Whatever Happened to Typing Classes in High School? (Hayley Glatter)

This article appeared in The Atlantic, October, 2016. The title is: “The Gendered Past of Typing Education: A Quirky QWERTY History.” Hayley Glatter is a former editorial fellow at The Atlantic.

The man who taught me to type was at least 100 years old at the time of my instruction. He wore thick, purple sunglasses that completely hid his eyes at all times. His long, white beard rippled as he traveled in a pink convertible through both time and space. This man was also, of course, animated.

Like the characters in Oregon Trail, Freddy the Fish, and other popular games of the early aughts, the time-traveling typing guru of Type to Learn was an inescapable fixture of my elementary-school computer classes. I attribute my ability to touch type—to use a keyboard without actually watching my fingers move—almost entirely to this computer game, which is a far cry from the typing courses high-school students took in previous decades and the typewriters they used.

Over time, typing education has evolved in tandem with both the progression of computer technology and the decreasing age at which students are exposed to that technology. Today, that age may be reaching its lowest limit, as standardized tests and metrics emphasize the need for exceedingly young learners to successfully navigate a computer.

These histories, Darren Wershler, the author of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, said, are inseparable from the history of writing itself. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of the laptop, it is today more common for people to write by themselves, with just the companionship of their computer’s glare. But in the early-to-mid 19th century, writers—who were usually men—would dictate their thoughts to a secretary—who was also typically male, Wershler said. When the typewriter was introduced in the second half of the century, that relationship began to change.

Suddenly, women were operating typewriters and recording men’s dictation, irreversibly altering workplace gender dynamics. Empowered by a nation in the throes of rapid industrialization and armed with typing lessons from local YMCAs and YWCAs, these women, Wershler said, were key to filling the business world’s increasing demand for speed. “The reason that you need typewriters in the workplace is for more accurate record keeping, faster record keeping,” he said. “You can’t have rows of guys with green cellophane visors sitting on stools, filling in ledgers by hand—that just doesn’t work any more. You need typewriters, you need carbon paper, you need filing systems, and you need efficient ways of moving information around once it’s been typed and standardized.”

And women were there to fill that role. Early Remington typewriters were marketed specifically to women; Wershler said the devices were modeled to look similar to the sewing machines of the era and were occasionally decorated with flowers. And so, the Peggy Olsons of the mid-20th century remained the keepers of the keyboard.

A number of people who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s learned to type in a high-school classroom. Many of these classes were “drawn along sexist lines,” said Norman Worthington, one of the creators of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a commercially successful computer program that combines games and lessons to teach touch typing. “If you were a woman possibly waiting for a role in the business world, you would often find yourself in the secretarial electives, learning how to type, and the boys would be out playing football.”

“Up to that point, computers were in glass houses with the computer priests that ran them.”

Some schools offered separate courses for business and personal typing, and there was a market for how-to books that provided aspiring typists with direction. After conversations with a number of people who learned to type around this time, though, it would seem that these relatively piecemeal approaches left aspiring typists with a lackluster education and a propensity to avoid touch typing. Instead, some Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers favor the hunt-and-peck method, which utilizes just two fingers and is vastly less efficient.

But then, in 1981, IBM launched its personal computer and completely shifted typing education. As the use of PCs accelerated through the last quarter of the century, so too did the inherent need to know how to use a keyboard. “What was happening was everybody—women, men, kids—was starting to get excited and interested in microcomputers,” Worthington said. “Up to that point, computers were in glass houses with the computer priests that ran them … But now, all of a sudden, you wanted to interact with this machine, and the primary method for interacting was a keyboard.”

The growth of the personal computer increased the utility of knowing how to type, and this growth coincided with the burgeoning era of computer and video games. As giants like Atari cashed in on programs like Pong, and aspiring business professionals acknowledged the need to know how to operate a keyboard, the gamification of learning to type flowed naturally.

Enter: Mavis Beacon.

Launched in 1987, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is a computer program that skyrocketed to popularity at the tail end of the 20th century. What set the program apart was its titular character, Mavis, an anthropomorphized feature that Worthington said provided users with the experience of “interacting with the distillation of an expert living in your computer.” Worthington, who designed the educational engine of the program, said the game’s core teaching function was initially based on the concept of bursts—if someone can learn to quickly type common words (such as a-r-e and t-h-e), then they will be able to accelerate their overall average typing pace.

However, another key insight Worthington said helped ingratiate the Mavis Beacon software into the typing curriculum was that the product was more engaging than its competitors. Through product tests, Worthington and his team discovered that a key metric for predicting success in learning to type is simply time spent practicing. So if users were happier while spending time with the program, they were also more likely to succeed in learning the skill.

People who used Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing spanned all ages and genders;  Worthington said the product was designed so older users would find the content amusing and younger users would remain engaged through the games built into the program. No longer was typing simply marketed as “women’s work.” Today, who learns to type is less a question of gender as it is one of age. The average age at which typing is taught seems to be decreasing, as many elementary and middle schools have computer courses for young learners.

At Birch Grove Primary School in Tolland, Connecticut, Lori D’Andrea is a computer-technology teacher who sees each kindergartener, first-grader, and second-grader once a week for 40 minutes. Though much of her curriculum revolves around increasing the students’ familiarity with computers, she does provide them with information on free typing programs they can practice with while they are at home. D’Andrea said she approaches typing education with such young learners in a relaxed way; she’s not particularly focused on the speed at which a 6-year-old can type.

“Let’s face it, computers aren’t going away.”

“They’re so young here—they’re 5, 6, 7, and 8,” D’Andrea said. “Typing when you’re that young? I think back to what I was doing when I was that young, and I have an old typewriter in the room, and they’re like, ‘What’s that?’ They have no idea.”

Part of the reason D’Andrea takes a more relaxed approach to teaching students to type is because her young students face physical barriers to typing that older kids simply do not. The pinky strength and dexterity required to reach certain keys is not something many 7-year-olds can muster. The distance from the semicolon key to the backslash is longer than a regular-sized paper clip on many keyboards—a space that is insurmountable for a child’s small hands. On top of that, D’Andrea pointed out that there are high-level processing skills required to operate a keyboard, and many first graders are not ready for them. For example, some of her students expressed confusion following the realization that although the letters on a keyboard are all uppercase, pushing the button results in a lowercase digit on-screen.

And yet, despite the physical and developmental impediments to teaching such young students to type, D’Andrea said certain testing metrics implore her to build up her students’ familiarity with the keyboard. The Common Core Standards state that, in third grade, students should be able to “use technology to produce and publish writing (using keyboarding skills).” On top of that, D’Andrea said her students take various tests on the computer that require some mouse and keyboard skills to complete. As standardized testing continues to go digital, D’Andrea said she wants to make sure the young students in her classes are equipped to succeed: “I tell the kids, ‘This is your practice to get used to taking tests on the computer.’ Because, let’s face it, computers aren’t going away. They’re going to have to take computerized tests … from now until they’re in high school.”

And so it would seem that the gendered past of typing education has broadly fallen away as the skill has become a prerequisite—even for the very young—to succeed. But D’Andrea’s point about the physical barriers for children learning to type is a good one, and as article after article decries the screen addiction plaguing society, one is left to wonder whether there is a limit to how low the age at which young people learn to type will fall. Add that to the notion that though there are free teaching programs available online, not every student has access to a computer at home. And as schools slug through funding issues and huge disparities in technological quality, it is clear that successfully learning to type is far from equitable. Though Gen-Z is supposedly populated with technology natives, learning to operate a keyboard requires more than just the push of a button.

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One Teacher’s View on Principals

Between the late-1950s and early 1970s, I taught social studies for 13 years in three different high schools in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C. That’s a long time ago and what I recall of those years about the principals under whom I served is spotty. Yet as I dredge up these memories, I want to focus on my experience as a teacher in relation to the four principals who headed the mostly Black schools in which I taught.

Since I never served as a principal, this blog post offers one teacher’s view of a very small sample of principals under whom I worked more than a half-century ago. Although I believe my experiences with principals may fit many high school teachers today, I have no direct evidence that it does. Readers who are teachers can tell me whether what I recount corresponds to their experiences.

My job was to teach five classes daily and interact with 150 or more students during the six hour school day. The principal’s main job, as I saw it then, was to organize schedules of 30-50 teachers who taught alongside me and insure that students were safe and well behaved between 8:30AM and 3PM. I saw the principal’s work through the narrow lens of a busy teacher consumed with teaching social studies lessons five times a day and managing large classes.

In the 13 years I taught in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C., I remember well the four principals who headed the schools in which I worked. For the most part, they concentrated on keeping the school safe and orderly. They helped students and teachers to the best of their capacities and resources.

Two of those four principals, however, went out of their way to help me and a few colleagues who worked with college-bound students. These high schools had high dropout rates and only a small fraction of students took courses preparing them for college admission.

While all of the social studies classes I taught in these high schools had some students who were eager for college or on the path to dropping out, most of the students were in the middle. In these classes I created lessons that drew on both the textbook and instructional materials I had written myself (e.g., one-pagers on John D. Rockefeller as both a “robber baron” and generous philanthropist). These handouts required students to take a stand and support their position with evidence drawn from the textbook and sources I had set aside in the school library. Although developing these curriculum materials was very demanding in time and energy, generating these lessons excited me.

There was a problem, however. At the time in these high schools, each social studies department member was given a few reams of paper for classroom use. I quickly used up my allocation. I needed more paper and access to a “ditto machine” to crank out the readings and assignments I gave students (please note these were the years before copy machines became fixtures in high schools)

And here is where two of the four principals I worked under helped me. I explained the situation about access to ditto masters, the machine, and paper; these principals gave me money to buy an extra “ditto machine,” masters, and more reams to produce my readings for students. I did not have to go through the rigamarole of submitting purchase orders through the district bureaucracy; I went to stores and got the materials and submitted the invoices to the principals. The other principals said that I would have to stay within the allocation that every teacher in the school lived with. In these two high schools, I bought the paper out of pocket.

I offer this reminiscence to make the obvious point that more than a half-century ago when I was teaching, two principals I worked under did go the extra step to help out a teacher ( I suspect that in each school I was not alone in getting such help). Then and now, I believe, there are other entrepreneurial teachers who seek to do the best for their students but need principals who support their classroom efforts with not only words but deeds.

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A Reformer’s Nightmare

Each of us has had nightmares in our lifetimes.

Here is one nightmare that a fervent school reformer might have.

I am in a classroom. The doors are locked. The windows have wooden blinds and slats are pulled shut. There are close to 50 adults sitting in bolted-down desks arranged in eight rows of arm-chair desks facing a teacher and whiteboard. I am sitting at a graffiti-rich desk at the end of the third row. The teacher looks like Miss Bowler, my eighth grade English teacher who had required each of us to recite “Abou Ben Adhem” publicly. In my dream, the Miss Bowler look-alike is berating us for not listening to the report that each adult is giving. She wants us to fold our hands on our scarred desks and give each “student” our fullest attention or, she says, we will not be able to leave the room….ever.

Miss Bowler begins by calling upon the first adult sitting in the first row next to the door who had reported yesterday–yes, in this nightmare we have been locked in this classroom for two days. After the first report, she will call upon the second person in the same row, and then the third. Ordinarily, I would have been able to figure out how long it would take before she would call upon me to walk to the front of the room except the teacher had said that the report could be as long as each of us wanted it to be. Yesterday, only three “students” gave their reports; it took 24 hours for them to finish. We were not allowed to go to the bathroom or eat meals.

And what were these reports about? Miss Bowler required us to report on school reforms that would solve the problems of U.S. education in a competitive global economy. When we were all finished, she would unlock the door and we could leave the room. The class was made up of every stripe of school reformer from progressives who wanted to drop standardized testing and adopt project-based learning to centrists who believed that schools could be improved incrementally from inside the system to market-based entrepreneurs who ranged from charter school and voucher lovers to public school-haters and high-tech enthusiasts in love with remote instruction.

The first reformer reported on online schooling, giving the class example after example of lessons from online courses offered at top universities, state-sponsored cyber-academies, and for-profit companies. She described what had occurred after the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the expansion of online instruction. The reformer told us about such courses as “Artificial Intelligence for Dummies,” “Shakespeare’s Worst Plays,” “The History of Quantum Physics from Archimedes to Richard Feynman,” and “Skin Care for Boys and Girls.”

That presentation on a portable interactive white board took 10 hours.

The second reformer took six hours. He told the class about his new algorithm for evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores. The equation had 62 variables in it (appearing on a transparency he had made for the old overhead projector in the room). The reformer, gaining enthusiasm with every variable he introduced, proceeded to lecture on each one in the algorithm ending with a gush of words about how implementing this evaluation plan through 180 daily observations of teachers would determine which teachers were highly effective, which were just effective, those who were mediocre, and, finally, those who should be fired.

The third reformer got up and passed out a 40-page stapled copy of 152 slides for a PowerPoint presentation that she was going to give on what the research has shown thus far on how standardized testing had ruined public schools. She then proceeded to read each bullet-point on each slide as we followed her word-for-word on the printed copy. Each slide was a study of how tests had constricted the curriculum and forced teachers into test prep lessons. Slides detailed the research design, the methodology, the findings, and the outcomes for both students and teachers. That non-stop, unhurried presentation took eight hours.

That was yesterday. Now, Miss Bowler told us we would re-start the presentations on online instruction, teacher evaluation, and ending standardized tests since we had lagged in our attention yesterday. How long it would be before it was my turn, I did not know. Could Miss Bowler, after hearing the three presentations a second time, castigate all of us for insufficient attention and have the reformers repeat it the following day? I did not know.

But I feared–a cold sweat bathed me–how many more days I would have to sit at my desk with folded hands listening to reformer after reformer lecture on how best to solve the U.S.’s national problem of failing schools.

The reformer woke up screaming. It was his worst nightmare.

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The Paradox of Increasing Efficiency Yet Becoming More Inefficient

Introducing an innovation to increase efficiency ending up with more inefficiency is a paradox. Most obviously, it occurs in transportation: fuel efficient cars that get more miles per gallon of gas than before end up multiplying demand for more such vehicles putting more cars on roads spouting gases into the air*.

Are there jobs in which there are few gains in productivity–that is, workers produce more at less cost–yet wages of these “unproductive” workers rise over time? Readers of this blog know that I will answer “yes” to the rhetorical question.

Think of a string quartet playing to a live audience 300 years ago. The number of musicians and the time they needed to play a Beethoven sonata in the late 18th century haven’t changed, yet today’s quartets playing the same sonata in the same amount of time make far more than those four musicians centuries ago. Why is that?

Economists William Baumol and William Bowen used that example in their 1966 article to make the point that in certain people-dependent, service-driven, labor-intensive occupations such as the arts, health care, and education there are few productivity increases (e.g., musicians are not paid to play Beethoven sonatas faster nor are teachers paid more to teach history faster). Traditionally, factory and business employers raise wages for workers as a result of new technologies and managerial techniques that increase employee productivity–making and selling more products at less cost than before. Higher wages usually follow gains in worker productivity.

No so for labor-intensive work. The technology used to play for live audiences, teach students, and care for patients leaves hardly any room for labor-saving innovations to increase efficiency since the product is actually the labor of the musician, teacher, and care-giver. But to retain experienced, talented, and hard-working artists, teachers, and health care workers and to keep them playing, teaching, and taking care of the elderly and ill, salaries go up over time. This paradox of efficiency is called “Baumol’s Cost Disease.”

In applying Baumol’s Cost Disease to education, additional paradoxes of efficiency turn up, for example, around class size and applying technologies to teaching and learning.

Class size

A most common move to increase efficiency of teaching in both K-12 and higher education is to make classes larger–one way of skirting “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” As one researcher in the late-1920s put it: Larger classes make for fewer teachers and lower building costs. Increasing the size of classes, then, offers an obvious and tempting means to immediate educational economy.

How large or small class size should be–without losing “effectiveness” however measured–has continually been contested. Researchers at all levels of schooling have done comparison studies since the early 20th century (see here here, here, and here) to determine exactly what class size is both efficient and effective. Research findings in the early 21st century remain contested for the simple reason that while the costs of providing teachers in classrooms drops as a district increases class size, questions of teacher effectiveness in achieving desired student outcomes arise time and again (see here and here).

Historically, class sizes in urban schools in the early 20th century ran to 50-plus students and have fallen each decade until they range in the 20s to 30s.  In most K-12 instances, both parents and teachers sought smaller class size, often to sizes below 20 students per class because they believed that smaller classes would give teachers time to build relationships with students, work with individuals, and boost students’ academic outcomes. As class sizes dropped, costs for hiring additional teachers and finding space for those smaller classes rose. And that is the paradox of efficiency that policymakers have found themselves in repeatedly when it comes to class size.

Another bind in which policymakers find themselves is not knowing what the exact number of students per class is best insofar as measures of academic achievement. A tradeoff between efficiency and effectiveness continues to plague policymakers although most practitioners and parents urge smaller class size than now exists.

In higher education, increasing institutional efficiency in the face of rising tuition costs and low faculty teaching loads was to have more lectures for hundreds of students in first two years of college and reserve seminars for 15-25 students in the final years of an undergraduate’s career and graduate school. And now to increase efficiency, offering  online courses is believed to reduce costs and provide access to professors.

Increasing class size through scheduling large lectures in introductory courses, reserving seminars for advanced students and increasing online instruction–are efficiency measures that often end up in students frustrated in having little contact with professors, questioning the effectiveness of larger classes and online learning while turning off students to the course content they seek to learn. So decreasing or increasing class size in both K-12 schools and higher education lead to greater inefficiencies.

New technologies

And, of course, there is increased use of new technologies, the all-purpose solution to inefficiency.  There is little doubt, even among skeptics, that computerization of the administrative side of schooling–personnel actions, budgeting, purchasing, and collecting student data–have been streamlined and desks piled high with records and folders have decreased yet the numbers of administrators both in K-12 schools and in higher education have increased. Similarly, on the curricular and instructional side of schooling, the paradox of efficiency has become apparent. Examples abound.

Online courses in K-12 and higher education have been touted as being cost-efficient and cost-effective for decades—especially during closure of schools during the recent pandemic of 2020-2022. But proliferation of such courses have raised questions among current and prospective students if that kind of instruction and teacher contact is worthwhile and efficient. The belly-flop of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) a decade ago with its high attrition among students have added to those doubts as has the continuing spread of online classes and numbers of students who fail to complete courses. Technologically induced efficiency may well lead to larger inefficiencies in dropouts and frustrated teachers and students.

✠With standardized tests now largely online, districts have spent additional funds beyond buying devices and new software (and maintaining both before they sink into obsolescence).   Dollars are spent to train students and teachers to use online tests (see here and here).

✠“Personalized learning,” the Holy Grail of efficient teaching, that is each lesson is tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each student has been the dream of school reformers for decades. With the flow of tablets, laptops, and phones into schools for instructional use, the day of efficiency has seemingly dawned.

In the quest to make teaching faster and better, a wealth of technological devices and software have been mobilized and put into classrooms. In the name of efficiency and effectiveness, current students have far more access to technologies than students 40 years ago when they were initially introduced. Although test scores and other measures of academic achievement have only marginally improved, the gap between low-income and upper-middle class white and minority students remains pretty much the same as it has been decades ago.

Moreover, the same gap in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or Nation’s Report Card can be seen in the recent drop in fourth and eighth grade student scores in reading and math. Those results, of course, are in part due to school closures from the Covid-19 pandemic. But the racial and ethnic gap in students’ test scores remain similar to what that gap was in recent decades.

Thus, schooling over the past few decades reaffirm another instance of seeking efficient teaching and learning leading to inefficiency.

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*Some readers may point to the jump in sales of electric vehicles over the past decade eventually leading to gasoline-powered cars fading away. Perhaps. Currently, 99 percent of all American cars use gasoline.

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How One School Is Beating the Odds in Math, the Pandemic’s Hardest-Hit Subject (Sarah Mervosh)

Sarah Mervosh is a national reporter at The New York Times covering education with a focus on children, families and the educators who serve them from preschool through 12th grade. She previously covered the coronavirus pandemic and breaking news for The Times and was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News. She grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from the University of Notre Dame.

This article appeared October 15, 2022

It’s just after lunchtime, and Dori Montano’s fifth-grade math class is running on a firm schedule.

In one corner of the classroom, Ms. Montano huddles with a small group of students, working through a lesson about place value: Is 23.4 or 2.34 the bigger number? Nearby, other students collaborate to solve a “math mystery.” All the while, Ms. Montano watches the time.

At 1:32 p.m., she presses a buzzer, sending students shuffling: “Ladies and gentleman, switch please!”

This is what pandemic recovery looks like at Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Meriden, Conn., where students are showing promising progress in math, a subject that was hit hard during the shift to remote learning, even more so than reading.

The school’s math progress may not look like much: a small improvement amounting to a single decimal point increase from spring 2019 to the spring of this year, according to state test results.

But by pandemic standards, it was something of a minor miracle, holding steady when test scores nationally have fallen, particularly among low-income, Black and Hispanic students, the children that Franklin serves. About three in four students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a majority are Hispanic, Black or multiracial.

The groundwork was laid before the pandemic, when Franklin overhauled how math was taught.

It added as much as 30 minutes of math instruction a day. Students in second grade and above now have more than an hour, and fourth and fifth graders have a full 90 minutes, longer than is typical for many schools. Students no longer have lessons dominated by a teacher writing problems on a white board in front of the class. Instead, they spend more time wrestling with problems in small groups. And, for the first time, children who are behind receive math tutoring during the school day.

Any one of the changes may seem small. But pulling them off required an almost herculean effort and cultural shifts at every level. District officials needed to shake up teaching methods and the school day to maximize instruction time; principals needed to enforce the changes and teachers had to accept having less autonomy.

“In the old way, it was, Open your textbook and sit there and be bored,” said Dan Crispino, the director of school leadership who oversaw changes at Franklin and other elementary schools in Meriden, a former manufacturing town with about 8,500 students in its public schools.

By his own admission, the changes did not always make Mr. Crispino popular.

“They had a wanted sign — dead or alive — for me all over the district,” he joked, though a certain truth remained. After all, he was telling teachers how to do their jobs, sometimes down to the minute.

The results are still early, but Franklin offers a glimpse of just how much it may take to help students catch up amid the pandemic — and how far there is to go.

When federal officials release national test results for fourth and eighth graders on Oct. 24, educators expect to see stark declines from 2019. Even before Covid, American students trailed global competitors in math, and too many children performed below grade level, with alarming gaps in outcomes that often left low-income students and students of color behind.

Today, at Franklin, about 45 percent of students are proficient in math, in line with state averages. Yet an hour south in New Canaan, a wealthier, whiter district with a median household income of about $190,000, elementary students have almost double the math proficiency rate, at about 85 percent. Like other states, Connecticut has significant disparities in school funding that mean Meriden’s spending per student is among the lowest in the state.

“The bottom line is that school districts across the country have their work cut out for them,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “We have such a significant achievement gap in performance in this country between the haves and the have-nots, and that gap was made even greater by the pandemic.”

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Cartoons about University Professors

Over the years, I have published a monthly feature of cartoons about many aspect of the institution of schooling and the practice of teaching in the U.S. While I have focused on K-12 public schools, occasionally I would find cartoons that would skewer university professors.

Because I have taught both in K-12 public schools (14 years) and a university (20 years), I experienced the ups-and-downs of teaching teenagers and young adults in class and online. For this month, then, I have gathered cartoons that got me grinning about university teaching. I hope they will occasion a smile, maybe a chuckle, or even a knee-slapper. Enjoy!

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“Schooling Is Important but It’s Not All-important”

In  early  2022, Carrie Spector, a Stanford University staff member interviewed me about my most recent book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” Printed interview appeared March 9, 2022  in “Research Stories,” a publication of The Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Your new book is equal parts memoir and historical analysis. Why did you choose to take such a personal approach?

I’ve written about school reform historically for years, but at some point it came to me that I’ve actually lived through the three major reform movements of the 20th century: the Progressive movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the business-inspired “standards, testing and accountability” movement. That insight grabbed me, and I thought, that’s a basis for a book — a nice way to blend the personal with the analytical.

Education reform is often touted as the answer to many problems in society, but you take serious issue with that. Why? 

Reforming schools is not a magical way to reform society. You reform schools in order to make them better for the kids and the teachers. That’s a good reason to reform schools — but if you think that somehow school reform is going to improve society, you’re exaggerating the role of schools in our society. 

Schools don’t alter a capitalistic democratic society. They mirror it. And schooling is only one part of a person’s life. About 20 percent of a child’s time is spent in the classroom; the vast majority is spent at home, in neighborhoods, and other places with family and friends. 

I’m not saying schools don’t matter. Schooling is important, but it’s not all-important. It took me many years to arrive at that conclusion, and I came to it uneasily. 

Why was it hard to recognize that? 

I came into teaching because I thought teaching was a noble occupation where you can have an impact on young people. I still believe that, but I realized I had characterized an exaggerated version of my influence. 

In looking at my own life and the events that have shaped me, school is one, but other events have had a much more momentous impact. The Great Depression, World War II, getting polio, moving into different neighborhoods, my relationships with family and friends — these are what I recall most vividly, and what I believe touched me more than what I took away from schooling.

I’m always taken by the conversations people have at parties about the best teacher they ever had. In every generation of teachers, there are many who connect with individual kids in their classrooms, be it kindergarten or advanced placement calculus in high school. They form relationships that have an enormous influence on those kids as they become adults. That’s what gives me optimism about schooling and its influence, even though the school machinery is one that I’m highly critical of and think ought to change.

What would you most like to see change? 

For all the rhetoric about school reform, public schools have been organized the same way for the past 150 years — as age-graded schools where every teacher has a classroom and is expected to cover a certain portion of the curriculum. Teachers have to make sure they maintain control of student behavior, insure that students absorb curricular content, and test them as the kids march up the the escalator of the graded school.

But children and youth learn at different speeds. Some pick up a subject more quickly and get bored easily, so a multi-age group is more sensible – kids can help one another, and it fits their learning pattern. But our existing machinery of schooling makes that hard to do.

What do you think it will take to make that happen?

I don’t see it changing in a wholesale way, but I see it happening in a retail way. Every effort to get rid of the age-graded school wholesale has failed. But there are schools and groups of parents and teachers who look at schooling in a different way and say, We ought to build on how kids learn at different speeds and organize school around that.

Schools do change — but in incremental, not fundamental, ways. Most of these changes have occurred from political and economic movements outside of schools. These movements have spilled over onto schools, but not to the degree that reformers and wannabe reformers want to believe.

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Wrestling with the Word: “Traditional”

“School reform” in American history has a long tortuous history. Invariably, efforts to improve public schooling sprouted during widespread national reforms such as the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, the civil rights struggle in mid-20th century, and business-driven attempts to harness schooling to the economy in the closing decades of the same century.

Invariably, these reformers trotted out the word “traditional” for institutions and practices that had to change. For those familiar with Ngrams, note that the rise and fall of the phrase “traditional schools” track the above reform movements.

None of the language used and vigorous reform efforts to improve American schools surprise historians of education familiar with the century-and-a-half changes that have occurred in U.S. schools. Reformers have often touted innovations in education as ending “traditional” schooling or “traditional” teaching.

The word “traditional,” then, in a culture that prizes new ideas and gadgets, that richly rewards invention and praises bending well-established norms–often has a negative ring to it.

This issue of school reform ending “traditional” schooling reminded me of when I was teaching graduate school seminars to masters and doctoral students on school reform nearly a decade ago.

One class session, one of my students startled me as she was presenting her project report to our seminar. She said that I was teaching a “traditional” course in our seminar. Where did this come from?

The student’s project for my seminar was to do research on a “flipped” course that she was taking along with 40,000 other students in the world called a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Very popular in universities a decade ago, a “flipped” class meant that students on their own time see videos of professors lecturing rather than during the actual class meeting.

Then when the class would meet, the professor would have groups of students work together, report on their projects, and have informed discussions. Thus, a “flipped” class mixed online instruction for homework with a seminar where the professor and students explore concepts, raise questions, collaborate with one another, and practice analytic skills. That was the idea. How much it appeared in actual practice, no one knows.

But what surprised me was her comparison of that innovative course to the class I was teaching. She said my seminar was “traditional” as opposed to the “flipped” course she and the other students were taking. I did not sense criticism in the word and I felt none. She had compared the two courses and clearly my seminar was “traditional” compared to the “flipped one.”

To be quite honest, I had not thought that my seminar was “traditional.” I did not lecture for 30 or 40 minutes. While I did structure the class around central questions for the seminar to answer, I had small groups and pairs of students wrestle with data I presented to them or that appeared in the readings they had had for that day’s seminar. I would have groups report out their findings and discuss the results. Often I would ask open-ended questions and then have students make a forced choice on the options I presented them and followed up with questions that got at the reasons for their answers.

Yes, I did have a syllabus. Yes, students had readers and they were expected to have completed the selections prior to our twice weekly seminar. Yes, I planned the questions and activities for our sessions of an hour and 50 minutes each. Yes, I guided the discussion with the questions although on many occasions, student responses took the discussion in a direction I had not anticipated. And, yes, I made all of the decisions on which question I would pursue with the group, who to call upon, and when to segue to the next activity.

When you add up all of my “yesses,” the student’s description of the seminar as a “traditional” course was accurate insofar as compared to a “flipped” course.

So why was I startled by my seminar being characterized, innocently to be sure, as “traditional?” I suspect that it is the word itself that got to me. As a high school teacher for many years, as a professor for decades, and as a researcher who delved into the many reform efforts to alter how teachers have taught over the past century, the word “traditional” still had connotations that bothered me.

To me, traditional meant boring classes. Traditional meant that the teacher was the fount of all knowledge and authority. Traditional meant that students were passive listeners.

Yet as both a high school teacher and university researcher I had seen peers and other teachers masterfully teach “traditional” lessons where students were thoroughly engaged, rapt with attention, and deeply involved in the activities that the teacher had prepared.

What it came down to was that as a reform-minded teacher and administrator for decades in public schools I had styled myself as someone who was non-traditional in both the way I taught and the reforms I sought out in curriculum, instruction, school organization, and governance.

“Traditional” was a negatively-charged word. Among reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, the word meant the hide-bound past, boring lessons, teacher-controlled classrooms, and little learning. It was the opposite of constructivist, progressive teachers and principals who sought student-centered learning.

With the current spread of online learning, blended schools, and “flipped” classes “traditional” has come again to mean everything thought to be ineffective and tiresome in teaching and learning.

I was surprised (but not disturbed) by my student’s comment because I, too, had become caught up in the reform rhetoric that dirtied the word “traditional.” Of course, that is foolish. When applied to teaching, “traditional” covers a wide range of lessons and classroom experiences that have diverse effects on both teachers and students–some thrive in such settings, some make-do, and others shrivel.

I surely knew that before my student labeled my seminar “traditional.” I just had to learn it again.

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Why I Changed My Mind on Teaching Thinking Skills

In the fifth year of my teaching at Cleveland’s Glenville high school–it was the early 1960s–I had already introduced materials to my classes on what was then called “Negro history” (see here and here). I then began experimenting with the direct teaching of critical thinking skills.

I believed that such skills were crucial in negotiating one’s way through life and understanding history. I wanted my students to acquire and use these skills every day. So I began teaching my U.S. history courses with a two-week unit on thinking skills. My theory was that the students learning these skills at the very beginning of the semester would then apply them when I began teaching units on the American Revolution, Immigration, Sectionalism and the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution.

In the two-week unit, I selected skills I believed were important for understanding the past such as: judging how reliable a source of information is, figuring out the difference between a fact and opinion, making hunches about what happened, and sorting evidence that would support or contradict each hunch, and distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information in reaching a conclusion.

For each of these skills, I chose a contemporary event–a criminal case in the local newspaper, a national scandal that was on television, and occurrences in the school–and wrote out a one-page story that would require each student to apply the particular skill we were discussing such as making an informed guess, collecting evidence to support their hunch, and reaching a judgment. I also gave the class additional sources they could use to support their conclusion.

Each 45-minute period–I was teaching five classes a day at the time–was filled with engaged students participating in flurries of discussion, debates over evidence, student questioning of each others’ conclusions, and similar excitement. I was elated by the apparent success of my critical thinking skills unit.

After the two weeks of direct instruction in skills, I plunged into the Coming of the American Revolution and subsequent history material. From time to time, over the course of the semester, I would ask questions that I felt would prompt use of those thinking skills we had worked on earlier in the year.

Blank stares greeted me with an occasional “Oh yeah” from some students. I designed homework that explicitly called for use of these thinking skills. Yet few students applied what I thought they had learned. I was thoroughly puzzled.

Which brings me to the concept of transfer. I had assumed that teaching these thinking skills directly at the very beginning of the semester would lead students to apply them when I began teaching subsequent history units. Yet the transfer was not happening. How come?

TRANSFER OF LEARNING

Transfer of learning appears to be a simple concept. What you learn in the family or learn in school  can be applied in different situations outside of the family and the classroom. Learning to get along with an older brother or sister, for example, helps in learning how to get along with others later in life. Learning math in middle school helps one in high school physics. Sadly enough, it doesn’t always work that way.

That two-week unit on specific critical thinking skills useful to understand history and use in daily life did not smoothly transfer to the rest of the units in history. The skills I believed that I had taught my students weeks earlier were missing in action for subsequent units on the American Revolution, Civil War, and Imperialism . Root canal work was easier than getting students to distinguish between a biased source and one less so or explain why certain statements were opinions, not facts. Where had I erred?

In time, I discovered from reading psychologists about the ins-and-outs of transfer of learning (see, for example, here). Teaching specific critical thinking skills and expecting students to apply what they learned to different situations depended upon many conditions that were, I learned later, missing in my lessons. Even the concept of teaching these skills isolated from the historical content–as I did–undermined the very goal I wanted to achieve (see CritThink).

Nonetheless, puzzled as I was by most students failing to apply what they had learned in the later history units, I still taught for the next few years that two week unit on critical thinking at the beginning of the semester, marching through the lessons, one skill after another. I repeated again and again this unit because the students were engaged, loved to apply what they learned to their daily lives, and I felt good at the end of the school day. An uncommon experience for a veteran teacher.

Even had a colleague I trusted then grabbed me by the shoulders and told me how foolish I was to think that my students would transfer the skills they learned in the two-week unit to subsequent history units, I would not have believed that colleague.  I would have continued with what I considered a “best practice” that, in reality, had become a “bad” habit.

And this is where the Kennedy Assassination unit that I and a group of colleagues taught to 15 classes in Cardozo high school in 1966 enters the picture. I and my co-teachers soon came to realize that the transfer of thinking skills were not in much evidence in the U.S. history units that we subsequently taught to our classes. Yes, it took me years—using introductory skill-based units at Glenville and Cardozo high schools– for that realization to sink in: thinking skills had to be taught within the historical content students were studying for them to apply those skills. I could not magically count on transfer of learning.

But it was in the crucible of my classroom (and others at Cardozo) that proved to me finally, that–separate units for thinking skills—-simply did not work. I had to change what I was doing. And I did.

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Teachers Creating Instructional Materials: The Kennedy Assassination

As a novice U.S. history teacher in Cleveland (OH) in the mid-1950s, I began designing lessons that contained sources absent from students’ textbooks. While I used the textbook for most lessons, I developed materials about race in the U.S. that would add to (and eventually replace) textbook lessons. Then called Negro history, these lessons and units largely used primary sources (e.g., accounts by former slaves about pre-Civil War life on plantations; letters written by black soldiers serving in the Civil War).

For most of my students (but clearly not all), these new materials and lessons seemed to work, that is, there was more student participation in class discussions, they asked questions, and many wanted to learn more about events and people in the sources I used. They connected events together and began using evidence to support their interpretations of what occurred in the past. I was pleased.

Designing lessons and units, however, while exhilarating, also exhausted me since I was teaching five classes of 30-plus students daily. I began to think that teachers, with a reduced class schedule, could also experience the excitement and, yes, joy, of designing lessons and putting them into practice within their own classrooms. I began to think that developing instructional materials would improve both teaching and student learning as it seemingly had in my classes.

I reasoned that if this largely worked for me with predominately minority and poor students, it would work for all teachers. I was becoming a reformer fixed upon improving teaching through teachers developing their own lessons and units. Yes, I was generalizing from my experience, a common tic among reformers; it was a view of how to improve teaching and learning that I eventually gave up. But in the mid-1960s to the early- 1970s, I was a true believer in improving schooling through-teachers creating lessons and units for their classes.

In 1963, I left Glenville high school to become a master teacher of history in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching in Washington, D.C. At Cardozo high school, working with Peace Corp Volunteers who had returned from overseas and were preparing to become certified teachers in the District, I had a chance to put my ideas into practice. The paid interns taught only two social studies classes (as did I, their master teacher). The mission of the Project expected them to teach, work in the community, and, here’s the kicker, develop instructional materials for their two classes. And that is what we did.

One of the teacher-developed units we developed in 1965-1966 was aimed at teaching thinking and writing skills. Based on the 1964 Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination, I, Jay Mundstuk, and Ike Jamison worked over a summer to develop the eight-lesson unit. The subject matter was still fresh in our students’ minds and whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin or part of a conspiracy that planned the President’s murder was being debated constantly whenever the subject arose in classes.

President John F. Kennedy with First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, in rear of limousine, November 22, 1963

We wanted to teach those reasoning skills which would be needed in all social studies courses as well as on the street and in the home. We wanted a subject that would grab our students and engage their minds in trying to figure out answers to uneasy questions. The Kennedy Assassination became the subject matter.

Material in the popular media was abundant; testimony before the Warren Commission was available as was the deluge of attacks and defenses heaped upon the conclusions of the Commission (e.g., Oswald was the shooter and acted alone). Moreover, in 1965 the memory of President Kennedy was very dear to many of our teenage students. Students in our classes named Kennedy as the best President ever. Mystery still surrounded Lee Harvey Oswald. His role in the assassination piqued our students’ curiosity. We named the unit: “Who Killed Kennedy?”

The unit was organized into a series of lessons the first of which raised the question of how do we know who the assassin was.  The question got students to state their beliefs initially and, as the unit unfolded, they began to question their beliefs when we presented them with available evidence from the Warren Commission and a few of the conspiracy-driven articles and books that appeared within months of the assassination.

As the students sorted through the evidence, we worked to have them use different thinking skills that were built into the unit’s seven lessons:

*How to make and verify hypotheses (we called them hunches).

*How to evaluate the reliability of sources of evidence.

*How to draw inferences from a set of facts.

*How to weigh evidence and use it in support of a conclusion.

*How to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information in reaching conclusions.

The overall purpose of the unit was not to “prove” Oswald innocent or guilty.

Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald while in police custody following the assassination of President Kennedy, November 24, 1963

The purpose was to get students to read carefully and judge the credibility of available sources, come up with hunches about who killed Kennedy, use evidence to reach a conclusion, and be able to defend their conclusions. We were more concerned with the process of reaching a conclusion and creating an explanation for what happened–a process embodied in the above skills–than the conclusion itself.

Teaching thinking skills such as the five listed above was central to my work as a history teacher. And because I could close my classroom door, I had the autonomy to teach the state-required content interlaced with these critical skills.

But teaching thinking skills directly to students so that they could use them in subsequent units I taught such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization and immigration does not take into consideration the importance of “transfer of learning.” A lesson that became apparent to me when I began to teach high school juniors a separate unit of thinking skills.

The next post takes up the lesson I learned about teaching critical thinking skills directly to students at the beginning of each school year.

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