1567 with their teacher of history, Tamara Eidelman, in Moscow, Russia. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)




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Teaching Democracy: A Hands-On Exercise (Tara Kini)

This post is by Tara Kini, senior policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute. It appeared in Education Week September 28, 2015.*

I had the privilege of teaching history and civics to 61 8th graders in San Francisco this past year. Our school is a segregated one: 75 percent of students are Latino, 60 percent low-income, and half are learning English. My teaching materials were limited–the district-issued U.S. history textbook was published in 2005; California has not adopted any new textbooks since adopting the Common Core State Standards in 2010 in any subject.

Learning about our system of government by reading about it in a textbook and listening to me talk about it had not felt terribly successful last year. A recent California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning noted that nationally, fewer than half of eligible young people ages 18-24 voted in the 2012 elections, and that the U.S. recently ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 democracies around the world. I was worried that my standard approach to teaching civics was failing to prepare my students for their future roles as voters, jurors, and civic leaders.

Gaining the skills to meaningfully participate in our democracy is especially critical for low-income students, both because our current weak campaign finance laws allow those with money to speak louder in our democracy and because too many students from low-income families have parents who cannot vote due to their immigration status or criminal records. In California, voters must be prepared to read a 100+ page ballot pamphlet and decide whether to vote yes or no on dozens of state and local referendums on Election Day. Jurors may be called upon to listen to complex arguments about topics like trademark infringement and medical negligence. The ability to listen to the news, engage in civic debate within their communities, and make their voices heard to elected officials are just a few of the skills Americans are called upon to use when navigating a 21st century democracy.

So this year, I tried an approach to teaching civics that would get my students participating in government rather than just reading about it. Partnering with Generation Citizen, each of my classes picked an issue in our community that the students wanted to address. Over a ten week period last fall, we went through a process of choosing an issue, studying it, identifying a goal for how to address it, developing an action plan and list of key decision makers to influence, and then taking action. It was a messy process. In one class students vehemently disagreed with each other about which issue we should work on. When the class picked their issue by majority vote, students experienced democracy in action.

My students picked issues that they care deeply about and that personally affect them: evictions in the Mission District, youth violence in San Francisco, and sexual harassment at our school. None of these issues are easily solved. I worried my students would walk away from this unit having learned “adults don’t care what we have to say” or “these types of problems are too big to solve.”

But instead, this learning experience taught my students that their voices do matter. On Election Day they educated dozens of voters at the local subway station about a housing ballot measure. The measure lost by 4 percentage points, and the students were disappointed. As we debriefed the experience, though, I realized that they walked away from that day with the knowledge that individual votes matter and that they can affect how people decide to vote. They learned that just 53 percent of registered voters in our city had voted; if just a few thousand more had cast a ballot, their measure could have won. Three months later, they met with San Francisco City Supervisor David Campos to share their ideas for local affordable housing legislation.

Another class worked with school board member Matt Haney on passing an anti-violence resolution, an issue that had deep resonance for them (and me) after losing a classmate to violence at the beginning of the school year. The students read a draft of the resolution, discussed its strengths and weaknesses, and suggested ways to strengthen it. They wanted the school board to provide long-term counseling to students affected by violence for as long as they need it, not just a counselor who parachutes in for a week. Their proposal became part of the final resolution, and a dozen students testified at a packed school board meeting in support of the resolution, which passed unanimously.

My third class met with our school administration to present the problem of sexual harassment on campus and request the opportunity to lead a staff training on it. Our principal said yes, and three months later, the students led an hour long training for all of the middle school staff in which they shared personal experiences being harassed, gave a presentation about the issue, and facilitated small group discussions with teachers. The teachers gave the student trainers rave reviews, and students reported a marked decline in sexual harassment over the course of the school year simply because they had raised awareness of the issue at our school.

I’m not sure my students could tell you what branch of government is established in Article III of the Constitution, or how many representatives there are in the House. But that’s knowledge, and they can get the answer in an instant of Googling. (Maybe you need to do the same.) But by learning about our system of government in a project-based, hands-on way, my students gained the skills they will need to meaningfully participate in our democracy. They demonstrated the ability to identify a problem and then collaborate with their peers to solve it and to communicate effectively and persuasively. These types of skills are ones they will also need to be successful in college and in their future careers. Equally important, this unit gave students control over their learning. Each class got to choose the issue they worked on and could see how their learning connected to the world around them. They understood that their work products had real meaning.

At the end of the semester, students presented their portfolio of work to policy makers and other adults at “Civics Day,” a Social Studies fair organized by Generation Citizen. Not only did the students receive feedback from “real” adults (not their teachers or their parents), but they also had the chance to compare their work products to that of students from other schools. It was a more powerful form of assessment than any test I have ever given.

This fall, Congress is on the verge of passing a new federal education law, with a conference committee negotiating and reconciling the two widely different versions of an ESEA rewrite passed by the House and the Senate. Disappointingly, both versions of the bill continue to treat social studies as a bastard subject, as it has been under NCLB for the past 14 years. What’s not tested is not important.

So it will be left to states to decide what matters. Let’s hope states focus on setting standards for social studies that will prepare all students not just for college and career, but also for meaningful civic engagement. And with luck in the conference committee process, perhaps the new federal accountability system will give states some freedom to allow students to show they have met academic standards as my students did, by producing work that matters to them and to adults in the real world, not simply by filling in bubbles on standardized tests.


*Tara Kini was in a Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction class at Stanford University that Aragon High School teacher Lee Swenson and I co-taught in the late-1990s


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Does Integrating Computers into Lessons Mean That Teaching Has Changed?

For many years the rhetoric and substance of national reports written by bands of technologists eager to see electronic devices work their wonder on children and adults in schools have baffled me. In these national reports issued periodically by U.S. government sponsored agencies (e.g., Office of Technology Assessment, the National Education Technology Plan) or privately-funded groups (e.g., ISTE or the International Society for Technology in Education, CEO Forum on Education and Technology), I noted two things.

First, on the critical issue of getting new technologies integrated into regular school and classroom routines, advocates differed. Some spoke about integrating technology to advance the content of lessons in reading, math, social studies, science, math, art, music, and other subjects. Others championed learning skills such as critical thinking, analysis, creativity, and inquiry barely mentioning content. I did not find that conflict puzzling since the issue of content vs. skills–is (and has been since late-19th century educational Progressives banged the drum for learning life skills and creativity) a perennial dilemma among curriculum designers, subject-matter specialists, academics, and teachers.

Second, many of these reports used the language of fundamental change such as “transformation” while scorning any incremental or short-term teacher-crafted practical efforts that worked within the system as it is. Anything smacking of incrementalism seemed foul to those ideologues seeking only “revolutionary” changes in schools. Where my puzzlement grew in these well-funded reports written by smart folks came from figuring out how the perennial dilemma of content vs. skills got entangled with fundamental vs. incremental change.

Then I read Judi Harris’s 2005 editorial in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.  I don’t know Professor Harris personally but her work at the University of Texas (Austin) and William and Mary in integrating technology into schools positions her as someone in the community of technology educators to listen to carefully.

In her editorial, Harris tries to explain “why many–if not most–large-scale technology integration efforts are perceived to have failed.” Recall Seymour Papert’s LOGO in the 1980s, Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in the 1990s, and schools that abandoned 1:1 laptops in the past few years. She offers two reasons: technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism.

Borrowing Seymour Papert’s coined word, “technocentric,” Harris points to the blinders that eager policymakers, administrators, and teachers wore (and continue to wear) in embracing the next new gadget.

Technocentrists, she says, seek “educational uses for particular technologies.” Instead, “educators must focus upon how best to assist students’ learning.” Many teachers and principals have said repeatedly to the point of the words being cliched: “integrating technology is not about technology, it is about learning.” Yet those who buy and deploy new technologies–note that most teachers are seldom involved in such decisions–continue to seek “educational uses”  for the electronic devices. Thus, technocentrism rules.

Harris’s second reason is “pedagogical dogmatism.” Among academics, particularly, and many educators there is a decided tilt toward progressive pedagogy, now called in its various incarnations, constructivism. As an example she quotes Christopher Moersch, author of  LoTi (Levels of Technology Implementation), a popular tool used to measure classroom use of technology. The designer expresses an unvarnished preference for one kind of teaching:

“As a teacher progresses from one level to the next, a series of changes … is observed. The instructional focus shifts from being teacher-centered to being learner-centered…. Traditional verbal activities are gradually replaced by authentic hands-on-inquiry related to a problem….”

Harris find the same bias toward constructivist teaching in other commonly used tools, even in the 739-page major work called Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia.

Why, she asks, should K-12 teachers’ roles change to integrate technology effectively? Certainly, the technologies themselves do not require such a fundamental change. Evidence of technology use in Europe, Asia, and the Americas  (see here, here, and here; also JECR PDF) have pointed out how powerful devices end up being used to support teacher-centered instruction.

These two reasons, technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism, Harris argues, explain why for decades, enthusiastic policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have confused technology integration (involving  the perennial conflict of content vs. skills) with technology as an instrument for pedagogical reform (moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction).  The editorial ends with her calling for a separation of the goals of technology integration from the goals of transforming teaching and learning. That call went out in 2005. Few eager advocates for more classroom tablets or more individually tailored online lessons, however, have since heeded the call.

Consider, for example, the recent push for “personalized” instruction customized to individual students (see School of Onehere, here and here). However labeled, “personalized” instruction using tablets and software are clothed in the language of “student-centered” instruction and project-based learning that Progressives a century ago and current advocates of “constructivist” teaching and learning would recognize in a nano-second. Students working online with an individually tailored math lesson is a mere step away from the customized lessons that Programmed Learning and Computer-Assisted Instruction gurus sold to districts between the 1950s and 1980s as individualized instruction (see here, here, and here).  In other words, the pedagogical dogmatism that Harris had noted in 2005 has hardly slowed down.



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Classroom Furniture and How Teachers Teach

Do photos of classrooms and the arrangement of furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach?














Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.

Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal. The teacher decides how to use classroom space. Furniture placement, consciously or not, expresses the teacher’s views of how best to teach, maintain order, and how students learn. Thus, an observer gets a clue to whether teacher-centered and student-centered instruction (including mixes of both)* will prevail.

  1. When all students face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) where directions, daily homework, textbook readings and quizzes are registered, whole group instruction is encouraged including class discussions (recitation was the word used in the early 20th century). Teacher-talk  gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.
  2. Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.
  3. Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.
  4. If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk, student-centered instruction where children and youth can work in small groups or individually, student decision-making becomes a much stronger possibility.

Note, however, that furniture arrangements do not determine how teachers teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than clues to what teachers believe and practice in their lessons. Keep in mind  that for the early decades of this century when desks were bolted to the floor, there were still teachers who ingeniously and with much energy overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom.Such furniture may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent some from altering their teaching practices.

So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in assessing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered.

Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs

One teacher who thought through her classroom furniture design is Kayla Delzer,  an experienced second-grade teacher in West Fargo (ND). She recognized that how elementary school teachers organize a classroom’s furniture and environment has a lot to do with how one teaches. Many teachers holding beliefs in creating other ways of teaching and student learning do what Delzer has done. They do not take existing classroom furniture for granted. But it takes an acute eye, much thought, grit, and a few dollars to make it happen. Here is her story as it appeared in EdSurge, October 1, 2015.

It’s been my dream to make my 2nd grade classroom look more like a “Starbucks for kids”, and less like, well, a classroom.

Think about when you go to Starbucks to complete some work. Why do you choose to work there? Where do you choose to sit? I usually gravitate towards the comfy seating choices like the couches and big chairs, and yet, I see people choose the tables and chairs over and over again. Regardless, when you walk into Starbucks, you have choice. You get to choose where you sit. No one checks you in and directs you to a spot, telling you that you must sit there for the remainder of the day to do your work. If you need to get up, walk around, or choose a different seat, you are free to do so….

Before I even purchased a single thing, I thought about why I was doing a classroom redesign. If we truly want to prepare our students for the real world, we need to put them in responsive, dynamic environments that reflect life outside of a traditional classroom. And what’s that life outside like? Full of choices, where adults are responsible for their own learning. As a college student visiting my classroom once said, “It’s like you’re treating them like little adults.” And as my teaching has changed, my classroom design needed to change right along with it.

After consulting Erin Klein, a classroom design guru who has been “ditching her desks” to avoid “the cemetery effect” for a few years now and sharing her experiments on her blog, I thought about my classroom and the traditional chairs and tables I was given–and I came up with a plan.

Looking around my classroom, I quickly realized that I had far too much furniture, so I got rid of four tables, my huge teacher desk, 20 traditional chairs and a file cabinet. Next, I started looking for resources to redesign and repurpose what I already had. I looked around my house and in my storage closet to pull some pieces that I wasn’t using, and scavenged Hobby Lobby for some new purchases.

What came out of that was flexible seating and open floor space: I thought about my students who would prefer to stretch out on the floor, and I purchased yoga mats and bath rugs for them to lay out on and work. Simultaneously, my fellow educators contributed extra clipboards they weren’t using so students would be able to write just as easily.

Now, I have a large, open area for whole group instruction and five remaining tables, each designed with a specific purpose:

  • a small group instruction whiteboard table with stools
  • a stand-and-work table with no chairs
  • a crate seats table
  • a sit-on-the-floor area with core disks or pillows and work table (see to the right)
  • a stability ball chairs table

Do you have a seating plan or arrangement?

No, I don’t have a seating plan for kids. I allow students to responsibly choose where they work every day. When they arrive in the morning, they make a choice for the day but are free to switch places as they see fit throughout the day. I have enough seating options in our classroom that there are never issues about running out of one type of seating.

How do you ensure students are selecting smart choices to work?

At the beginning of the year, students spent an entire day trying out each of the seating choices. After that, I let them began to let them self-select their seating daily.

One big note: Students know I always reserve the right to move them.

I think this is an important step in the process. For example, one student who stands and works originally swore up and down that he would work best on the stability balls–but that changed. It only took him falling off the chair once and almost bouncing out the door for us to both realize that it probably wasn’t a smart fit for him.

One big note: Students know I always reserve the right to move them, and they know I always have their best learning in mind.

What about your students with behavior issues?

The behaviors of my students who have exhibited aggressive or distracting behaviors in the past have significantly decreased. There is power for them in the choice to select where they will work. They know the work isn’t optional, but choosing where they work is.

Did you do it all at once, or introduce these changes slowly over time?

I had the option of “work rugs” (glorified bath rugs …  for students last year, but only a few students utilized them. So, things have changed over time. you want to just try a few things without breaking the bank, I would start with a few work rugs or yoga mats. Or, just take the legs off of a table, lay it on the ground and get some cheap pillows for students to sit on. It’s also easy to raise a table for students who prefer to stand and work. Don’t feed the fears–just try it and see what works for you.

Where do students keep materials?

We have work bins in the corner of our room where students keep folders, math journals, and other personal items. We use community supplies at each of the five tables, and I have individual baskets of supplies for students that choose to work on yoga mats or work rugs. If you don’t have work bins for students, get three drawer stackers and place them throughout the room, or put materials in baskets. You may have to get creative and repurpose something you already have–or something that another teacher has, but isn’t using.

If we take a look at classrooms over the past 70 years, we are seeing the same type of learning environments, year after year. The world is changing, yet our classrooms are remaining much the same. Revitalizing space is a straightforward way to let students exercise choice in the learning environment and find academic success on their own terms.

Now several weeks into our school year, I can’t imagine going back to traditional seating. Distracting behaviors have been almost completely eliminated while engagement and student participation are at an all time high. And as I look around our classroom, I feel proud of what we have accomplished–a Starbucks for kids.

Delzer’s Classroom is the last of the  photos.


*In using the language of  “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom arrangements offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.


Filed under how teachers teach

Kindergartens That Prize Play and Academics–In That Order

“Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” asked a group of researchers who looked at U.S. kindergartens in 1998 and then again in 2010. Their answer, based on surveys and direct observation is “yes.” The struggle over play vs. academics that has consumed early childhood educators for the past two decades shows that the academic-driven kindergarten has  triumphed in the U.S. especially after No Child Left Behind (2001) and now implementing Common Core standards (2010). Applied to kindergarten, there are now literacy targets and tests that  five year-olds are supposed to meet and take during the school year.

There are, however, many other kindergartens that prize  the play and discovery approach to early learning that also includes reading and math. Here is one instance of such a kindergarten described by a veteran teacher. I have changed names and places to protect the school and individuals.

Approaching the school’s playground that morning, I watched as an army of 5- and 6-year-old boys patrolled a zigzagging stream behind … preschool in the city of  ____, unfazed by the warm August drizzle. When I clumsily unhinged the steel gate to the school’s playground, the young children didn’t even lift their eyes from the ground; they  just kept dragging and pushing their tiny shovels through the mud.

At 9:30 a.m., the boys were called to line up for a daily activity called Morning Circle. (The girls were already inside—having chosen to play board games indoors.) They trudged across the yard in their rubber boots, pleading with their teachers to play longer—even though they had already been outside for an hour. As they stood in file, I asked them to describe what they’d been doing on the playground.

“Making dams,” sang a chorus of three boys.

“Nothing else?” one of their teachers prodded.

“Nothing else,” they confirmed.

“[Children] learn so well through play,” Anna , one of the preschool’s “kindergarten” teachers, who’s in her seventh year in the classroom, told me. “They don’t even realize that they are learning because they’re so interested [in what they’re doing].”

When children play,[she] continued, they’re developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills. A recent research summary “The Power of Play” supports her findings: “In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn,” the researcher concluded.

[Anna’s] colleagues all seemed to share her enthusiasm for play-based learning, as did the school’s director, [Maryn] : “It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still.’” The school’s kindergarten educators have their students engage in desk work—like handwriting—just one day a week. [Renny] who directs several preschools … assured me that kindergartners throughout Finland—like the ones at [this] preschool—are rarely sitting down to complete traditional paper-and-pencil exercises.

And there’s no such thing as a typical day of kindergarten at the preschool, the teachers said. Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.Once, Morning Circle—a communal  time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop. “I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) [$10 bill] to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.With a determined expression reminiscent of the boys in the mud with their shovels, the young cashier stared at the price list. After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and $10. Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.Throughout the morning I noticed that the kindergartners played in two different ways: One was spontaneous and free form (like the boys building dams), while the other was more guided and pedagogical (like the girls selling ice cream)….“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” [the director of early childhood education] told me. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about [early childhood education]…. But [the Director], detecting my surprise, reiterated that the … early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. “There’s an old … saying,” [she] said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”

* * *

After two hours of visiting … I still hadn’t seen children reading. I was, however, hearing a lot of pre-literacy instruction sprinkled throughout the morning—clapping out syllables and rhyming in Morning Circle, for example. I recalled learning in my master’s degree courses in education that building phonemic awareness—an ability to recognize sounds without involving written language—was viewed as the groundwork of literacy development. Just before lunch, a kindergarten teacher took out a basket brimming with children’s books. But for these 5- and 6-year-olds, “reading” looked just like how my two toddlers approach their books: The kindergartners, sitting in different corners of the room, flipped through pages, savoring the pictures but, for the most part, not actually deciphering the words. [The teacher] told me that just one of the 15 students in her class can currently read syllable by syllable. Many of them, she added, will read by the end of the year. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it. If the child is willing and interested, we will help the child….”
If you have reached the end of this post, I want you to know that the kindergarten described here was not in the U.S. but in Finland, one of the highest ranked nations in the world  in academic achievement as measured by the PISA test taken by 15-year old Finnish students. The article can be found here.


Filed under how teachers teach