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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

Perspectives / The Teacher-Proof Myth

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I once had a job that required writing "teacher-proof" teaching aids. The task was set by a supervisor so absentminded she was known to leave her car running in the parking lot, keys dangling and door locked—and not just once. Never having been a teacher herself, she had a lot of confidence in the ability of her staff—mostly former educators—to make the instructions in our supplemental materials so clear, compelling, and relevant that any teacher, no matter his or her skill level, school situation, or students, could buy our materials one day and effectively use them in class the next. (The staff sometimes joked that we could write instructions for turning off an ignition, but we never did.)
I occasionally think of my former supervisor's presumptuous attitude toward teachers when I consider the reforms that are expected to transform the complex act of teaching—whether that reform is the mass personalization that computers are making possible or the common core state standards designed to help all students become college- and career-ready. For even if we possess the technology that calibrates tasks to individual students' needs and even if the standards identify the essential concepts and competencies everyone should learn, the human task of helping each student learn requires more than science, more than art, and much more than accident. It requires acknowledging and balancing competing goals for education—equity and excellence, customization and standards, efficiency and relationships.
This issue addresses how to mesh those values—especially, standards and personalization. The questions our writers attempt to answer are many: Which ways of teaching are best in getting students to learn better? When must teachers teach to student commonalities (p. 16), and when should they differentiate instruction (p. 22, 28)? Which kinds of grouping help, and which kind hinders (p. 34, 41)? When must teaching be teacher-centered, and when ought it to be student-centered (p. 56, 60)? Does delivering high-level challenging content at a fast pace spur more achievement, or do we engrain lasting learning by teaching fewer concepts more deeply (p. 48, 52, 79)? How does one know when to follow best practice, and which best practice?
Larry Cuban leads off our issue (p. 10) by providing an historical perspective. He sums up:In the second decade of the 21st century, reform efforts to both standardize and customize curriculum and instruction present themselves anew … Tensions arise over these competing values because there are insufficient resources in terms of time, money, and people to achieve them. So educators try to reconcile them by embracing one value and holding the other at arm's length for a while or striking compromises—satisfying one a little by sacrificing the other a little.
In an earlier article, he suggests that instead of slipping into "fruitless ideological bickering," we should acknowledge that master teachers create hybrid instructional approaches. "Through trial and error, they have learned that no particular teaching approach, no matter how successful its champions say it is, yields desired outcomes with all students, all the time."Embracing the pragmatism of teaching, good teachers develop time-tested repertoires that blend whole-group instruction with individualized learning. In addition, they continue to seek new ways to make viable compromises between standardization and customization, testing such approaches as online learning and hybrid schools.
By sharing ideas, arguing theories, embracing research and their own experience—much as the authors do in this issue—educators also arrive at what Carol Ann Tomlinson calls "the non-negotiables of teaching—high-quality curriculum with clear goals, the use of data to monitor and provide feedback on student learning, the ability to recognize when something isn't jelling and modify it to fit the student, and the creation of an environment in which students are supported and challenged." These non-negotiables are not about differentiation, she notes. "They are about a good classroom. That is good teaching."
We may as well admit that there are no teacher-proof solutions—none to be bought, none to be accessed electronically, and none to be legislated. It's time to place more trust in teachers. It's time to remember the non-negotiables.
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End Notes

1 Cuban, L. (2009, April 29). Hugging the middle. Education Week, 28 (30).

2 Papano, L. (2011, May/June). Differentiated instruction reexamined. Harvard Education Letter, 27 (3).

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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