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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Reply / Who Should Decide How Teachers Teach?

    Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
      The gap between teachers' and professors' perspectives about how to teach continues to grow. Despite efforts to indoctrinate preservice teachers and encourage experienced ones to adopt instructional styles described as child-centered and constructivist, professors like Beth Burch have had remarkably little impact on the classroom practices of American teachers. Much of the teaching in American public schools today remains—like Laura Hunter's and Jim Chesnut's—highly organized and teacher-centered (Cohen 1991; Cuban 1993).
      How can we account for this lack of change? Cohn and Kottkamp (1993) say that teachers avoid child-centered methods because they don't know about them. In one of the more offensive theories, McAninch (1993) suggests that teachers are handicapped by a “clinical consciousness”—an unanalytic way of viewing experience that relies on firsthand knowledge and pragmatism and that reflects a less mature level of cognitive development than the theoretical perspectives of education professors. Others, like Cuban (1993), cite the many structural constraints inherent in public schools such as a lockstep sequence of grade levels and standardized tests.
      Beth Burch appears to agree with Cuban that the constraints of school structures inhibit good teaching. She excuses Laura Hunter's and Jim Chesnut's shortcomings by citing, for instance, a lack of instructional support. Like many methods professors, she tries to change the practice of teaching by advising novices to use research-tested theories—and to subvert the mandated curriculum whenever it is incompatible with these more pedagogically correct teaching strategies. This is the attitude that I describe as “cavalier,” an easy dismissal of the practices of traditional teachers. Until my research with Laura Hunter and Jim Chesnut, I, too, was guilty of such smugness.
      My observations and interviews with these two high school teachers led me to appreciate another possible reason for the “intransigence” of traditional teachers: Pedagogical theories often may be irrelevant to the daily experience of classroom teaching.
      My own view of classroom teaching is that it is neither a mindless by-product nor an accident of bureaucratic structure. Laura and Jim have chosen to teach in a manner consistent with their beliefs about children, learning, human nature, morality, and the subject matter to be taught. As Laura Hunter explained in her interview with me, she has reflected on her own practice, experimenting with methods and materials. This suggests that, contrary to what Burch implies, the teacher's perspective does not preclude change and growth.
      Why is a university professor's views about how to teach more correct than a classroom teacher's? Years of research have yet to reveal any consistent laws about how children learn in classrooms. (Ironically, the only variable consistently related to achievement is academic learning time.)
      By whose definition do schools and teaching need to be changed, and who has the right to direct the change? By whose criteria should traditional teachers like Laura Hunter and Jim Chesnut be judged? The answers to these questions are not obvious to me, for unlike Beth Burch and many of my other university colleagues, I am no longer certain that my own definition of good teaching is more correct than that of someone who does it every day. One thing I do know with certainty: It's time to forge a more equitable relationship between professors and teachers.
      References

      Cohen, R. M. (1991). A Lifetime of Teaching: Portraits of Five Veteran High School Teachers. New York: Teachers College Press.

      Cohn, M., and R. B. Kottkamp. (1993). Teachers: The Missing Voice in Education. New York: State University of New York Press.

      Cuban, L. (1993). How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1880–1990. New York: Teachers College Press.

      McAninch, A. R. (1993). Teacher Thinking and the Case Method. New York: Teachers College Press.

      End Notes

      1 The complete transcript of my interview with Beth Burch is included in Laura and Jim and What They Taught Me About the Gap Between Educational Theory and Practice, available from State University of New York Press c/o CUP Services, P.O. Box 6525, Ithaca, NY 14851. $39.50/cloth, $12.95/paper.

      Dona Kagan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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