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Traditional Equals Bad: The Dangers of Definitions.

  • Written by Andrew Elliott McBurney
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Stand before an audience of school administrators and ask them to define “traditional teaching.” Go on. I dare you.

Here’s an educated guess of what you’ll hear:

“The teacher is in front of the class talking.”

“Students are not engaged.”

“Students are asleep.”

“The teacher uses worksheets.”

“The teacher is grading papers while the students work.”

“Students are learning at low levels.”

“There is no student interaction.”

You get the idea.

There is a leadership training course you have to complete in my state if you want to become a school administrator. Though I can’t speak to any other state’s course, I bet if they have them they are similar. In this course, though it is not explicitly said in so many words, the message is unmistakable: traditional teaching means bad teaching. Think of any bad teaching you have seen and that is what traditional teaching is. This is what administrators are trained to believe. The definition is hammered home repeatedly.

As I said, it’s not explicit, and it may very well be unintended. I believe the intention is to train school administrators to promote real learning in their schools, but behind that intention, there were certain judgments about what real learning is and what it isn’t.

If a teacher is up in front of the class doing nothing but talking, or grading when they should be teaching, or using simplistic worksheets to the exclusion of anything else, then, there probably is not going to be very much learning going on.

However, I had teachers who lectured a lot who were very good at what they did. They engaged students during the lecture by asking questions and taking questions. I had teachers who used worksheets with particular purposes in mind and then built upon them. I had teachers who gave us time to read and work in class and we learned a lot. I would consider them “traditional.” Did I have “bad” teachers? Some I learned more from than others. I guess you could call those teachers “bad,” but I personally wouldn’t go that far. Today, are there teachers who use “modern,” “innovative,” “researched-based” lesson plans who are nevertheless “bad”? Almost certainly. “Bad” isn’t a function of time—that is, traditional versus modern lessons. Yet there seems to be a determination to say that all that is “traditional” is “bad.”

For that matter, what do we mean by “bad”? Boring? Low-level? Disengaged? Inauthentic? Are traditional methods of teaching necessarily boring, low-level, disengaging, and inauthentic? According to at least one, and probably more, state leadership training courses—Yes. Emphatically. By definition.

Here’s the problem, demonstrated by a personal experience from during the time I was an instructional specialist in the years right after our state-mandated high-stakes multiple-choice tests were implemented: one day, our district coordinator asked me about three teachers in our department. These three, he said, had the highest scores on our common assessments (in this particular instance, looking at non-special education, non-LEP, “regular” students—speaking of definitions). He asked me, based on my observations from their classes and team planning sessions, what did they all have in common? The answer was almost nothing. Two of them I would call traditional teachers, using methods and strategies I remembered my own teachers using. The third made use of more modern lesson ideas based on a nationally-known and well-regarded program. One of the traditional teachers assigned more writing than the other. Two of them, one of the traditional teachers and the third teacher made use of worksheets, but in effective ways. The other never used them and spent most of her time lecturing. The only thing I could say that they had in common was high expectations of their students and the positive encouragement to go with it.

(By the way, this experience is one that helped solidify my opinion that if you’re a teacher and you want your students to do better, or if you’re an administrator who wants to see school-wide improvement, the best thing to do is to have high expectations of your students. They have to be reasonable expectations, of course, but on the high side. Along with it, positive encouragement of students—reflecting the belief that they can rise to the level of the expectations—is essential. With encouragement, students will rise to the level of expectations. I have seen it happen with students most people in the country would have written-off.)

Traditional teaching was not bad teaching per se. In two cases, it was demonstrably highly-effective teaching.

It’s important to do what works. This may sometimes mean using traditional methods, sometimes more modern. It depends more on the teacher and the class involved.

And yet, some states believe that the new accountability systems inspired by NCLB are the new and best path to follow, with no looking back. One Texas state senator even went so far as to assert her belief that the new testing and accountability system the state legislature voted to implement would bring “rigor and more efficiency and effectiveness into the classroom, bringing meaningful and rich instruction for the first time”. (Incidentally, this system was partially rolled back and modified in the most recent session of the legislature, with the support of many representatives and senators who had voted in favor of it in prior years. There seem to have been unintended and undesirable consequences.)

I think it’s worth emphasizing that this state senator felt she was helping to bring “meaningful” instruction to her state “for the first time.”

I went to school in that state. I know my teachers are more deserving than to have it suggested their “traditional” teaching methods were threadbare and un-meaningful.

What can we do?

  • • Let good teachers teach and share their knowledge and skills with others.
  • • Recognize that there’s more than one good way to teach, and that not all good learning looks the same.
  • • Recognize that “bad” isn’t a matter of “old” or “new”.
  • • Recognize that “traditional” is not a bad word—after all, teachers of the past helped produce doctors, lawyers, and rocket scientists.

There is nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants. There is something wrong, and dangerous, from thinking you have nothing to learn from the past. I know that because my teacher taught it to me.

(NOTE: This post one of a set of four posts, which, altogether, describe four dangers I believe are facing 21st century public education in the United States. The others are: “Allowing for Known Unknowns: The Dangers of Ignoring Reality,” “Whatever Happened to Lifelong Learning?: The Dangers of Measurable Objectives,” and “Sponges and Bombing: The Dangers of Keeping Up Appearances.”)