Category Archives: how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Behavioral Objectives?

Not much. They are still around but often goes by an alias.

Introduced in the early 20th century, behavioral objectives are like  wallpaper in a favorite room that is stripped and then re-papered with wallpaper of a different hue but closely resembling the discarded debris. In short, the phrase has different names today (e.g., performance objectives,  learner outcomes, competencies-based outcomes) but remains common across the educational domain as well as in business, medicine, and other professional work. They are now a permanent fixture of organizations but not called “behavioral objectives.”

Where Did the Idea Originate?

The efficiency-driven wing of early 20th century progressives, inspired by management innovator Frederick Taylor, educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, and other university-based academics saw the rational design of lessons as important. In the 1930s and 1940s, Ralph Tyler of the University of Chicago and head evaluator of the Eight Year Study championed behavioral objectives and scientific ways of assessing student and school outcomes. The advent of teaching machines and the work of B.F. Skinner advanced the breaking down of specific knowledge and skills into constituent parts that could be taught and measured. Instructional designers began pressing K-12 educators to adopt the idea of “behavioral objectives” as early as the late-1950s. They advocated that educators must state clearly and objectively exactly what they wanted students to learn, the conditions under which the students will learn specific content and skills, and how these educators will know students have indeed learned what was intended.

Psychologists who championed instructional design, many of whom were trained as behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, Robert Gagne‘, Benjamin Bloom, Robert Mager,and others in the 1940s and 1950s–along with Tyler–see above–produced articles and books throughout the 1960s that laid out how teachers should and could compose and specific objectives for their lessons in terms sufficiently clear to determine whether or not students had learned what was intended in the lesson (see here).

What Are Behavioral Objectives?

Sometimes called “learning” or “performance” objectives, Robert Mager laid out the three parts that every behavioral objective must contain: what the learner will do (not the teacher or instructional materials), the conditions under which the learner performs, and the criteria to judge how well the learner has performed the task.

Examples of such objectives across academic subjects are:

*The students will be able to classify the changes of state matter undergoes when given a description of the shape and volume.

*Given four works of short fiction of contrasting genres, the student will analyze and
match each work with its correct genre.
*Using the Web site, the student will correctly identify and print out two examples each of a news article and an editorial regarding a topical new item.
*Given twenty examples of incorrect verb tense usage, the student will identify and correct a minimum of sixteen instances.


Sometimes, behavioral objectives can be put into words that young children can understand such as:



What Problems Did Behavioral Objectives Intend to Solve

Because behavioral objectives drive a lesson, according to those championing “performance” or “competency learning outcome”, these objectives are too often stated as to what the teacher does rather than what the student will do and learn . Even when objectives are phrased as what students will do, they use language that is ambiguous and hard to demonstrate that learning occurred.

Examples of such lesson objectives are easy to find: “teacher will read story to kindergartners,” “I will define the lunar cycle for students,” “teacher will interpret the meaning of Paradise Lost,” “students will develop a three-dimensional form through using wire and wood.”

Or consider unit on colonialism in America that listed the following objectives:

Students will understand how learning U.S. history will help them
reach their goals.
Students will get an overview of U.S. history from colonization to the
Civil War.
Students will use maps to understand the process of colonization.
Students will learn about the geography of each group of colonies
and how geography affected their economies.
Students will review two persuasive essays about the centrality of
money in America and write responses.


The following “do” and “don’t” chart captures both what they are and the problem they seek to solve.




Do Behavioral Objectives Work?

No one knows for sure. If “work” means their ubiquity in lesson and unit plans across the country, the answer is yes. But if “work” asks about their effectiveness in improving the quality of a lesson or what students learn, such research is slim to sparse. Linking academic improvement to the quality of behavioral objectives is, well, nigh impossible (see here, here,  and here).

What Happened To Behavioral Objectives?*

Not too much. Under different labels, they are everywhere in curriculum manuals, district budgets, proposals to donors, and government agency programs.

In visiting classrooms throughout Silicon Valley in 2016, I often saw listed on a whiteboard, the agenda for the day. Usually, the first item was the lesson objective. For example, in an Advanced Placement Physics class at Los Altos High School that I observed in September 2016, the teacher had written on the whiteboard the following objective for the lesson: Students will be able to (SWBAT) create instructional videos using whiteboard animations in order to demonstrate problem solving skills and provide instructional support to peers.

For those eager to “personalize learning,” one way is to list the skill and content competencies that students will learn at different paces, usually through software, in a unit and lesson. These competencies are behavioral objectives in disguise (see here, here and here).

Educators may not call them “behavioral objectives” today but they are commonly built into daily lesson plans, student assessments and teacher evaluations.


In a later post, I will describe a parallel innovation within private and public organizations called “Management by Objectives” (MBO). Authored by management guru Peter Drucker in the mid-1950s, it spread rapidly in the late-1960s in federal agencies under the Nixon administration aimed at holding agency officials accountable for outcomes they had specified. By the early 1970s, MBO has become the organizational reform du jour among private and public sector leaders. By the early 1980s, it had become passe’.

If behavioral objectives were for teachers, MBO was for CEOs, federal and state agency heads, middle managers in the private sector and principals, superintendents, and school boards in K-12 and higher education. In K-12 schools, MBO and behavioral objectives were joined at the hip in laying out a format for the introduction of accountability for assessing student, school, and district outcomes.





Filed under how teachers teach

Is Homework Compatible With Personalized Learning? (Autumn Hillis)

Autumn Hillis works with middle schools in the middle Tennessee region as an open educational resource curriculum specialist. She has taught at the middle school and high school level for six years with a focus in life and physical sciences. She is also currently working with Tennessee universities to train Tennessee science educators about personalized and project based learning.”

This post appeared in EdSurge, October 3, 2017

Differentiating content and instruction for each individual learner was once considered the pedagogical holy grail. Yet it could be tiresome. Offering three tiers of worksheets, four centers with varied ways to access content, or five levels of text was what defined a master teacher. But just as continual development of the iPhone eventually renders older prototypes obsolete; so too are new educational technologies pushing us past differentiation towards personalized learning.

Transitioning to a personalized learning environment doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process. There are parts of the shift that feel impossible at first like moving into the passenger’s seat during lessons, managing new technologies and analyzing what seems like an endless amount of data. But in time these impossibilities become like second nature and new challenges arise. We start asking deeper questions and setting loftier goals for ourselves as educators.

In 2013, when I began rethinking some of the practices I once thought of as tried and true, one of the biggest shifts for me was the realization that the topics I found interesting were not necessarily the most engaging for my students. I had to set aside the pride I felt for my personal knowledge—and my love of talking—so that I could start listening to my students and discover what was meaningful for them.

By fall of 2015, I had come leaps and bounds with making my classroom student centered, and personalizing instruction during class time. But this nagging question kept bringing me down: What message does it send our students when we only personalize learning from 8AM-3PM, and then send everyone home with the same worksheet for homework?

Homework has been an area of controversy amongst practitioners for years, with strong evidence of both benefits and drawbacks. While I have never been interested in inundating students with extra practice outside of school hours, I do believe that some concepts and skills require extensive independent practice.

After combing through research presenting data for and against homework, one argument really resonated with me. Too often, parents cannot help students who are struggling through an assignment that they are not prepared for. This can lead to frustrating nights when a family could be enjoying their time together. The one thing I knew for sure was that if I was going to give homework, I needed to develop a solution to give students the independent work time they needed without creating unnecessary stress. I decided to experiment with creating assignments that would mirror the individualized experience students were receiving in my class.

Experimenting with new classroom techniques is daunting. Creating multiple resources for one concept, developing systems for managing the paperwork, and giving feedback in a timely manner are challenging enough for a small class—but with classroom sizes bulging with 33 to 36 students, these tasks are completely overwhelming. In 2015, when I began investigating how to personalize homework, I knew that I’d need to leverage technology if I wanted to make it sustainable. I taught 130 students a day, so efficiency was key.

As a first experiment, I started with an eighth grade science unit on the periodic table of the elements. Typically, I gave homework two or three nights a week, and graded the assignments for accuracy and completion. I checked each answer to make sure students weren’t just blowing off my homework. Homework responsibility accounted for 15% of each student’s grade, so while there was some accountability, we weren’t spending much time reviewing the material covered by the extra practice. I was inadvertently sending the message to my students that these assignments were busy work. So I decided to shake things up a bit.

After presenting some introductory concepts, I gave my students a short formative assessment with six questions that they could grade independently. Unknown to them, I had divided the questions up into two parts. If students missed the first three questions then they were struggling with concept A; if students missed the last three questions, then they were struggling with concept B. I recorded each student’s grade and took note of which questions they had missed. From this data, I offered them several choices of activities they could complete for homework. Some were activities that I created through Google Classroom or Google Forms, and others were from websites such as ReadWorks and BetterLesson.

In addition to the options I provided, I also invited and encouraged my students to find their own resources, with one caveat—they had to submit an “Internet Resource Quality Check” that I gave them. This quality check was designed to measure quality, rigor, and safety of alternative resources. Students were expected to submit proof of their practice for alternative resources as well as the ones I provided.


This sequence continued through the remainder of the unit. My students would take a formative assessment after completing each concept to see if they had mastered it and complete homework to reinforce areas of struggle. Students could also retake their assessments after completing their homework to determine their level of success in mastering challenging concepts.

Perhaps the greatest shift was that homework was no longer graded for accuracy or completion. The accountability for completing homework became the formative assessment score signaling mastery or the need for more practice. My students immediately respected the fact that they were not being asked to complete busy work.

At the conclusion of the unit, students took my summative assessment. I compared this data with scores I had collected in a unit that did not have the personalization of homework or independent practice, and the results were telling.


At the end of the unit, I asked my students if we should use this new homework structure moving forward, and I received an overwhelmingly affirmative response. Apparently, they were motivated by the prospect of not having to do an assignment if they demonstrated mastery on their assessments. They also reported less struggle at home because they weren’t being asked to tackle material that was outside of their current grasp.

This experiment changed my practice substantially. It helped me recognize that tailoring instruction and independent practice inside and outside of the classroom are equally important. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way about developing personalized homework.

Take It Slow

Much like personalizing classroom instruction, creating personalized homework takes time. I didn’t put pressure on myself to create all of my personalized homework assignments in one sitting. I started with two or three choices and added more over time. I collaborated with my local colleagues and those in my virtual PLC (professional learning community) to develop and add to the resource bank I already had.

Shift Your Perspective

Grading 130 homework assignments a day is unsustainable. Shifting my perspective to view homework as independent practice to support classroom instruction, rather than something that needed to be constantly graded for completion helped. Homework became an opportunity for students to practice a skill in order to master content at their personal pace. If homework wasn’t completed, and they couldn’t show mastery on the assessment, then they continued to work on that concept before moving on. Eventually, students learned that giving me their best effort regardless of the grade was beneficial to them as well.

Feedback That Counts

Giving consistent, personalized, specific feedback, especially on homework, is more powerful than giving a grade. I held bi-weekly conferences to celebrate successes and discuss areas for growth, and used the private comment feature available in Google Classroom to give specific feedback on student work. This encouraged my students to go back and review their work rather than simply look for a score, and it allowed them to communicate with me about their progress by responding.

Accept Technological Support

The teacher-to-student ratio makes managing a personalized learning environment tough enough without adding homework into the mix. The right technology can help us become more efficient with delivering choices, developing personalized content, managing work submission, providing feedback and grading student work. The best tools are those that students can use seamlessly from home—that way classroom instruction and independent practice are working in sync.


My district does not support a one-to-one device-to-student ratio so I quickly learned to always have a non-tech assignment option. Some students cannot complete assignments that are only available online due to limited accessibility to devices or internet connectivity. In the best-case scenario, I include multiple non-tech options because the element of choice is key to personalization.

In 2017, I plan to continue investigating the impact of personalized homework on student growth. My new role as an open resource curriculum specialist offers me an opportunity to work with other teachers to continue finding new ways to tailor homework and make it more personal. My hope is that as device and internet access improves—and as technology continues to advance—both independent and collaborative homework will become more meaningful for students, and the ability to scale personalized feedback to students will become more manageable for teachers.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A Few Teachers Speak Out on Technology in Their Classrooms

I am fortunate to have many readers who are classroom teachers. I have published posts over the past year about my research on teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their lessons. Some of those posts triggered responses from teachers. I offer a few of those comments here.

Louise Kowitch, retired social studies teacher from Connecticut:

….The impact of technology can vary greatly depending on the subject matter (among all the other things you’ve addressed). While some pedagogical practices are universal, when “doing the work of the discipline”, content-specific practices,and by extension the impact of technology, might vary widely.

I mention this to say that as someone who lived through the IT revolution in the classroom (from mimeographs, scantrons, and filmstrips to floppy disks and CD-ROM, and finally to smart boards, Skype and Chromebooks), by the time I reached three decades as a full time classroom teacher, I was spending MORE time on my lessons and interacting with students, than less. Some tasks were indeed more efficient (for example, obtaining and sharing maps, artifacts, art, primary sources). Others, like collecting data about student performance for our superintendent, became arduous, weekend long affairs that sucked the life out of the joy of teaching.

That said, I loved how Chromebooks and Smartboards freed up my instruction to empower students to do their own research and conduct substantive debates. For example, a simulation of the post WWI debates over the Treaty of Versailles from the perspectives of different countries – something I had done before Chromebooks – became a powerful lesson for students in the art of diplomacy, the value of historical perspective, and the grind of politics, as a result of THEIR OWN RESEARCH, not my selection of primary sources. This was MORE time consuming (2 weeks of instructional time, not 8 days) and LESS EFFICIENT, but MORE STUDENT CENTERED and COLLABORATIVE.

Was it “better” instruction? Yes, if the point was for kids to experience “the art of negotiation”. No, if it meant having to drop a four day mini unit on elections in the Weimar Republic that I used to do after the WWI unit. Something is lost, and something is gained. Like you, I grapple with it’s a zero sum game.

Garth Flint,  high school teacher of computer science and technology coordinator in Montana private school:

My question has always been what effect does the increase in classroom tech have on the students? Do they do better through out the years? How do we measure “better”? We have an AP History teacher who is very traditional. Kids listen to the lecture and copy the notes on the whiteboard.
About the only tech he uses are some minor YouTube videos. His AP test results are outstanding. Would any tech improve on those results? At the middle school we have a teacher who uses a Smartboard extensively. It has changed how he does his math lectures. But he is still lecturing. Has the Smartboard improved student learning? I do not know. I have observed teachers that have gone full tech. Google Docs, 1-1, videos of lectures on line, reversed classroom, paperless. Their prep time increased. Student results seemed (just from my observation, I did not measure anything) to be the same as a non-tech classroom. It would be interesting to have two classrooms of the same subject at the same grade level, one high tech, one old-school and feed those students into the same classroom the next year. Ask that next year teacher if there is a measurable difference between the groups.


Laura H. Chapman, retired  art teacher from Ohio:

“So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.”

Some other questions.
Who is asking questions about the extent of access and use of technology by students and teachers and why? Who is not asking such questions, and why not?

Is there a map of “daily classroom practices” for every subject and grade/or developmental level such that changes in these practices over time can be monitored with the same teachers in the same teaching assignments?

Are there unintended consequences of widespread student access and teacher use of technologies other than “changes in daily classroom practices?” Here I am thinking about the risky business of assuming that change is not only inevitable but also positive(e.g., invigorates teaching and learning, makes everything moe “efficient”).

Who is designing the algorithms, the apps, the dashboards, the protocols for accessing edtech resources, who is marketing these and mining the data from these technologies, and why? These questions bear on the direct costs and benefits of investments and indirect costs/benefits…. Continue reading


Filed under how teachers teach, technology

Whatever Happened To Values Clarification?

In the mid-1960s, prompted by a bestselling book among educators, a classroom approach called “Values Clarification” spread swiftly among elementary and secondary school teachers. The thrust of the approach was to have students use texts and new instructional materials to identify their  values and reflect on them in discussion, writing, and small group work where the values often came into conflict. In effect, help students work through their positions on such values as loyalty, truth, trust, lying, etc.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

Louis Raths, a professor at New York University in the mid-1950s, working with John Dewey’s ideas about the importance of values in education, developed for his classes materials and teaching strategies that got his students to think about what they prized in life. He, Sidney, Simon, and Merrill Harmin published Values and Teaching: Working with Values in Classrooms in 1966. The book went through subsequent editions and became a staple in university teacher education programs and innovative urban schools. For example, I used it in the late-1960s in training former Peace Corps returnees to become social studies teachers in a Washington, D.C. high school.

As one of proselytizers for the teaching strategy, Howard Kirshenbaum said:

Values clarification was arguably the most widespread of the innovative approaches to values and
moral education that were popular during this period.
Kirshenbaum said “arguably.” Like many other teaching strategies, tracking how many teachers,
schools, and districts adopted  and then implemented it is impossible to nail down. In 1972, one of
the authors of the best selling book on the topic could only list a few schools that adopted
it, but talk, oh so much talk, about the strategy flooded educational publications, staff rooms,
and educator conferences. Moreover Values Clarification as a teaching approach was squirmy
since it varied classroom to classroom as teachers adapted it to the contours of their students.
Nonetheless, among many teachers and administrators throughout the 1970s, the talk and
adoption of the teaching strategy was widespread.


What is Values Clarification?

Here is an exercise that teachers in a junior high school used in their classes in the early 1970s,
according to the principal of the school:

A. You are on a Congressional Committee in Washington. D.C. $10 million has been given for three

worthy causes. Which would you do first, second, third?

You must spend all the money on one thing:Clean up rivers, garbage, sewage, and pollution.

  1. Clean up rivers, garbage, sewage, and pollution.
  2. Train those who do not have jobs.
  3. Divide the money among 10,000 needy families.

B. Which would you find hardest to do?

  1. Drop a bomb on Vietnam?
  2. Electrocute a man who has been judged to die in the electric chair?
  3. Run over someone who is threatening you with harm while you are driving a car?


The above exercise is typical of what many teachers embracing Values Clarification would use.

Louis Raths and his colleagues explained the thinking guiding the strategy and what teachers have

to do in using the approach.

Valuing involves one’s beliefs and behaviors. Valuing means students engage in seven processes:  


(a) choosing freely; (b) choosing from alternatives; (c) choosing after thoughtful consideration of


consequences; (d) prizing and cherishing one’s choices; (e) publicly affirming one’s choices; (f)


acting on one’s choices; (g) acting with some pattern incorporating one’s choices.


In using this strategy, teachers must:


*Accept and encourage student answers;


*Expect diversity in student answers and do not assume that there are right or wrong answers for


these value questions;


*Respect student’s right to participate or not;


*If student responds, respect student’s answer;


*Encourage each student to answer honestly;


*Listen carefully to student responses;


*Ask clarifying questions of student answers; avoid questions which may limit or threaten student thinking;


*Ask both personal and social questions.

Values Clarification avoids instilling values in students; the approach seeks to have students
examine the values they already have.



What Problem Did Values Clarification Intend to Solve?

Emotional needs of young children and youth seldom get dealt with in public schools–what students prize, honor, and feel strongly about. It is those values embedded in emotions, feelings, and ideas that lay behind the choices that students make in and out of school. In most classrooms such clarifying discussions never arise and the value-choices get swallowed by both teachers and students.

Content and skills dominate classroom lessons and value-laden choices they have to make in life (e.g., take drugs, have sex, report law-breakers to authorities, lie to parents) are absent. Such discussions, such clarification of choices students make, need–champions said–to find a place in academic subjects in elementary and secondary schools.

Does Values Clarification Work?

No evidence beyond single, small studies has shown that Values Clarification improves student decision-making, alters their existing values, changes choices they make in life, or bolsters academic achievement (see here and here).

What Happened to Values Clarification?

The short answer is that it disappeared from the vocabulary of school reformers and teachers by the early 1980s. Poof, gone. Few mentioned the phrase a decade later.

But if the phrase disappeared, some proponents of Values Clarification migrated to an old stand-by in public schools for the past two centuries:  “character education.” Character education (see here and here) has existed in U.S. public schools off and on for the simple reason that tax-supported  schooling was always expected to strengthen personal character and the community (e.g., love of country, help neighbors, do the right thing for yourself and family). Schools, advocates for character education said, instill the correct values. Clarifying values can shake the core values children and youth bring from home.

Formal programs of character education have entered and exited public schools. Since the 1980s, Character Education has spread across elementary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural schools (see here and here).



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Parsing “Failed” School Reforms

The non-graded school, heralded as a game-changing innovation in the 1960s is unheard of today. In the 1970s, districts adopted Mastery Teaching and materials. A decade later, the innovative curriculum was gone. Like mushrooms popping up on a lawn after a rain, these innovations appear and then in a day or two are gone. Are they “failed” innovations?

Understanding “failure” in education is unlike the multi-billion industry of “failure analysis” when engineering and psychology experts figure out why bridges collapse, airplanes crash, and a nuclear plant has a melt down. In those cases failure is clear cut: cars topple off bridges; people die in crashes, reactors emit radioactivity into the air harming both workers and nearby residents. The product has failed and the consequences in lives, money, and public confidence are evident. Analyzing and then determining why the bridge, airplane and nuclear plant failed is essential.

In these clear-cut instances of “failure,” state and federal agencies launch investigations to figure out what caused the accident. Was it mistakes made by pilots, metal fatigue in the aircraft, design flaws in the bridges, or combinations of these and many other factors?

In short, “failure analysis” invokes the protocols of scientific inquiry to find exact causes of the accident to prevent future disasters.

When it comes to school reform, however, determining whether new policies are “failures” and why they happened is much more ambiguous. In the case of education there is no clear product being sold to the public which can be assessed for whether it “worked.” Surely there are innovations designed to improve teaching, learning, and the quality of schooling that require teacher resources and organizational infrastructure to implement the reform. But when, for example, a serious, well-funded school innovation appears, receives strong reviews from teachers, parents, and policymaker and then, in a few years, becomes a blip on the edge of the radar screen or even disappears,  no official agencies investigate. If anything, yawns occur. Occasionally, someone will ask: “Whatever happened to….? It is a puzzle.

Consider Professor Madeline Hunter’s model of effective teaching.

A former teacher and elementary school principal, and professor of educational administration and teacher education at University of California, Los Angeles, Madeline Hunter developed a model of teaching that combined effective instructional techniques applied to all academic subjects across elementary and secondary school classrooms. Called Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), the teacher-centered, direct instructional model was anchored in, according to Hunter, psychological learning theory and educational research. Academic content was important as were specific student objectives on what they were to learn and the sequence of techniques teachers were to use to reach those content and skill objectives (see here and here).

Hunter’s genius was to convert this model into seven key features that every teacher had to cover within a lesson.  A common template for a “Hunter Lesson” looked like this:


In the late-1970s and 1980s, professors taught this research-based model of “effective teaching” to their students; some school superintendents and principals mandated teachers to use the lesson template even including it in annual evaluations, and districts mounted extensive professional development programs. Checklists of lesson features appeared and were applied in tens of thousands of classrooms. Schools and classrooms became “Hunterized” (see here and here).

As one would expect with school innovations, the teaching reforms Hunter favored in planning and executing lessons ran into much criticism over its emphasis on direct instruction, relative neglect of student agency in making choices, and the behaviorist cast to teaching that she advocated (see here, here, and here).

But–you knew a “but” was coming–by the mid-1990s a few years after Hunter died, the lesson plan template, professional development workshops, and teacher education professors advocating the approach diminished and by the early 2000s, ITIP and lesson plan templates seemingly fell of the edge of the table.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, here, here, and here).

Another innovation “failure?”

Not at all. While the adjectives (“Madeline Hunter”} are mostly gone, the noun (lesson) continues to be the core of what a teacher plans and does in her classroom. The lesson is the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. And for over a century, teachers used these lessons to conduct teacher-directed classroom work (see here and here).

A lesson before Madeline Hunter appeared on the educational landscape and after she left still contained goals and objectives for the 50-90-minute lesson, the key questions that were to be asked, what instructional materials (texts and software) were to be used, activities (whole group, small group, and independent) students engaged in, and assessments to determine what students learned. The lesson was the map for the teacher-directed class.

And it was Madeline Hunter’s lesson plans and approach in the 1970s and 1980s that enhanced the dominant teacher-centered instruction that characterized U.S. schooling for nearly a century. Sure, the lyrics and melody may have changed here and there but it was still the same song.

No, the Madeline Hunter approach to teaching and her lesson templates added to and strengthened familiar ways that teachers taught before, during, and after the the life span of the innovation  even after the name-brand disappeared.

Maybe the definition of “failed” innovations has to be re-examined.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Classroom Teachers are Policymakers

Note that no question mark follows the title. Teachers make policy.

Historically, the object of policies descending from the U.S. Congress, state capitals, and district school boards to the classroom, teachers are the ones who put policies into practice. As object of policy, however, school observers either forget or choose not to acknowledge that teachers also craft policy for their students in taking those policies that appear at their threshold and adapt them to their students. The title, then, is a fact.

Those classroom rules often listed on bulletin boards and walls are policies that the teacher makes for her students.

Related image


Beyond the classroom walls,  however, those very same teachers take what federal, state, and local policies officials send to their classroom (e.g., teachers have to use high-tech devices to teach, they are required to “personalize” their teaching) and bend, squeeze, and adapt those policies to the contours of their classrooms. In doing so, they not only guard the gates of their classrooms but become policymakers in what they accept, amend, and reject. From demanding that teachers use cooperative group work to differentiating instruction to integrating digital devices into their daily lessons, teachers, constrained as they are by the “grammar of schooling,” nonetheless determine what and how they will teach.

Metaphors for policy implementation in schools and districts

Watching a policy travel from the White House, a state capitol, or a big city school board to a kindergarten or Algebra teacher has been compared to metal links in a chain, the children’s game of Telephone, pushing spaghetti, and street-level bureaucrats.

Classroom teachers at the end of the iron-forged links in a chain convey military images of privates saluting captains and duties getting snappily discharged. The telephone game suggests miscommunications that ends up in hilarious misinterpretations of what was intended by the original policy. Pushing strands of wet spaghetti suggests futility in getting a policy ever to be put into practice as intended in classrooms. Street-level bureaucrats suggests that teachers working in rule-driven organizations have discretion and choices in making decisions. I need to elaborate this last comparison because I think it best captures the fact that teachers are, indeed, policymakers.

Street-level bureaucrats are police officers who decide whether or not to give a traffic citation, social workers who determine what kind of help a client needs and where to find that help, emergency room nurses who decide which sick and injured need immediate attention and which ones can wait. Include also teachers who determine whether to stick with the lesson plan or diverge when an unexpected event occurs.

All of these professionals work within large, rule-driven organizations but interact with the public daily as they make on-the-spot decisions. Each of these professionals are obligated to follow organizational rules yet have discretion to make decisions.  They reconcile this dilemma of choosing daily between obligation to the organization and professional autonomy by  interpreting, amending, or ignoring decisions handed down by superiors.

In short, teachers are policy gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom and what gets into the daily lesson.

How about an example that illustrates these metaphors?

Consider kindergarten teachers. Most primary teachers have been trained to see young children holistically as growing human beings needing work, play, and nurturing as necessary ingredients to develop into educated and healthy youth. Teaching the whole child has been a guiding principle central to early childhood programs for nearly a century. Since the early-1980s, however, the standards-based curriculum, increased testing, and accountability policies have flowed downward pressing early childhood educators to make kindergartens into boot camps for 1st grade and preschool programs into learning the alphabet and counting numbers.

In the policy-to-practice metaphor of the linked chain, one would expect that most kindergarten teachers, feeling strong obligations to school superiors, would have altered their child-centered pedagogy and embraced the new policy by relying on direct instruction while abandoning learning centers, comfy reading corners, and free choice time.

For the metaphor of the telephone game, one would expect most kindergarten teachers to have received instructions on implementing standards-based and testing policies from top officials, district supervisors, and school principals. Those instructions and guidance on their journey to kindergarten teachers would have gotten increasingly distorted. These distortions would result in huge variation among kindergarten teachers in implementing these policies ranging from major shifts in pedagogy to minimal alterations in daily lessons to outright mistakes.

The metaphor of pushing wet spaghetti raises different expectations. Because of the futility of the task, adopted policies meander in and out of schools occasionally entering classrooms. Here, kindergarten teachers are fully autonomous and once they close their doors, they do as they please.

None of these metaphors from complete military-like attention to rules to complete freedom to implement a policy capture most kindergarten teachers’ practice at a time when they must cope with dilemma-filled tensions arising from reconciling their obligations to implement state standards-based policies and their beliefs in child-centered practices. And here is where Lisa Goldstein’s study of street-level policy enters the discussion.

Goldstein’s research on four kindergarten teachers in two high performing urban schools within a Texas district details their different actions in coping with state curriculum standards stressing academic preparation for first grade, annual tests that specifies what kindergarteners were to have learned, and their professional and personal beliefs about what five year-olds should be doing and learning.

What did she find out after observing and interviewing the teachers for two years?

“From Ann’s refusal to use the language artsworkbooks to Liz’s holiday celebrations
unit and from Jenny’s either/or literacy block to Frieda’s commitment to her
students’ self-esteem, all of these teachers’ curricular and instructional decisions
were actively shaped by personal understandings of the state standards and DAP
((Developmentally Appropriate Practices derived from the National Association of Early Childhood Education), informed by strategic knowledge and careful thought, and considered in relation to the needs of the particular children in the class and other contextual
factors. Every policy decision was unique and deliberate and reflected attention
to obligations, desire for autonomy, and the use of professional discretion.”

These kindergarten teachers blended developmental practices they had done for years while attending to what their district and state standards required five year-olds to learn by the end of the year. They translated their beliefs in the whole child and many experiences with primary children into hybrid practices that mixed “developmentally appropriate” activities with direct instruction. In short, these four teachers in two schools made policy by creating mixes–they were street-level bureaucrats that hugged the middle.

Goldstein’s study is only one qualitative study of four teachers. There are others that make a similar case that teachers exert autonomy in deciding what and how they teach and thereby make policy (see here, here, here, and here).





Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Open Classrooms?


I am beginning a new feature in this blog called: “Whatever Happened To ….”

From time to time I will publish posts that take a look at innovations that policymakers and practitioners hailed as “transforming”  or “revolutionary” insofar as altering how districts conduct business, schools work, teachers teach and students learn. Not only hyped in the media and by word-of-mouth, these innovations spread across thousands of schools in the U.S. as their brand became known. Each was the reform du jour.

Such stories are a reminder of the ever-changing topography of U.S. schooling. Historians are like geologists who inspect strata of rock formations for what flora and fauna existed in earlier times and what accounts for their appearance and seeming disappearance.

The first of these I examine is “The Open Classroom” that mushroomed in schools and districts in the late-1960s through most the 1970s. To describe the innovation, I ask some of the questions that Jane David and I used when we wrote Cutting through the Hype (2010) and added a few that answer: “Whatever happened to ….”

If some readers are curious about particular reforms they experienced and now seem to have disappeared, please send me your thoughts.


The “open classroom,” an innovation that swept over U.S. schools between the late 1960s and early 1970s (see here and here), caused a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the decade with nary a ripple since. But appearances can be deceiving.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

U.S. Educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” in the Plowden Report (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Policymakers, academics, practitioners, and student-centered reformers watched teachers teach and listened to headmasters about the child-centeredclassroom that echoed in the ears of U.S.visitors as Deweyan progressivism clothed in 1960s apparel. Americans returned to their classrooms, schools, and districts filled with the optimism that accompanies true believers and began instituting open classrooms in big city and suburban districts (see here).

What is it?

Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs, cushions, and chairs moved from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools (see here).

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.

Consider the scene from a 3rd-grade open classroom in a New York City elementary school described by two proponents, Walter and Miriam Schneir, in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article:

What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly.

What Problem Did Open Classrooms Intend to Solve?

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of traditional teaching through lectures, textbooks, and tests. Such teaching turned off students to authentic learning and could be transformed through “open classrooms” where student passions, interests, and curiosity could unfold through projects, learning centers, integration of different subjects, and multi-age groupings.

Richly amplified by the media, “open education” in its focus on students learning by doing resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms as just the right kind of solution to what ailed traditional public school teaching and learning.

Did Open Classrooms Work?

Depends on how one defines “work.” If the common measure of “work” is increased test scores on standardized tests, then the answer is somewhere between “maybe” and “no.” After all, the progressive/constructivist approach to teaching and learning, classroom organization, and student participation sought to increase student outcomes such as independent thinking, problem-solving, increased creativity, and others that few available tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of informal education and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that Open Classrooms worked (see here and here)

What Happened To Open Classrooms?

“Open classrooms” peaked in the mid-1970s and within a few years the innovation moved from the center of the public radar screen to a mere blip on the edge. There were both external and internal reasons for the shrinking of “open classrooms.”

Public concerns over a lagging economy, rising unemployment, and the Vietnam War grew into a perception, again amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, desegregating schools had failed, and urban schools had become violent places. School critics’ loud voices and rising public concern over these messy problems melded into “back-to-basics” policies that toughened the curriculum, increased the teacher’s authority, and required more work of students.

Turning to the schools that implemented “open classrooms,” because there were different definitions of what exactly an “open classroom” was and how it worked, teachers varied in which parts of the innovation (e.g., learning centers, schedule, student choices) they would adopt and adapt. Thus, putting the innovation into practice differed from classroom to classroom in a school, from school to school, and from district to district.

Then there was the increased workload of teachers to find materials, integrate different academic subjects into units, reorganize their classrooms, and shift in their beliefs about how best students learn. Much was expected of the teacher.

Consider also the students. Increased student choice depended a great deal upon their motivation, interests, and aptitudes. Most students relished the increased role that they played in their learning but there were (and are) many students who needed prodding and would avoid choices that gave them more work to do.

Both internal and external reasons combined to remove the “open classroom” innovation from public attention and practitioner interest.*

So were “open classrooms” just another fad? Yes and no. The yes part of the answer is that “open classrooms” as the educational version of long tail fins on cars and short skirts had, indeed, soared and faded from the public scene. But to call it a fad would miss the deeper meaning of “open classrooms” as another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educational progressives from conservatives since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.

Now, amid standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and dominates talk about schools, many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, continue learning centers and similar activities. “Open education” is still present in schools founded over 30 years ago such as the Los Angeles Open Charter SchoolRoots Elementary School in Denver, and many others. Teachers and principals still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells of criticism. Most high school teachers continue to use teacher-centered practices leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. The “open classroom,” then, was not a hula-hoop fad but another skirmish in the nearly two-century long ideological war in the U.S. over how best to make children into good adults and a better society.

So the “open classroom” has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. As I read and listen to the rhetoric of “personalized learning” initiatives, the high-tech approach to student engagement and participation suggests a re-appearance. So deep-rooted traditional and progressive ideas about classroom teaching and learning and the best knowledge to instill in the next generation still (and will continue to) abide among taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents.


*I thank Mike and Garth for their comments about the many and strong demands of “open classrooms” on both teachers and students.




Filed under how teachers teach