Classroom Practices That Need to Be Reconsidered

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2012

Teaching ideas whose time has come…and gone? Courtesy of yours truly and Alice Wiggins, who oversees the Core Knowledge Foundation’s Schools Department, here are common classroom practices that need to go away, be rethought, or curtailed:

1.      Data Driven…What?

An increasingly common feature in classrooms are data walls—bright, cheerful displays that show if students are advanced, proficient, basic or below basic in ELA and math.  As Rick Hess has written, schools have gone from not using data to inform decision making, to using data in half-baked or simplistic ways. Displaying decontextualized data is a prime example.  What exactly do we expect a third-grader to do with the knowledge that he or she is “approaching proficiency” in reading?  If data isn’t being used to drive instruction thoughtfully, what’s the point?

2.      Fiction Only Read-alouds

Fortunately, very few elementary school teachers need to be sold on the benefits of read-alouds.  They’re great for language development and exposing kids to rich vocabulary, since a child’s ability to read with comprehension doesn’t catch up with listening comprehension until about 8th grade. But if teachers aren’t devoting significant class time to nonfiction readalouds, they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to build background knowledge, which is essential for reading comprehension.

3.      Dumb Test Prep

Decrying test prep as a misuse of class time is a little like complaining that your kids are watching Fear Factor when they could be reading Chaucer. It’s true, but it’s not likely to change anytime soon.  But if we have to waste devote precious class time to test prep, let’s stop trying to teach and reinforce decontextualized reading skills like making inferences and finding the main idea that are content-specific, and cannot be mastered in the abstract.  More effective might be what Dan Willingham calls practice that reinforces the basic skills required for the learning of more advanced skills, protects against forgetting, and improves transfer.

4.      Reciting Lesson Aim and Standard

There’s nothing wrong with standards for planning and focusing lessons.  However, the idea of standards-based instruction is often misinterpreted.  Sure, students should be introduced to what they are about to learn, but having kindergarteners recite, “Through this lesson I will develop phonemic awareness and understanding of alphabetic principles” does nothing to support attainment of this standard or develop these students reading achievement.  In other cases, rather than using the standards to guide instruction on meaningful content, the standards become the instruction. Neither practice is an effective use of limited instructional time.

5.      Overusing Teaching Strategies

Too many classrooms seem to function on the principal that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.  Group work and differentiated instruction are two prime examples.  In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov writes that group work is “as likely to yield discussions of last night’s episode of American Idol as it is higher-order discussions of content.”  Asking frequent, targeted, rigorous questions of students, Lemov believes, “is a powerful and much simpler tool for differentiating.”  Too many classroom practices are used based on a compliance mentality—students are in groups because “that’s what administration wants to see”—rather that because it makes sense for a particular unit, lesson or activity.  Like using data to drive instruction rather than as bulletin board fodder (see above) there needs to be a sound instructional strategy underlying pedagogical choices.  And let’s not even talk about learning styles.

6.      The “Theme of the Month”

It’s standard practice to organize instruction by “themes,” such as holidays, seasons, my neighborhood or foods of the world, for example.  Organize units around knowledge “domains” instead.  A teacher might use the theme “Our Great Big World” in kindergarten to invite children to explore the setting of a story.  But since every story has a setting, that “theme” is arbitrary and doesn’t coherently build background knowledge.  A domain-based approach to “Our Great Big World” might include teaching children about continents, countries, climates and land forms in a coherent fashion.

7.      Reading Comprehension Skills

We can’t say it enough and Dan Willingham said it best:  Teaching content is teaching reading.  The most overused tool in the box in elementary school is reading strategies.  Yes, there are benefits to reading strategies, but there’s no evidence that repeated practice yields additional benefits.  Comprehension typically breaks down and test scores plummet because of a lack of background knowledge, not because kids have failed to master reading strategies.