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Inside Teaching

August 12, 2005 3 min read
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How Classroom Life Undermines Reform
by Mary Kennedy, (Harvard, 279 pages, $25.95)

Education reformers have long had big—some would say grandiose— expectations for teachers. They currently expect them to teach rigorous content, cover an abundance of material, and construct lessons that intellectually engage their students. Teachers must also ensure that all children master the content, a demand embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act.

The problem with these expectations, as Kennedy, a Michigan State University professor of teacher education, explains in her wonderful new book, is that they often conflict with one another as well as with teachers’ own ideas about teaching. Kennedy and her researchers observed 499 episodes of teaching by 45 elementary teachers at 16 schools—all involved in some kind of reform initiative—and found a sizable gap between reformers’ goals and teachers’ ability and willingness to implement them.

Take intellectual engagement: Although teachers were philosophically supportive of this goal, they were wary of pursuing it too vigorously. For one thing, it usually meant pursuing a particular subject in depth (Earth’s orbit, for example), which meant less time for the next topic (the oceans). In short, too much intellectual engagement undermines what Kennedy terms “lesson momentum”—the need to get through everything required by district and state standards.

Inside Teaching Cover

Most teachers also have, as one study participant puts it, a strong need “always to remain calm and in control.” While one can sympathize with this need given the tendency of children to quickly get out of control, Kennedy demonstrates that it can also lead to weak teaching practices. This is perhaps best exemplified during classroom question-and-answer sessions. While reformers generally favor a more open-ended, probing kind of inquiry—“What do you think motivates the protagonist?”—that encourages a well-considered response, the teachers Kennedy observed mostly avoided this strategy. They were afraid of losing control of the discussion, as in fact happened when students gave unanticipated responses. Instead, teachers favored an unambiguous guessing-game approach; they’d ask a question to which there was only one right answer, such as “What happens to character X at the end of Chapter 3?”

Participating teachers did try to implement reform initiatives, but doing so often led to unforeseen complications. This was particularly evident in attempts to use hands-on, problem-solving approaches. For one writing lesson on topic sentences and supporting details, students wrote sentence categories on different colors of paper. The trouble, Kennedy notes, was that it was “so complicated that everyone’s attention was diverted from the content to the procedure.” Similar problems emerged in science and math lessons.

There is, Kennedy acknowledges, no easy solution to these conundrums. She makes the usual plug for more professional development, but professional development, in the case of these teachers, often led to the very dilemmas sketched above. Reformers suggest that teachers only need to work harder to become more effective, but, as Kennedy writes, “Discussions with the teachers suggest that they were already committing as much time and energy to their work as one could reasonably expect.”

The reader is likely to come away from Inside Teaching wondering whether the real problem isn’t reformers’ unrealistic expectations. Essentially, they’re expecting teachers to be all things to all people—an expectation we don’t have of any other group of professionals. “The kind of teaching that reformers seek,” Kennedy herself asserts, “may entail more time and energy than teachers actually have.”

—David Ruenzel

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