First Person

No, Teachers Shouldn't Put Students in the Driver's Seat

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In the push to identify and address the reasons for the underperformance of American students relative to their peers abroad and the persistence of test-score disparities across subgroups at home, no shortage of suspects has been summoned before the court of education policy public opinion.

Students, parents, and, of course, classroom teachers undergo levels of scrutiny, but other agents of blame have managed to evade detection. Chief among them: the purveyors of so-called “best practice” methodologies.

Education leaders who buy into these progressive pedagogical visions argue that the best way to improve education outcomes is to de-emphasize the role of competent, knowledgeable teachers and make students responsible—at virtually every stage of the educational process—for deciding what and how they learn.

Yes. You read that correctly. In many schools, Johnny can’t read or demonstrate basic proficiency in other essential skill areas, in part, because his teacher is being told not to teach.

During my 29-year career as a high school teacher in New York state, I’ve had a front-and-center view of the almost uncontested sway that university- and district-level education experts hold over the training, certification, and—most notably—the evaluation of teachers. Often the same state-provided consultants who oversee teacher professional development also train administrators on what to look for during classroom observations.

Operating in an accountability-free safe zone, these architects of methodology seem to subscribe almost uniformly to a type of educational PC—or pedagogical correctness—that views content-focused, direct instruction by subject matter experts in a structured, disruption-free classroom as an outmoded “drill and kill” approach to which students should never be subjected.

One need look no further than the vast majority of teacher-evaluation rubrics to see how pedagogically correct theory becomes practice-transforming policy. Many of these instruments, including the widely used Danielson Framework, compel observers to assume the role of engagement watchdog. The highest ratings can only be given if the classroom is a busy, collaborative space where teachers place students almost immediately in the educational driver’s seat.

Predictably, many classrooms have become social, bustling, sometimes chaotic environments, where teachers—even masters of their craft—are relegated to facilitator status, lest they be scolded for failing to limit teacher talk time, allowing any student to be even momentarily bored, or being too didactic in their approach.

Indeed, the message coming from the educational ivory tower is clear: Teachers must give up the need for control in the classroom.

Cosmetic Engagement or Actual Learning?

However, given that the best-practice pendulum has been stuck on progressive for years without much in the way of corresponding student gains, perhaps it’s the experts who should cede control.

To be sure, the teacher-directed model can be executed poorly, and is heavily dependent on proficient, passionate orators with a skill set that includes establishing credibility and rapport with kids. That’s a high performance standard that many teachers, myself included, find difficult to consistently meet. But student-led models have substantial shortcomings, many of which are structurally built in.

Rather than the time-honored methodologies—such as lecture/discussion, skill modeling, and regular review and testing to ensure retention—many progressive approaches provide students with a sampler platter of often unproven and, in some cases, already discredited activities and game-based strategies.

These prioritize fun over function, and mistakenly equate cosmetic engagement with actual learning. From various technology-based gimmicks to accommodating seemingly infinite learning styles, teachers are quite familiar with the professional-development guru who cried “education game-changer.”

Additionally, many of these strategies tend to put the critical-thinking-and-creativity cart before the fundamental content-and-skill-acquisition horse. Try composing on a musical instrument without learning the sequential basics first, and you’ll quickly discover that your creation stinks. Try participating in a class discussion without a rich knowledge base and contextual framework, and your input will lack substance.

Because progressive methodology is largely predicated on teamwork, students—often without foundational background knowledge or discernment capabilities in place—are frequently placed in groups to collectively engineer their own learning experiences. But many students treat cooperative learning as an extension of cafeteria socialization, regardless of how adept the “learning facilitator” may be at intermittently monitoring progress.

Of course, all students are ultimately in charge of whether they learn. But perhaps the biggest drawback of a student-led classroom environment is this reality: Many students, especially those most at risk of academic failure, are simply not sufficiently motivated or self-aware to advocate for their own education needs, and require the direct, focused instruction that a truly effective master teacher should be encouraged and empowered to provide.

A meta-analysis published in 2018 by Stockard, Wood, Coughlin, and Khoury, including more than 300 studies conducted during the period from 1966 through 2016, indicates that teacher-centered, explicit instruction produces positive results—and in some cases, better results than student-led inquiry or group-based project models. But pedagogical correctness dictates that evidence—at least when it contradicts preconceived ideas about preferred methodology—matters less than classroom optics.

So, in accordance with best-practice orthodoxy, the experienced teacher with a thorough understanding of content, higher-order applications, and the logistics of time constraints accepts a significantly diminished role. After all, decades of resources have been dedicated to making student choice an integral part of the 21st-century classroom, and celebrating how it lets Johnny be “the driver of his own bus.”

Meanwhile, even though the classroom looks dynamic, students appear to be busy, and the right boxes get checked during classroom observations, achievement gaps don’t close.

Supporters of traditional instruction aren’t arguing that students should be nothing but passive receptacles. They are arguing for some methodological balance. In almost three decades of teaching, I’ve never come across a professional-development session devoted to teacher-led strategies. Do they even exist anymore?

The problem is not that teacher-centered instruction doesn’t work, it’s that those in the pedagogical correctness echo chamber don’t want it to. It's a confirmation bias bordering on education malpractice. To the extent that these “experts” ignore the merits of traditional approaches and continue to chase virtually every educational fad, perhaps it’s time for them to take their turn in the accountability crosshairs.

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