Tag Archives: how teachers teach

Teachers, Learning Styles, and Using Data to Drive Instruction

Everyone likes data that back their prejudices. Academics call it “confirmation bias.” It runs rife among U.S. Presidents, state governors, legislators, school district policymakers, and Moms and Dads. I include myself in the crowd. People with beliefs on one or the other side of an issue lean heavily on examples and evidence that supports their view of, say, gun control, dieting, the worth of alternative medicine or the two-shooter theory in the Kennedy assassination. Resisting confirmation bias and being open-minded, a process that is closer to sandpaper rather than a soft pillow, requires awareness of one’s beliefs, values and positions on issues. It is hard work and requires attention in what one chooses to read, listen to, and think because it is far easier to screen out or avoid contrary information. Convenience often trumps thinking. All of this is also true for teachers. Consider the issue of  data-driven instruction and learning styles.

Gurus, vendors, and policymakers urge teachers to use test data such as research results and experts’ lists of “best practices” in their daily lessons (see here and here). The record of actual teacher use of data in classrooms however, is, at best, spotty. What happens, then, when research evidence overwhelmingly goes against deeply-held teacher beliefs in “learning styles?”

The most recent and detailed reviews of the literature on learning styles reveals little support for providing materials that play to the auditory, visual, tactile, and other ways that students learn (see here and here). Yet teacher beliefs about the importance of differentiating instruction to meet students’ varied interests, attitudes, abilities, and “styles” continue to be unflagging (see here).

Making sense of the contradiction between using data to drive classroom decisions and the poverty of studies that support “learning style”

So many teachers and studies have claimed–the operative phrase is “research shows”–that learning styles exist and differentiating instruction to match varied “styles” will lead to higher academic achievement (see here and here). Yet meta-analyses of available research has found little concrete evidence of such linkages. Even more so, the research on student learning styles is often deeply flawed in both design and methodology. Researchers have concluded:

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.
There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for [causal links between styles and achievement]…. Al-
though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
A less jargony and concise analysis of learning styles and connections to student outcomes can be found in psychologist Daniel Willingham’s Q & A on the subject (see here).
So what’s going on here? Are teacher beliefs so powerful as to overcome strong findings that challenge those very beliefs? The answer is, unsurprisingly, yes. Not only do teacher beliefs in learning styles trump evidence but similar tensions between beliefs and data-driven decisions occur around direct instruction, multiple intelligences, and holding students back for a semester or year and other practices. But teachers, of course, are not the only professionals to succumb to confirmation bias. Doctors, lawyers, software engineers–name the profession–have similar issues. In short, the practice is pervasive among professionals and average folk.
If such cognitive bias is rife among the highly and barely educated, where does that leave data-driven instructional decisions as a “best practice?” Such biases mean, at least to me, that for any reforms aimed at teaching and learning the very first step is to deal openly and directly with the varied beliefs (and assumptions) that teachers have about their content knowledge, how best to teach that content to the young, and how do children learn more and better. These beliefs influence teacher choices of daily activities, instructional materials, arranging classroom furniture, what subject-matter and skills to teach, and grouping of students.
Without attention to teacher beliefs, confirmation bias will continue to go unnoticed as it so often does among physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and software developers. And data-driven instruction will remain lofty rhetoric rather than classroom realities.


Filed under how teachers teach

Math, History, and Science: Political Battlegrounds in Schools

The previous post offers a re-framing of the math wars that have marked the past century of teaching math. Historians and critics have pointed to the culprits of “curriculum wars” as Progressives fighting Traditionalists (e.g., 1900s, 1960s, now) or the influence of particular “thought leaders” (e.g., John Dewey, James Conant, Ted Sizer). In re-framing these tired tropes, Christopher Phillips points out that these debates about teaching and learning math are,

debates about how educated citizens should think generally. Whether it is taught as a collection of facts, as a set of problem-solving heuristics or as a model of logical deduction, learning math counts as learning to reason. That is, in effect, a political matter, and therefore inherently contestable. Reasonable people can and will disagree about it.

By seeing these cyclical “math wars” as political skirmishes between different interest groups (e.g., teachers, high-tech companies, foundation officials, state administrators, business leaders, parents) disputing which ways are best for teachers to teach and students to learn thinking skills, Phillips makes the case that

[A]s long as learning math counts as learning to think, the fortunes of any math curriculum will almost certainly be closely tied to claims about what constitutes rigorous thought — and who gets to decide.

Overall, I agree. Splits over the teaching of Common Core math standards essentially arise from politics in schooling. But one crucial item is missing from Phillips’ analysis. He fails to mention that deeper and competing values beyond math numeracy are also involved as rival interests collide (e.g., conservative groups’ resistance to the federal government supposed ramming Common Core standards down states’ throats; liberal groups’ insistence that top-down policy decisions to craft higher and demanding standards is essential for students, especially low-income minority ones, to do better academically). Such value conflicts go beyond which ways of teaching and learning skills though math are better. They point to the politics of who decides about adopting Common Core math standards and putting them into practice.

Decisions about what constitutes rigorous thought and the adoption of standards are, then, political. One needs to look no further than the history, design, and adoption of Common Core standards to see how national, state, and local politics of decision-making played out at each level of schooling (see here, here, and here). That teachers, parents, and reformers continue to debate math Common Core standards is evident today as they recycle familiar arguments from earlier reforms (see here, here, here, and here).

As political decisions determine how math is taught in kindergarten, middle school, and Algebra II, so have politics come into play in teaching and learning U.S. history.

In the mid-1990s, the battle over new history standards culminated in a U.S. Senate resolution condemning these new standards. This was neither the first nor last time that political controversy over what history content students should study. For example, the swings between teaching history to cultivate loyalty to nation and civic participation and teaching history as historians practice their craft have occurred repeatedly and remains in play in 2015 (see here, here, here, and here).

Ditto for science. The more obvious political decisions that have occurred over the last century have been over the teaching of evolution and climate change (see here and here). Beneath such controversies, however, have been two distinct purposes for teaching science that have vied for attention over the past century. First, students must come to know bodies of organized scientific knowledge and, second, students must see science in their daily lives. Of the two aims, the former has dominated curricula since the late 19th century, although the latter purpose has been evident in periodic bursts of reform, especially during the past century. As with the teaching of evolution and now with climate change, policymakers have made political decisions on what’s best for students in learning science (see here and here).

The dominance of content divided into separate scientific disciplines is (and has been) obvious in most U.S. secondary schools where science lessons are taught in 45- to 50-minute periods, and where teacher-centered instruction is geared to dispensing scientific information to 25-35 students. The quest to link scientific knowledge to daily life-the second purpose-emerged strongly in the 1930s, and 1990s, occasionally penetrating classroom practice. Schools experimented with reorganizing their age-graded structures, revised schedules, and invented curriculum linkages between classrooms and daily life—“kitchen chemistry”–that differed substantially from what most secondary schools were doing. Over time, such efforts disappeared. Yet now with newly published science standards–a political decision made as competing groups vied for their version of science– there is another progressive impulse in revising curriculum toward linking how scientists work and scientific content to daily life (see here, here, and here).

Decisions on what math, history, and science get taught in schools (and why) end up being political choices that policymakers make.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

“Good” and “Successful” Teaching: Where Does the Student Enter the Picture?

The singular and important role of the classroom teacher in getting students to learn is well established in the research literature (see here and here). I have no quarrel with that frequent finding (whatever the metrics) to confirm that teachers are instrumental to student learning.  What is far less clear is what part do five to 18 year-old students play in the chemistry of learning.

It is a question that I have puzzled over in my many years teaching high school and graduate courses. And I have no certainty in answering it.

For some teachers, as one told me after I observed his mediocre lesson, “I was selling but the students weren’t buying,” students bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. They are expected to come to class, obey the rules, do the homework, participate in discussions, and do well on tests. Those are students’ responsibilities. Other teachers (and policymakers) see it differently, that is, teachers bear full responsibility for motivating students, insuring that they have the classroom resources to succeed, and hammering home what has to be learned. Teachers, researchers, policymakers, and parents would quibble if one were to allocate percentages, for example, for the teacher is–to pick arbitrarily a number–70 percent and the student is, say again, 30 percent responsible. The uncertainty over percentages occurs because of different meanings attached to such phrases as “good” and “successful” teaching and learning.

Consider that “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of what observers call “quality” teaching. To lead us through the thicket of complexity in meaning, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher’s and Virginia Richardson’s explanation (hereafter F & R).

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

F & R point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching. In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning.

Policymakers snooker the public by squishing together”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. Current hoopla over paying teachers for performance is the most recent conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning. Such a marriage of separate concepts ultimately deceives parents, voters, and students by suggesting that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

So those current policymakers and eager reformers who recite the mantra of “no excuses” for students’ low performance place entire responsibility (100 percent) for learning on the teacher’s shoulders. And it is here that I want to look more closely at the student’s part in the learning process to restore the critical distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning described above.

Other teachers and researchers have written about the sharing of responsibility for “good” learning (see here, here, here, and here). Most observers do see the importance of students playing a small-to-large role in their own learning. Those who champion student-centered instruction (e.g., project-based teaching, “personalized” and “blended” lessons) see students taking responsibility for their own learning through self-regulation, giving tough tasks a second, even a third try, and similar independent behaviors. But such behaviors do not need to occur only in student-centered classrooms. For those teachers more comfortable with directed lessons they teach, here too student responsibilities beyond showing up and being quiet can be cultivated and become habitual if the teacher creates a classroom ethos where students feel that they must contribute to their learning.

For the fact is that teachers, like doctors with patients and therapists with clients, are wholly dependent upon students for both “good” and “successful” teaching and learning. Those teachers who recognize that basic fact–as I have over the years–seek to cultivate student attitudes and habits that help them take responsibility for their learning.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

“I Gave My Students iPads–Then Wished I Could Take Them Back” (Launa Hall)

Massive district buying of tablets and other devices for students across the nation is an unvarnished fact. So too are the claims that access to tablets transform teaching and learning (see here, here, here, and here).

Amid all of this hullabaloo, not many teachers raise their voices to either question the expenditures or see pitfalls that administrators and policymakers either ignore or fail to see in their adoring distribution of tablets and laptops. Occasional stories do emerge from individual teachers and administrators who do, indeed, question the large expenditures of limited resources and what is gained and lost by putting tablets in the hands of individual students. Such pieces get easily drowned out by the roar of approval from parents, school board members, administrators and technology funders and organizations that have dominated print, visual, and social media.

Launa Hall is an elementary school teacher in Arlington (VA) public schools and is collecting her essays for a book. This op-ed appeared in the Washington Post, December 2, 2015.

I placed an iPad into the outstretched hands of each of my third-grade students, and a reverent, tech-induced hush descended on our classroom. We were circled together on our gathering rug, just finished with a conversation about “digital citizenship” and “online safety” and “our school district bought us these iPads to help us learn, so we are using them for learning purposes.” They’d nodded vigorously, thrilled by the thought of their very own iPads to take home every night and bring to school every day. Some of them had never touched a tablet before, and I watched them cradle the sleek devices in their arms. They flashed their gap-toothed grins — not at each other but at their shining screens.

That was the first of many moments when I wished I could send the iPads back.

Some adult ears might welcome a room of hushed 8-year-olds, but teachers of young children know that the chatter in a typical elementary classroom is what makes it a good place to learn. Yes, it’s sometimes too loud. These young humans are not great conversationalists. They are often hurting someone’s feelings or getting hurt, misunderstanding or overreacting or completely missing the point. They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold your own and how to get along with others. They need to talk and listen and talk some more at school, both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills.

The iPads subtly undermined that important work. My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.

 My colleagues and I had tried to anticipate all sorts of issues before the new tablet initiative rolled into our third-grade classrooms last year. What happens if the children lose them? Break them? Forget their passwords? How will we clean the screens? Charge them all at once? Which lessons lend themselves well to iPads, and which ones don’t? We had meetings, made plans and did our best to embrace the new — both because we had a sense of the potential and because asking questions about the efficacy of one-to-one classrooms (with a computing device for each child), or wondering aloud whether more tech for little kids was supported by research, was not only unwelcome, it was illogical. The money was spent (more than $100,000 for each grade), and the iPads were happening.

Our planning helped, but there was so much we didn’t anticipate: alarms going off randomly throughout the day, bandwidth issues that slowed our lessons to a crawl, username issues followed by password issues followed by hundreds of selfies. All these things sucked instructional time. This at a school serving many students new to English or otherwise behind in their communication skills. They couldn’t afford to lose a single minute of learning. So I wrote lessons two ways: one in case enough iPads were working and one if too many weren’t. I tried to harness the benefits and overcome the avalanche of distracting minutiae the devices brought.

Veteran teachers of tablet-friendly classrooms will tell you that these were simply rollout problems. They may mention how tablets can help teachers tailor lessons to each child, or how they can provide an instant snapshot into whether a child understood a concept. They talk about apps that connect classmates to one another and to students across the globe, that foster creativity and a sense of newness that makes over a stale classroom.

Those early-adopter teachers are right: Tablets are portals to a million possibilities. Even with my rookie stumbles, my students did wonderful things. They made faux commercials that aired on our school’s morning news; they recorded themselves explaining math problems; they produced movies about explorers, complete with soundtracks. I recorded mini-lessons for my students to watch at home, so we could “flip our classroom” and discuss the information in small groups the next day. And I knew we were just getting started.

But did the benefits offset what was lost?

Sherry Turkle, the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” writes about how we are sacrificing connections, one quick check of our screens at a time. Her research finds that college students, with their ubiquitous phones, “are having a hard time with the give-and-take of face-to-face conversation.” Eight-year-olds with iPads have the same struggles, minus any filters or perspective people might gain as they age. At the same time I was trying to encourage my students to appreciate the subtleties of human interaction, the iPads I gave them threatened to overwhelm their understanding.

Turkle writes that just the presence of a phone, even one turned off or flipped over on the table between speakers, gets in the way of conversations — we only bother with discussions we don’t mind interrupting. Switch the setting to a classroom, and we may only engage in learning that we don’t mind interrupting. It can be hard for kids to sustain their attention in a small group discussion when their own personal portal beckons from the back of the room.
One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.
I knew that the lure of the screen would continue at home each night. Many of the students had screens at home already, but this one was different: It was their very own, it was portable, and it carried the stamp of approval of teacher, school and district. Do the adults in their homes still feel the authority to tell them to put that screen away and go outside and play?

Districts all over the country are buying into one-to-one tablet initiatives, and for younger and younger students. These screens have been rebranded “digital learning devices,” carrying 0the promise of education success for millions of our communities’ education dollars. Yet there is some evidence that tablets can be detrimental to learning.

A study released in September by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at school tech initiatives in more than three dozen countries (although not the United States) and found that while students who use computers moderately show modest gains over those who rarely do, heavy technology use has a negative impact. “Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics,” the report concluded.

We have also known for years — at least since the 2012 report “Facing the Screen Dilemma” from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood — that screen time for younger children in particular comes with a huge opportunity cost, depriving them of hands-on learning, time outdoors and “face-to-face interactions with caring adults.” Digital-savvy parents in Silicon Valley made news way back in 2011 for enrolling their children in steadfastly screen-free schools. They knew that their kids would be swiping and clicking soon enough, but there are only a limited number of childhood years when it’s not only really fun to build with Legos, it’s also really good for you.

 Some proponents of one-to-one initiatives portray “analog classrooms” as gray spaces where bored teachers hand worksheets to uninspired kids — and tablets are the energizing cure. The One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that helps school districts go digital, says on its Web site: “Research is clear that to ensure student success, education must move from a teacher-centric to a learner-centric approach. One-to-one programs create the opportunity for authentic personalization of teaching and learning for each student.”

But jumping from the “sage on the stage” teaching model to a screen for each kid skips over critical territory in between, where children learn from, and build their social skills with, one another. Classrooms run by worksheets won’t be magically transformed with tablets, and classrooms where teachers skillfully engage their students don’t need screens — and the extra baggage they introduce — to get great results.

Teachers striving to preserve precious space for conversation are not lazy, or afraid of change, or obstructionist. They believe that if our dining tables should be protected for in-depth discussion and focused attention, so, too, should our classrooms. They know that their young students live in the digital age, but the way children learn has not evolved so very fast. Kids still have to use their five senses, and, most of all, they have to talk to each other. My students already had so many challenges and so much ground to cover. We put tablets in their hands and made their loads that much heavier.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

How I Studied the Teaching of History Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Filed under how teachers teach

Classrooms Around the World: What Do You See?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Filed under how teachers teach

Does Integrating Computers into Lessons Mean That Teaching Has Changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use


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