What is the Design of the Classical Model of Teaching?

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book: The Educational data movement: crossing boundaries, searching for student success
The classical model of teaching centers on the role of the teacher as manager of the classroom, conveyer and evaluator of knowledge. In this model, teachers direct everything that happens for all the students inside a classroom. Once the door is closed, teachers usually decide what order the information will be taught, which students will sit together or work together, and how to gauge and measure student understanding. The classical model of teaching is part of a traditional school design where all of the staff are arranged in a way that supports teachers in this classical role. Schools that have specialists—usually reading, math, and special education—use those specialists to augment the traditional classroom teachers.

Decades of research and the evaluation of teachers is showing that teaching the classical model is often complex. As teacher evaluations, and large studies like the Measures of Effective Teaching discussed in Chapter 5, show it is a job few do very well at any given point in time.

When researchers study what expert teachers do, they see a rich performance of organizing student activity, questioning, supporting, explaining, presenting, assessing, and providing feedback, all of which occurs inside the classrooms. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers said:

Teaching, I don’t care who [which kinds of students] it is, teaching is incredibly hard — you are managing … When you are teaching, you are managing, whether it is 20, 30, or 40; or if you are a high school teacher 150 to 200 kids at a time… you really have to manage kids and engage them … particularly if you want to go deep.

The term managing can have a number of meanings. It can mean classroom management: the most basic of teacher jobs. It can also mean more advanced management of instructional processes, particularly as Weingarten says “if you want to go deep.” Teachers also work outside the classroom in planning and developing materials and at times collaborating. This work is also complex and managerial. What is surprising given that they are surrounded by people in their jobs is that many teachers work largely alone. Both inside and outside of the classroom they are solo practitioners because the classical model structures their job in this way. Principals as instructional leaders and professional learning communities that were discussed in Chapter 6 are largely supplements to individual teaching rather than a fully collaborative team structure. In most cases, teachers teach individually and collaborate with each other and their leaders as an exception. This is teaching in the classical model and it can be good, or excellent, in some cases and less good in others. For some students a given teacher may be an ideal match, but not for others. The classical model is so entrenched in our culture that many see this as the only way that adults and children can be organized to support learning.

Whether in elementary or secondary schools, with the same group for an entire day or with different groups in periods, teaching in the classical model requires an application of complex knowledge in performance. To teach almost any subject, for example high-school biology or middle school literacy, a teacher needs to not just know the subject matter content in terms of the science or how to write, but also how to teach it to students learning it for the first time. This extra knowledge, called pedagogical content knowledge or knowledge for teaching, includes understanding the different ways students make sense of the material and ways to help guide learning of different kinds of students. Teaching then requires that that knowledge be put into action with a class that can include 20 to 40 young people at a time, each bringing various conditions and backgrounds into the process. The performance is critical and it requires the ability for teachers to engage and interact, usually on their feet and walking around, day after day. Teaching also requires communication with parents, along with a host of other administrative tasks. But, it is the actual performance or enactment of lessons that is the critical element of the classical model of teaching. And, it is very hard to do well over long periods of time. The day-in-day-out performance demands are greater when students come from difficult situations and require even more support from the teacher. Performance, even for those have excelled at it, is likely a factor in attrition of new teachers and a fading in performance of many teachers who have been successful.

Teaching performance skills are multidimensional. The different ways teachers can be good and weak varies. Some may know the material and understand kids, but not explain well. Some may work better with small groups than large ones and with some types of students than others. Good teachers gauge how the students comprehend and then adjust and move forward. Some begin with natural abilities and many require experience and training to become good. Many of the challenges in developing a rich workforce involve the fact that many teachers are good at some things and not always others. Many work well with some kinds of students and topics and less well with others.

One of the greatest challenges of the classical model is personalization of learning. The classical model is designed for large group instruction and personalization of learning occurs in one of two primary ways: outside of the classroom for special education students and as small group activity managed by the teacher within the classroom. The special education context is usually to address a specific need such as language or behavior rather than academic interests and group instruction is not usually individual in nature, but allows some measure of customization within a classroom. There are other ways that students can get additional help by pull-out programs where students leave the normal classroom in elementary schools and in later grades students can select classes that are appropriate to their academic interests and level. One of the criticisms of the classical model then has been that individual students do not always get instruction related to their specific interests and talents and as a result many students disengage with education.

Dr. Piety is a national expert in educational data. He is on the faculty of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland where he teaches information and database technologies, cloud computing, and social media. He is the author of Assessing the Educational Data Movement, a book on using data to improve school success.

Posted in Big ideas & theories, Teachers and data

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