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.

36 Comments »

  1. Putting kids in groups at a certain age, or grouping their desks, has always struck me as bizarre. As a parent of young kids, I know that any supposed benefits (whatever those are) cannot possibly outweigh the vast increase in squabbling that comes from putting 7 or 8 year olds in a better position to grab someone else’s paper or mark on it, poke someone else, talk out of turn, etc.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — January 19, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

  2. Very good post, Mr. Pondiscio. You have collected here a tight concentration of some of the very worst teaching practices currently being promulgated. The pictures of those data walls, in particular, that I found through your link were enough to make my stomach turn! And Newport-Mesa, whose website they are taken from, is a district neighboring our own here in Irvine. If those pictures are at all indicative of the kind of instruction those poor rich kids are receiving (Newport Beach, at least, is the wealthiest city in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States), the school I am planning to open should be able to clean up with refugees attempting to escape such a system!

    Comment by Bruce William Smith — January 19, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  3. As a reading recovery teacher, I feel the teaching of strategic behavior is far more beneficial than instructing children in isolated comprehension skills. Particularly fragile early readers need a variety of problem solving actions in order to navigate continuous text independently at any level. Extracting meaning from written language is the goal of reading.

    Comment by Joyce Hampton — January 19, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

  4. Learning to work in groups is a critical skill set in the modern workforce, but I find teachers just tell kids go work as a group. Somehow they are supposed to know what to do? I feel like we often know what we want kids to be able to do but ignore the chasm of skills and knowledge to get to that point, that it just naturally happens. It does not. Data is critical, but not if it is meaningless. I remember receiving a report from my daughter’s 2nd grade teacher that was given to her as a PDF that gave no sense of what the scores meant or aligned with what they were learning. This was just what they were given to distribute to parents to show they were evaluating the kids, never-mind it was meaningless to the parents. However this was a school with many esl students and poor parents. One of the crisis in education is the trust gap between teacher and parents but it is no wonder considering the type of strategies identified above that so many of us doubt the quality of education our children are receiving.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 20, 2012 @ 8:26 am

  5. Another fallacy is that if adults need to work in groups, we should start having school children work in groups from the get-go. Not true; there are maturity, skill, and knowledge requirements for working in groups for any length of time, and little kids don’t yet have those. They are developed slowly, over time.

    Plus, as has been pointed out by others, the “group” work that is given school children is often contrived and in some sense fraudulent. Children do learn how to work in groups, over time, in their non-school lives at home, in scouts, on teams, in a more realistic way. School teachers and administrators, if they want to use group work as a learning technique, should model what they do on these types of group work.

    Comment by balsam — January 20, 2012 @ 9:39 am

  6. Number five, overused teacher strategies (even if not principal hyped); lecturing to the whole class, especially when this is the primary method of instructional delivery.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 20, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  7. Lecturing overused? Not in most schools. If anything it is just the opposite.

    Comment by alamo — January 20, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  8. As a third-grade reading teacher, I use what you call “data walls” as investment pieces in my classroom. Rather than tracking standardized testing performance, I track my students’ reading levels. That way, there is transparency around how much they have improved, and how much further they have to go in order to reach their reading level goal. My kids know what they have to do to move to the next level: read at home, read during center time, read a long during our lessons, and use the comprehension and decoding strategies to help you. I have to say, this “data wall” has made a huge difference in motivating my students to grow their reading skills. I would argue this is the rational behind many teachers’ use of data walls and I would hardly call it “half-baked”.

    Comment by Lisa — January 20, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

  9. alamo,

    Where do you teach and at what level? Are you suggesting there’s a minimum of whole group instruction in your district?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 21, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  10. Mr. Pondiscio,
    I find myself cheering at your list of common practices that need to go away. You have listed many of the same things that are either out-dated or shouldn’t be used in the classroom.
    Many times teachers do things because it is the way they have been done for so long. This complacency is not helpful to students or to todays standards for success.

    I wanted to tell you that I thoroughly agree with you about the fiction-only read alouds in Elementary school. It is so important that students are exposed to a variety of texts, fiction and especially non-fiction. In my Title 1 school, many of the students do not have a very big repertoire of experiences. By reading and supporting non-fiction, we are opening a wonderfully exciting door to these students.

    Comment by Rhea Vickery — January 21, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

  11. I’d add to the list the various instructional strategies usually categorized as “discovery” or “inquiry”.

    Also, what alamo said.

    (I’d also add a very limited defense of “test prep”, insofar as fair, accurate assessment depends on kids being familiar with the structure of the test.)

    Comment by Paul Bruno — January 21, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

  12. Very good post.

    I was going to make the point that Lisa already made above. So I hereby second it.

    Comment by MG — January 21, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

  13. I think we often get on the bandwagon of a new idea in teaching and go straight for it for a few years then we tend to back off. Then years later we revisit it and say “We use to do this?”. I find your ideas very interesting and informative. I particularly find number four interesting. I am a kindergarten teacher and our school states that in order for the students to grasp the lesson we have to state the standard to them. I often find this frustrating because I guide my lessons around the standard but I don’t expect the children to recite it to me or anyone! They are five and six year olds who are just beginning to read. Instead I often put in the simplest way to get the point across of the standard and that way they can grasp it a little better. As you stated it isn’t practical for the limited time we have in a classroom.

    Comment by K.Chandler — January 21, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  14. Paul, I teach elementary level. Our teacher lesson plans call for no more than 10 minutes for teacher-led instruction. The rest of the time, the kids go off and construct their own knowledge. This is the structure for “balanced literacy” lessons, which are used in most schools throughout the country. I think the Everyday Math plans also call for seriously limiting the amount of time that teachers actually present new information to students.

    Comment by alamo — January 21, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

  15. @alamo – 10 minutes out of how many?

    Comment by Paul Bruno — January 21, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  16. Here’s an interesting article regarding the value of lectures:

    “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) not only tested a nationally representative sample of U.S. 8th graders in math and science, but also asked their teachers what percentage of class time was taken up by students “listening to lecture-style presentations” rather than either “working on problems with the teacher’s guidance” or “working on problems without guidance” . . . Under which circumstance did U. S. middle-school students learn more? Direct instruction won. Students learned 3.6 percent of a standard deviation more if the teacher spent 10 percent more time on direct instruction. That’s one to two months of extra learning during the course of the year.”

    Comment by alamo — January 21, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

  17. @Paul, the teaching block is 90 minutes, so that would be 10 min out of 90.

    Comment by alamo — January 21, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

  18. alamo,

    “…“balanced literacy” lessons, which are used in most schools throughout the country.” Any literature to substantiate this statement? It was my experience that many teachers subscribed to either phonics OR whole language. They often overlooked the possibility that some kids did well under one method, others under the other, while still other students learned best under a combination of the two approaches.

    90 minute teaching blocks and you teach at the elementary level? I taught elementary classroom for 34 years and discovered early on, anything approaching a half hour was pushing the envelope. With a number of kids it was even less. It was then time to move on to something different.

    And in what state do you teach?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 22, 2012 @ 11:04 am

  19. I find the posts and comments on this blog very informative and eye opening to me. It’s good to see others views and insights.
    I wanted to comment on DC Parent’s ideal of groups. I teach groups from the first day of school and hope the next grade level carries it on. The students learn rotations, what do to in the group and what do to if they finish early. I teach Kindergarten and I don’t just set them off to discover it on their own. I model it daily for weeks and months until they are ready to try it out on their own. For my classroom it’s been highly effective and if I don’t happen to do group time one day the kids have a fit! They love them!

    Comment by K.Chandler — January 22, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  20. Et tu, Mr. Hoss? You’re one of the most insightful contributors to this blog, so I’m disappointed to see you subscribe to the “lecture bad, collaboration good” false dichotomy of so many progressive educators.

    It’s true that the younger the students, the less practical that whole-group, teacher-centered instruction can be. It’s called immaturity. But by the time students reach high school, if they cannot sit and actively listen to a knowledgeable adult explain complex facts and ideas for an extended period of time, then those students are in sorry shape for college. And lecturing can be just as interactive as any contrived cooperative-learning parlor game–IF students have the maturity and initiative to contribute to the discussion, take meaningful notes, etc.

    So my question is this: at exactly what stage of K-12 are we going to start weaning students off the parlor games and stop catering to their already tenuous attention spans? Ever? Never?

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — January 22, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

  21. I am a high school social studies teacher at a charter school. While I agree with the mission of charter schools I have a problem with my charter school in particular. My issues stem around this very subject, “overusing teaching strategies” because it just happens to be the current trend that administration has bought in to for this particular year. Not taking into consideration the challenges of the demographic that we serve. It seems that they are only concerned, as the article so eloquently put it are “only concerned with how things look.” This is a severe problem for me.

    Comment by Tanya — January 22, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  22. “90 minute teaching blocks and you teach at the elementary level?”

    Yes, this is standard for BL. I am surprised you haven’t heard of it. It is the approach used in almost all schools in NY, and in all the schools I worked in the DC area. I read BL is used in most schools in the US but you
    would have to google it to find the references.

    BTW, balanced literacy is what the fathers of whole language renamed WL when the National Reading Panel Report showed that whole language was not effective. It has an optional 10-15 min phonics component, other than that, it is WL.

    Comment by alamo — January 22, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  23. Good description of BL class:
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE2D7103CF932A05754C0A9639C8B63

    “In a 90-minute period, actual imparting of knowledge was restricted to a lesson as short as five minutes. Then pupils broke into small groups for independent guided work, and reconvened to share their efforts.”

    Comment by alamo — January 22, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  24. I like the points you are making Alamo. In my school we have 90 minutes per day of Math, and we have teacher presentation that lasts for about 30 minutes or more which includes guided practice followed by independent practice. This summer I went to a Math Workstations workshop by Debbie Diller, and learned about how to direct my students to go into their small groups to work. Modeling, modeling, modeling is what she stressed. I have the stations set up in my classroom, but I find it very hard to actually get to them. I know this sounds strange due to the 90 minute period, but so much else is scheduled into the math period besides just the basic math lesson. I am interested in reading more about your post.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Rhea Vickery — January 22, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

  25. In reading these blogs I have found so much insight but the one statement that caught my eye basically said that even if you know your material you still have to bring your own personality to it. In other words, just because you are certified in a subject or have been told that you are “qualified” to teach does not make you a good teacher.

    I still consider myself a novice but what I do know is that good old school basics still work. If we instill sold foundations in our students from the beginning many of these whistles and bells that we are looking for in the classroom would not be necessary.

    Comment by Tanya — January 22, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  26. Robert/James,

    Please forgive my plug on this. James, if you’ll go into the Core Knowledge archives for late December, 2009 (29th or 30th?), you’ll find an entry by me on individualized instruction. It will explain my philosophy of lecture versus customizing the pace of instruction for each student, prek-16, yes, through college (high school, included).

    alamo,

    Guess I’d have to witness the BL “groups” firsthand to approve/reject the concept. If they’re ability groups, or groups where the whole class is still working on the same concept/lesson that would be a no, no. If the groups progress kids through the state standards based on what they’ve learned or not, I’d could live with that.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 23, 2012 @ 8:37 am

  27. alamo,

    Rugs and scripted lessons? You have got to be kidding. Talk about bogus BS. I’d run the administrator right out of my room and insist they never return. In the same breath, I’d tell them to judge my performance on my students’ test results. If my kids did poorly (they would not), then the administrator could demand I go his/her route. Otherwise, stay out of my way.

    Yah, I know. Big talk from a retired teacher. Someone needs to challenge the idiocy turning teachers off at unprecedented rates.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 23, 2012 @ 8:49 am

  28. @Paul Hoss Don’t be too hasty, Brother Hoss. I left children sitting on rugs off this list for a reason. Everyone knows children can’t possibly learn how to read unless they’re sitting on a rug.

    Now, turn and talk to the person next to you and tell why sitting on a rug is a good thing.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 23, 2012 @ 8:59 am

  29. [...] Suggestions for seven classroom practices that should just go away already. (Core Knowledge Blog) [...]

    Pingback by Remainders: Starting the Year of the Dragon without a day off | GothamSchools — January 23, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  30. Fantastic post. I was prepared to disagree on #4, but your kindergarten example was great.

    Comment by john thompson — January 24, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

  31. I totally agree with the fact that background knowledge provides greater opportunities to students’ reading comprehension. Core Knowledge is a very structured program that taps into the “higher order” thinking skills that enhances background knowledge.

    Comment by Valerie VanRogue — January 24, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

  32. Mr. Pondiscio,

    I would love to see your comments on
    1) this NPR interview concerning introverts and the over-valuing of group work in our culture (“Quiet Please: Unleashing ‘The Power of Introverts’”),
    http://www.npr.org/2012/01/30/145930229/quiet-please-unleashing-the-power-of-introverts
    and
    2) this opinion piece in the NYT, “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by the same author interviewed in #1.
    http://www.npr.org/2012/01/30/145930229/quiet-please-unleashing-the-power-of-introverts

    Although the author writes about the over-valuing of group-work in the adult world of work, group-work in the world of school is also overvalued. It’s another classroom practice that needs to reconsidered.

    Comment by Isabelle Byrnes — January 30, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

  33. [...] listen long before we can read and write).  What’s less well known is a fact my colleague Alice Wiggins likes to point out: reading comprehension typically doesn’t catch up until about 8th grade.  [...]

    Pingback by Nonfiction Read Alouds: A Lost Opportunity? « The Core Knowledge Blog — February 17, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  34. online programs…

    Classroom Practices That Need to Be Reconsidered « The Core Knowledge Blog…

    Trackback by online programs — April 19, 2012 @ 4:47 am

  35. Art, as far as it can, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master; thus your art must be, as it were, God”s grandchild….

    The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them. The more He is within, the more without….

    Trackback by ,http://www.5z5.com/Feeds/?bf9ecc0e9adcacc1 — May 14, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

  36. I couldn’t agree with you more, but I think you are missing something very important. Some districts do not allow teachers to make these decisions……it is just getting worse.

    Comment by Ccc9958 — July 5, 2012 @ 8:56 am

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