Fear Factor: Teaching without Training

by Guest Blogger
May 1st, 2013

On Friday, I had the pleasure of listening to Bill Bennett forcefully (and repeatedly) make the case for Core Knowledge and the work of E. D. Hirsch. But the event was bittersweet. Not because of the political differences between Bennett and Hirsch—for me, those only increase the odds that this Hirsch guy is onto something. But because the event was commemorating a Nation at Risk, and Bennett’s remarks highlighted the fact that we’ve known how to provide children with a better education for many decades.

Make that many, many centuries. Confucius knew. Socrates knew.

Rigorous study of important, time-tested content is not only the foundation of an excellent education, it engages students. When teachers present difficult academic content in a supportive environment, students rise to the challenge.

So why haven’t we ensured that all children get a rigorous, supportive education?

This is a question I ask myself and others all the time. I think it’s more productive than merely asking “How can we?” Those who ask how without also asking why haven’t tend to waste significant amounts of time and resources “discovering” things that some already knew.

Okay, so I’ve partly answer the why question right there. Much better answers can be found in Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, E. D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, and Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

But still, those answers are not complete.

Right now, Kate Walsh and her team with the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) are adding to our collective wisdom—and potentially to our collective ability to act.

NCTQ is just a couple months away from releasing its review of teacher preparation programs. The results may not be shocking, but they are terrifying. Walsh provides a preview in the current issue of Education Next. In that preview, she reminds us of a study from several years ago that offers an insiders’ look at teacher preparation:

The most revealing insight into what teacher educators believe to be wrong or right about the field is a lengthy 2006 volume published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Studying Teacher Education. It contains contributions from 15 prominent deans and education professors and was intended to provide “balanced, thorough, and unapologetically honest descriptions of the state of research on particular topics in teacher education.” It lives up to that billing. First, the volume demonstrates the paucity of credible research that would support the current practices of traditional teacher education, across all of its many functions, including foundations courses, arts and sciences courses, field experiences, and pedagogical approaches, as well as how current practice prepares candidates to teach diverse populations and special education students. More intriguing, however, is the contributors’ examination of the dramatic evolution of the mission of teacher education over the last 50 years, in ways that have certainly been poorly understood by anyone outside the profession.

Studying Teacher Education explains the disconnect between what teacher educators believe is the right way to prepare a new teacher and the unhappy K–12 schools on the receiving end of that effort. It happens that the job of teacher educators is not to train the next generation of teachers but to prepare them.

Huh? Really? How exactly does one prepare without training? Walsh goes on to explain that. But the only way to prepare yourself to comprehend the teacher educators’ reasoning is to pretend like “prepare them” actually means “brainwash them into believing that in order to be a good teacher, you have to make everything up yourself.” Back to Walsh:

Harking back perhaps to teacher education’s 19th-century ecclesiastical origins, its mission has shifted away from the medical model of training doctors to professional formation. The function of teacher education is to launch the candidate on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable. In the course of a teacher’s preparation, prejudices and errant assumptions must be confronted and expunged, with particular emphasis on those related to race, class, language, and culture. This improbable feat, not unlike the transformation of Pinocchio from puppet to real boy, is accomplished as candidates reveal their feelings and attitudes through abundant in-class dialogue and by keeping a journal. From these activities is born each teacher’s unique philosophy of teaching and learning.

There is also a strong social-justice component to teacher education, with teachers cast as “activists committed to diminishing the inequities of American society.” That vision of a teacher is seen by a considerable fraction of teacher educators (although not all) as more important than preparing a teacher to be an effective instructor.

Those last two sentences stupefy me. I suppose it’s obvious since I’m writing this for the Core Knowledge blog, but I’m quite certain that there is no such thing as an ineffective instructor who is diminishing the inequities of American society. I suppose there could be an ineffective instructor who diminishes inequality outside of school, by volunteering at a food pantry perhaps. But I don’t think that’s what these teacher educators have in mind.

They may have in mind diminishing inequities by teaching something other than traditional academic content (social activism maybe), but if so, they are missing out on a far more powerful approach. They ought to think carefully about the effective instructors all across this country who are diminishing inequities by narrowing the achievement gap.

Purely anecdotally, I think that the difference between a frustrated teenager and a young leader is rarely a social-justice mindset—typically, they both have that. The difference is a strong foundation in traditional academic content, content that can help a young person find an ethical path and provide examples throughout history that offer guidance and inspiration.

Of course, another difference is being able to read. Walsh points out that the teacher educators’ notion of preparation, as opposed to training, means not covering the research on how to teach reading:

Nowhere is the abdication of training truer or more harmful than in the course work elementary teacher candidates take in reading instruction. It is commonly assumed that teacher educators opt not to train candidates in scientifically based reading instruction, instead “training” them in “whole language” methods. Actually, no such training occurs, as whole language methods require no training. Whole language is not an instructional method that a teacher might learn to apply, but merely a theory (flawed at that) based on the premise that learning to read is a “natural” process. It is no coincidence then that the whole-language approach tracks nicely with a philosophy of teacher education in which technical training is disparaged.

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has reviewed hundreds of syllabi from reading programs at more than 800 institutions across the country. What these programs most often teach is not to adopt the whole language approach but that the candidate should develop her own approach to teaching reading, based on exposure to various philosophies and approaches, none more valid than any other.

“None more valid than any other.” This is where my stupor gives way to fear. We have decades of research showing which methods of teaching reading are most effective. There is no justification for withholding that information from future teachers.

Based on my years as editor of American Educator—a quarterly magazine for teachers that endeavors to publish solid research on reading, mathematics, student behavior, pedagogy, and other core instructional concerns—I believe teachers are hungry for exactly the type of training that these teacher preparation programs are intentionally not providing. Many teachers expressed to me directly that they wished they had learned all this research during their preparation programs. Because they don’t receive research-based training, far too many teachers are forced to figure out what works through trial and error. While many do succeed, the process takes far too long; meanwhile, far too many children do not receive the benefit of instruction informed by our best research.



  1. Since “actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable,” I guess we should just continue fostering ignorance by making sure 42.5% of our high school students do no more than one hour (or less) a week on homework, and especially we should see that they never read one complete history book (there might be unfluid knowledge in there!!) and that they never write a serious history research paper (another risky source of some of that knowledge stuff!!). Let’s keep our students dumb and happy, as we were taught to be in Ed School…fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — May 1, 2013 @ 10:02 am

  2. “There is also a strong social-justice component to teacher education, with teachers cast as “activists committed to diminishing the inequities of American society.” That vision of a teacher is seen by a considerable fraction of teacher educators (although not all) as more important than preparing a teacher to be an effective instructor.

    “Those last two sentences stupefy me. I suppose it’s obvious since I’m writing this for the Core Knowledge blog, but I’m quite certain that there is no such thing as an ineffective instructor who is diminishing the inequities of American society.”

    The last 2 sentences say that teachers are “committed” to reducing social inequality, not claiming that they are actually doing it. This leaves plenty of room for being ineffective, which also begs the question how could we even measure if teachers are, in fact, reducing social inequality. The way teachers (and teacher education programs) try to reduce social inequality has nothing to do with subject matter content, and is based on teaching social activism. You probably know that one of the 5 major teaching philosophies is “social reconstructionism” and is based on the work of Marxist Paolo Friere. I live in Eugene, Oregon, so I probably see much more of this philosophy in my local schools than those in other parts of the country do.

    But your article makes many cogent points. I just finished a teacher education program, and I often joke that I would have been just as prepared to teach by the end of the program if I had put the 30k in a giant pile and burned it. It was a maddening, torturous year and a half. The practicums and student teaching were the only parts of the program that were useful. I got through it by taking responsibility for my own education and studying Wayne Booth, Alfred North Whitehead, Gilbert Highet, Bertrand Russell and many others (I wasn’t aware of E.D Hirsh’s work until recently. It certainly wasn’t mentioned in my graduate program). And you are right-on when you say that these programs encourage the students to formulate their own philosophies, pedagogies and curricula.

    I think the balkanisation of our culture is partly to blame. Our culture keeps getting smaller as we all choose our own news to watch, our own music to listen to and our own sets of “facts” to guide us.

    The giant bureaucracy that is our education system is doomed to continued failure. Regardless of what one group’s studies show, there will never be a move back to the type of curricula that E.D Hirsch and others advocate (as much as I wish there would).

    My only hope is that the teacher’s union will somehow be broken up and innovation like the kind E.D Hirsch recommends will spring up in places. Then people will have the freedom to choose a school that is succeeding instead of being stuck with a failing public school.

    Maybe it is best if parents are allowed to choose a school that fits their philosophy instead of trying to squeeze everyone into the “content rich” approach. I would favor schools built around the humanities with history, literature, philosophy, art, and music as the main areas of focus. Science and math are also important but in my view, to live a happy and informed life the humanities are the key. Others would find this far too impractical, so they should be allowed to find their own schools that teach their values.

    Comment by Jim — May 1, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  3. One more thing: I was accepted to the graduate teaching program at the University of Oregon and a local private school, and I chose the private school because of the more convenient class schedule. When I applied at the U of O there was a group interview in which it was explained that their program was based around social justice.

    When I was doing my student teaching I asked another practicum student from the U of O program if they read any E.D Hirsch in his program. He told me “only to point out how bad his ideas are.”

    The U of O is one of the “top-rated” teacher education programs in the country according to US World News or whoever rates these programs.

    I am sorry to say the ball, at least in my part of the country, is swinging in the wrong direction.

    And who listens to Bill “the virtuous” Bennett anymore?

    Comment by Jim — May 1, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  4. I received a Master’s degree in Reading Education from a reputable university in 1984. I received very little training in how to actually teach reading. Phonics was a dirty word in those days. Until I had a son who was dyslexic and took an intensive Orton Gillingham class, I knew very little.

    I am very fortunate to work in a school where the Core Knowledge Language program is used. The outstanding teacher’s manuals, along with the reading of many professional books have contributed to my knowledge and understanding of reading instruction. Thank you for an interesting article and thanks to Core Knowledge for creating an excellent reading program!

    Comment by Lisa — May 1, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

  5. I’ve been out of “education” now for over a decade after 38 years in the classroom. So I might be able to say what all the great teachers on this and other sites keep dancing around.

    You generate a new set of terms, as we did fifty years ago, and talk of how ” … my great system will save the world …”. But the fact is that no system or what ever you want to call it will improve education across fifty states as long as systems remain underfunded. Teachers are only as good as they are and can do with what they have.

    Forget the handful of dedicated individuals that work for half pay and supplement their rooms and pay for their own post-employ training. I had them in my building and it didn’t do a thing to raise our bar when the majority are just pulling a check.

    Some of the best districts can attract the best candidates; but so what? That leaves the worst candidates to the lesser districts; and they all contribute to the national scores. There are currently a million people who would make good teachers but are making twice the money doing something else. That doesn’t make them bad people.

    I won’t mention the thirty examples that I could cite where quality is not driven by $$$. In this country, we fund most of education by public vote. My friends in Europe laugh.

    Comment by Gym Ewaldoh — May 1, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

  6. It took me nine years of teaching to liberate my mind fully from the brainwashing. Trial and error (plus independent reading) taught me that lecture is MORE effective than group work; that negative consequences DO work; that ELA standards are a mishmash of hazy concepts that can’t be taught, but that great literature can and should be taught; that the “banking model of education” has NOT been discredited (pace Paolo Freire)… Take any ed school doctrine and the opposite is probably true.

    @Jim: the unions are not the source of this stupid groupthink, but they aren’t doing enough to shake us loose of it. I will be trying to work within our union to liberate teachers from these crippling ideas. They bring disrepute upon the profession.

    Comment by ponderosa — May 1, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

  7. I have to disagree with Gym that funding is the problem. You could replace our local crumbling schools and allocate millions more for more teachers and whatever teaching materials they wanted. The same bad ideas would still predominate.

    Teachers in my local school district have to work 5 years and then they are vested and have a pension for life. It isn’t that big with only 5 years, but our current budget is crippled with the over generous benefits politicians and administrators doled out in years past. The public employee retirement system has bankrupted our current budget.

    And then many retired teachers come back and substitute. I can’t even get on the substitute list because there are hundreds of teachers already collecting pensions and then drawing a second paycheck by subbing.

    Comment by Jim — May 1, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  8. It’s actually a good thing that Hirsch and Bennett disagree so much politically. Their disagreements about politics, and strong agreement about education, help show that Core Knowledge is not about inculcating a right-wing political agenda, as so many of its detractors unjustifiably claim.

    Mr. Bennett was a small link in the chain of events that brought me into the CK fold. I first saw the term “Core Knowledge” when I took my then preschool-age daughter to dance lessons (we modern fathers have to do even that). For several weeks, I saw this glossy brochure in the dance studio that provided details about some new school opening the next year. I assumed the school was an expensive private institution, so I just casually glanced at the brochure.

    One day, I happened to run into a neighbor that I rarely saw, maybe twice a year. She said she was sending her kids to a new charter school in three months, the same school described in the brochure. The brochure talked about this great curriculum called Core Knowledge.

    When I got home, I went to the index of “The Educated Child” and found references to Core Knowledge. Mr. Bennett strongly praised CK and Hirsch, which inspired me to read “Cultural Literacy.” My son went to first grade at the new CK school, and I soon read “The Schools We Need”, which convinced me of the value of the CK approach. My two kids have been in CK schools since, but sadly, the traditional public schools in my area won’t even consider this curriculum. Something to remember the next time someone who claims to value Core Knowledge also advocates closing all charter schools and forcing all kids back into the traditional system.

    So my thanks to Bill Bennett, but I also disagree with his conservative views on teacher salaries, so far as I understand them. We definitely need CK-type curricula in our schools, but we’ll never attract enough well-qualified teachers at the salaries most teachers are paid. I wish liberals and conservatives who value education could reach a Grand Bargain on these matters.

    Comment by John Webster — May 1, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

  9. I must say Lisa, you are pretty spot-on regarding teacher preparation. Thank-you for your work with American Educator, it is an wonderful publication filled with excellent research.

    I was in ed. school about 8 years ago, and I have been teaching 10 years. During my two years spent earning a credential and a Masters degree I never took one test. Classes were usually about putting together some “project”, meaning some kind of colorful presentation that usually lacked any real thought or research. I don’t recall reading a single piece of research during any class. The message most teachers learn from teacher ed. courses is that one needs to have a 1000 different lesson plans; each filled with lots of games and activities, and tailored to each students learning style of course.

    I accidentally stumbled upon E.D. Hirsch a few years ago by way of Dan Willingham, and have read all of his excellent books. However, I have never heard a fellow educator even mention his name.

    Professional development is not much better than ed. school. Training sessions are often inhabited by “consultans” who are attempting to sell or promote their particular training or program. We are truly in a profession which is disconnected from research. Which has persuaded us into buying from the snake oil salesmen.

    Comment by Kevin — May 1, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  10. Gym: The problem is not funding; it’s how that funding is used. In DC, and probably in most cities and large suburban districts, it goes to growing the bureaucracy and doing lots of “training”, “meetings”, “special initiatives” (aka miracle cures and snake oil) etc. Basic things like maintaining the buildings, ensuring classroom supplies and buying a set of books that reflect high-quality curriculum choices (like CK and Singapore Math) aren’t exciting and worthy of press conferences. Fancy technology isn’t necessary. Teachers who have solid content knowledge (rare in ES)and know how best to teach it and good curriculum, combined with 13 years of everyday attention and effort will do it, but it’s not instant, it’s not sexy and outcomes will not be identical. Bottom line; no hope of it happening.

    Comment by momof4 — May 1, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  11. Momof4:

    I agree with much of what you stated. However, I can think of a few areas that could use more funding. First, preschool for all children could have an enourmous impact on learning if it is high quality. Currently, less than half of all pre-K age children are enrolled in a preschool in California, but maybe things are different in your neck of the woods. Second, a longer school year. There is some good research on how most of the achievement gap occurs during summer months; Midlle class students actually tend to increase their achievement during the summer months, while poor kids tend to lose much ground.

    Comment by Kevin — May 1, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

  12. I am today where Jim was before he graduated. Over the years, I’ve attended several colleges and universities, owing to moving about in the military. I thought I’d finally found a great school to earn my teaching credential and my progress is slowing the closer I get to the end. Why? I am completely at odds with what I am learning in order to “prepare” me to teach. I, like Jim, have taken my learning into my own hands and spend as much if not more of my time reading and studying books and research that are not mentioned anywhere in my courses of study because I’m diametrically opposed to the social justice being rammed down my throat at the turn of every page. Unfortunately, I know what I believe, and I know what the university wants me to believe, so I spend much of my time trying to say what I want to say in a paper while couching my words in the politically correct language that will ensure a passing grade. Other times, I just have to toe the party line in order to get the grade and spout the nonsense expected in order to pass. Painful is an understatement.

    Comment by Cindy — May 1, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

  13. Wow, someone else from Eugene, OR, reads the Core Knowledge Blog! I was pretty certain I was the only one in Eugene who reads the blog (not because its readership is small, but because I have yet to find anyone who has any idea what I am talking about when I talk about education). Keep educating yourself Cindy. Thanks to people like E.D Hirsch and many others there is a lot of great information out there. When I was first exposed to the social justice theory I immediately recoiled at facile, anti-intellectual way the information was presented. I am in complete agreement with the goals of social justice theorists, just not the means of achieving them.

    Social justice theory (as it is taught now and how it has been taught since the 1980′s when post-modern theory took over the universities) sadly hurts the under privileged more than anyone.

    I hope it doesn’t sound like the post has been hijacked ( I have been guilty of that in the past), but one can’t talk about graduate education programs without talking about social justice theory. It is highly possible that social justice theory (in the Freire tradition) is mostly pushed on the west coast. If others here (except for Ponderosa) don’t know what we are talking about, sorry.

    I guess teachers, just like students, have to think for themselves.

    Ponderosa, I guess the teacher’s union is different in different areas. Here, it fights ANY type of teacher evaluation. It fights ANY principle that chips away at seniority as the ONLY factor for hiring and promotion. It is ludicrous.

    Thanks Lisa for highlighting the sorry state of teacher education programs. A whole book could easily be written about it.

    Comment by Jim — May 1, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  14. Rest easy, Jim. I’m not geographically where you are, I live in Hawaii. I am intellectually where you were. Thankfully, I Core Knowledge years ago when my children were in school and have been an advocate since the ’90s. More recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time at the CiRCE institute, I feel much more comfortable there than I do in my school books.

    Comment by Cindy — May 2, 2013 @ 12:33 am

  15. Marking the 30 year anniversary was indeed bittersweet. In Bennett’s speech given at the Fordham Institute, he compared academic achievement results from 30 years ago to today. The improvements are marginal – almost flat-lined. Considering the increased effort and money spent on education since this milestone report, I found this reflective event troubling.

    Lisa, you said it, we had and still have the solution, but somehow it failed to get implemented. I’m wondering if the top-down approach will ever work for meaningful reform given the layers of political obstacles that need to be overcome. Maybe we need a bottom-up approach? Maybe we need to appeal to the large body of teachers who want to perform and be respected as professionals, who want students to achieve, and who would individually accomplish quality implementations given affordable access to tools and information.

    What prevents teachers today from using CK materials? Awareness? Difficulty? Cost? Conflict with school policy? Can a CK implementation plan be developed that is easy and inexpensive for individual teachers to implement? Can a CK implementation be envisioned that is 100% compatible with state and local policy and union contracts such that teacher’s would not need permission before using it?

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — May 2, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  16. Tom,

    It seems to me that CK cannot be implemented by individual teachers acting on their own. In CK each grade level’s curriculum builds upon the prior grades’ learning, so if kids’ previous teachers weren’t doing CK, they’ll be lost. Also many textbooks would have to be purchased (in my case, almost 400 as I teach history to all 200 seventh graders and our district requires two copies per student: one for home and one for school). And even if our whole middle school wanted to do CK, it probably couldn’t unless the district elementary schools phased it in first. It seems to me CK adoption has to happen at the district or K-5 school level, not at the classroom level.

    Comment by ponderosa — May 2, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

  17. It seems like the blog writer and commenters are all describing the MA in teaching ESL program that I attended! My professors assumed that we were destined to be saint-like social justice crusaders,teaching downtrodden immigrants about their own oppression, (as if they aren’t already the experts on that). We were told that the oppressor is the hegemony of Standard English. Therefore, we should not value standard English more than whatever stage of “interlanguage” our students had achieved. Systematic teaching of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation wasn’t part of the program. Most of us privately knew that our salaries actually would be earned by teaching privileged foreign college students standard English, and we wanted to do a really good job of it. Some of us also wanted to promote social justice by teaching poor and downtrodden people to become expert users of an international language of power, standard English. So we had enrolled in an MA program that promised to teach us how to teach. Our values and teaching methods were either well developed when we started the MA, or learned through self-teaching and experience, but not much improved through the introspective essays and showy group work that was the mainstay of the program. The idea that graduate students and English language learners need academics to provide us with a world view is ridiculous as well as demeaning!

    Comment by Laurina — May 2, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

  18. There was a horrible point in grad school when I realized that as cool as post modernism, resistance and hybrid identities sounded, all they did was ensure the status quo. Social justice programs often do not appreciate how much they undercut their own purpose by vilifying power/dead white men/corporations as evil. Do I deny that there are bad corporations, evil conniving people kept in power by craven individuals, no, but I don’t presume that is the default setting of power. I personally think we have to be honest with kids, this is the power structure, is it perfect no, but if you want to join it, here is what will be required including grammar, reading and math knowledge. I also would love it if when they made movies like Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers they actually focused on the very unsexy real actions of those teachers- real content teaching.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 3, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

  19. I have been a first-hand witness to our failed teacher preparation approaches for the past 17 years, as my urban Los Angeles middle-school classrooms have been populated with innately brilliant young men and women who possess such extreme deficits in background knowledge, vocabulary and experiences specifically, that they have struggled to survive and prosper in society. It’s no coincidence that the most consistent ‘teacher lounge’ complaints we have about kids is their lack of vocabulary, exposure, and not knowing their times tables at 11-13. While still humbled and appreciative of their words of thanks, I no longer consider it a badge of honor that their 8th grade math teacher was the ‘smartest’ or ‘best’ teacher they ever had. 1 in 12 years is a poor shooting percentage in any endeavor.
    Reflecting upon my own teacher ‘development,’ except for my methods class I’ve learned more about ‘what works’ from what I studied OUTSIDE of my classes; one of my smartest moves was reading “The Schools We Need” right before I started teaching. A ‘shout out’ to Ms. Hansel, because in my early teaching years I found the American Educator magazine a wonderful teacher magazine that seemed to focus on TEACHING vs. wages, benefits, and current edu-political issues.

    Comment by Peter Ford — May 4, 2013 @ 6:52 am

  20. “Many teachers expressed to me directly that they wished they had learned all this research during their preparation programs.” Many teacher preparation programs mandate a course on differentiating/individualizing instruction. How many teachers actually operate in this manner once employed is the problem. Too many continue to teach one bloody lesson to the whole freakin class even after their “training” to do otherwise.

    And our schools and students continue to flounder? How can this be?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 4, 2013 @ 7:33 am

  21. Paul, my experience is that the “differentiating instruction” theorists are a group promoting a lot of trendy and ineffective pedagogies. We have a new state policy in Oregon called “Inclusion” that is replacing the old one called “mainstreaming.” Mainstreaming meant having the students who are below (and sometimes far below) grade level in the same classes with the regular ed. students. It was tacitly acknowledge that they wouldn’t be doing all of the work, but it was better than putting them in a trailer out back. Maybe they would get some of what was being taught. And they often have another teacher accompanying them taking notes and helping them in other ways (in my experience it is often just doing the work for them).

    Inclusion takes this concept further. It means we will have special ed. and honors students in the same classroom and be teaching them the same lesson. The lesson is designed from the bottom up, so it starts with the lowest level learners. It is designed around them. We are supposed to differentiate the lesson so that everyone is equally challenged, but not overly challenged. How do you individualize instruction for a class of 35 students of such wide abilities? I think this is one of the biggest fallacies in teacher education/theory. I would love someone (especially who reads this blog) to tell me that is it possible and that they do it daily.

    When I asked in my graduate program how this was accomplished, I was told that Universal Design for Learning was the key. It is my understanding that Universal Design for Learning is not part of the Core Knowledge or similar models (please correct me if I am wrong).

    Maybe I just haven’t been teaching long enough to see how this works. In the classes I have been in with experienced teachers, I haven’t seen this kind of differentiating of instruction tried at all, let alone successfully.

    I was repeatedly told that all students learn differently, and I had to give them different ways to show their learning. I had one teacher who was extreme in this assertion. If a student can’t write a paper on the Scarlet Letter, she said, let him or her make a short movie about it, or perform a dance interpreting it (I am serious).

    There is only one way to learn to write a paper: doing it over and over and over etc.

    Comment by Jim — May 4, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  22. @Jim

    Oh I am so fighting the problem Jim has identified, the differentiation exercise functionally means that teacher lower standards in all kinds of ways. My daughter, who is in middle school, has a reading disability and struggles to write but is constantly allowed to do an alternative, “create a collage” or write a power point or brochure instead of write the paper. When I push back on her teachers that she can’t learn to write if they keep giving her alternatives, and they don’t work with her they tell me that it is bad for her to feel like she can’t write. College rejection and failure suck too, so does unemployment but my point does not get through. I am instead desperately trying to figure out how pay for a writing tutor because I can’t count on my child’s school. My kid is not in a “failing” DC school, the kids pass the national tests, but they have not figured out differentiation as a method of pushing for success, they have avoided confronting student’s real needs. I have heard a few teachers say they can do it, but nationally I have to say it has been a failure as a policy.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 5, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

  23. I feel for you DC Parent and your point is an important one. Teachers want to protect your daughter’s feelings, but that only sets her up for failure later. It is misplaced sympathy, I guess you might call it. I have seen teachers use this as an excuse because it is easier to offer an alternative. Maybe the teacher is just too busy to give one-on-one help.

    I don’t have that much experience (I do have some) in helping students like your daughter, but I think seeking one-on-one help is a wise decision. Not all tutors are good though, and I am not exactly sure what to tell you to gauge a tutor’s effectiveness.

    Writing is the toughest subject to teach in my experience. When I tutored writing, I helped out in an English class where the teacher assigned long essays. The problem was that most of the students struggled to write a good sentence. It ended up being a lot of wasted effort for the students because the teacher didn’t even finish reading or commenting on the long, poorly written essays when the first paragraph was poorly written.

    If you get a writing tutor, I would recommend that your daughter write frequently and of short length to start.

    You might want to check out some of the literature associated with the Core Knowledge Foundation. I am rereading Dan Willingham’s book, Why Students Don’t Like School (italics) right now. He says that having kids read regularly is of the utmost importance. The quality of reading material also matters. It should be challenging and of interest to her but not too much so, says Willingham.

    The good news is your daughter has a parent who recognizes the problem and wants to remedy it. That puts her ahead of a lot of kids in the public school I have worked at.

    Here is the link to a PDF by another great educator named Gerald Graff. It is called “Hidden Intellectualism.” It may be helpful in finding engaging reading material for your daughter.


    I hope some of this helps, and if others have issue with what I am recommending please feel free to comment or clarify.

    Comment by Jim — May 5, 2013 @ 8:35 pm

  24. The reading issue that Dan Willingham emphasizes is one of my challenges. We have done read alouds either books on CD or me reading of fairly high quality material her whole life, I have not been able to successfully get her to read whole books, short stories but not whole novels ever. I agree that you have to be able to write a sentence or paragraph before you can write an essay and there we are stuck. The essay several months ago in the Atlantic on why students can’t write also highlighted being able to grammatically write sub-clauses. I am also noticing that as a problem. I have met with several tutors and have yet to meet one that I think will actually help her learn to write because they don’t really focus on the grammar part.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 6, 2013 @ 3:51 am

  25. DC Parent: Have you considered placing your daughter OUT of special ed? AFAIK, parents are able to do that. You may have some say in the IEP, too.

    Comment by Hainish — May 6, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  26. DCParent; Palisadesk comments often on http://www.kitchentablemath.blogspot.com and seems very knowledgeable about reading problems. I think she’s taught in the DC area, so may know good tutors. I recommend looking at that site and contacting the blog owner to see if she has contact info.

    Good tutors can make a real difference. A relative’s daughter is dyslexic and the school’s spec ed staff was clueless (what good is a spec ed specialty if you can’t help dyslexics; the method has been known since before WWI). With the help of a private tutor, she needed no IEP by MS, and has since graduated from college (also with no help). Too often, the spec ed teachers simply give the kids answers, rather than teach them how to compensate for their SLD (again, why don’t they know how to do it?)

    Comment by momof4 — May 6, 2013 @ 10:39 am

  27. Differentiated instruction could take place if teachers across grade level collaborate to divide classes into various groups based on their level. It allows educators attend to everybody’s learning needs as well as promotes team work among teachers and students. The workload does not fall on one person who would become overwhelmed and discouraged due to lack of training. The idea of being prepared is mainly based on problem-based research and real collaboration and consistency.

    Comment by Nara — May 8, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  28. [...] Are We Really Waiting for Superman? Mission Impossible: Teaching for Justice without the Canon Fear Factor: Teaching without Training Can the Common Core Standards Reverse the “Rising Tide of Mediocrity”? Making College a Genuine [...]

    Pingback by Are We Really Waiting for Superman? « The Core Knowledge Blog — May 10, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

  29. @Paul Hoss Differentiation should be embedded into every day teaching , become natural. There are teachers who would admit that it doesn’t happen because it is labour intensive. It pays back when activities are pre-organized and become a routine so every child’s need is attended. However, it is relatively difficult when learning support experts teach in isolation without consulting so children are completely lost and confused.

    Comment by Nara — May 17, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  30. Differentiation is a vague concept. In Oregon “mainstreaming” special ed. students is on the way out and “Inclusion” is the new policy. We have special ed. students and what would be honors students (few schools actually have honors classes here) in the same classroom. Differentiation is the means by which we are supposed to design lessons that equally challenge all of the students. I think the sentiment guiding it is that we don’t want to hurt some kids’ self-esteem by putting them in remedial classes. So the kids who like school and put in a lot of effort often get bored and start to hate school because the teachers are spending all of their time and energy on the kids who are struggling (and often not even making any effort from my experience). I don’t really believe in differentiation which says that some kids are more visual learners, some more of this kind or that kind. The way I have seen it manifest in classrooms is a teacher will say, “so you struggle with writing? draw me a picture of a theme in The Scarlet Letter” or some other such nonsense. If you struggle with writing there should be no alternative way to fulfill a particular assignment. There is only one way to learn to write and that is to do over and over and over. A lot of teachers I see in my area can’t even bare to see a student struggle with something so they find some way to make it easier and in the end lower expectations.

    Comment by Jim — May 17, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  31. On the last third of page 51 in “The Schools We Need” E.D. Hirsch Jr. dismisses the emphasis on “individual differences” and “learning styles.” He says: “Nonetheless, a stress upon different learning styles and other individual differences continues to be presented as highly promising reform novelty.

    Comment by Jim — May 17, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

  32. @Jim One would not facilitate writers by merely having them write and write if supporting strategies are not provided. Differentiation cant’e be viewed as making the process easier but equipping struggling writers with necessary skills and knowledge that would allow them cope with further challenge. It si a process that could be established on certain steps, e.g. from one word to a sentence, to a paragraph. The issue is how educators implement differentiation.

    Comment by Nara — May 21, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

  33. Nara, teaching students to write means starting with words and writing good sentences before moving on to paragraphs and essays (it also includes many more components including conventions, logic, rhetoric etc). I don’t see how you can “differentiate” it. Sure, some students will move more slowly through the process and spend more or less time mastering certain parts of the process, but the process is, for the most part, the same for everyone.

    The way differentiation is currently promoted (at least as it was to me) says that this (writing) process is too hard for some kids because they have different learning styles (see Hirsch quote above). Because many kids have different learning styles (some say), they should have their own ways of showing mastery or understanding outside the traditional method.

    I think we might have slightly different definitions of what exactly differentiation is.

    It was continually emphasized in my MAT program that when I gave an assignment, I needed to give students a # of choices for how to fulfill the assignment. I had to differentiate it for the students’ different learning styles.

    The way I understand E.D. Hirsch’s words, he is calling into question this assumption of different, unique learning STYLES that are only served through a differentiated curriculum.

    In a sense, the concept of differentiation has been applied to education in general; it explains, in part, how the schools have drifted away from teaching specific content.

    Education, in general, has been “differentiated” to where each teacher gets to choose what to teach and how to teach it. It has been a rebellion against uniformity and proscription of content largely informed by cultural and social justice theory.

    Comment by Jim — May 21, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

  34. I am not sure about the states where you teach, but MD has been preparing us for the switch to CCSS. This year will be the 3rd summer PD to prepare teachers for CCSS and how to implement it. Not only is MD working on CCSS for Math and ELA, but also STEM. Switching to CCSS and from our current way of teaching is totally different. For the systems that are not preparing, the teachers will be very frustrated. No longer is the teaching centered on the teacher, it switches to the student and having them to be more proactive, engaged, and able to apply their knowledge. I feel this is the best thing the country has done with education, finally what we teach in MD is equal and on par with what it taught in other states.

    Comment by William Knopf — May 21, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

  35. […] things that some already knew.”  In searching for relevant material online, I came upon an interesting blog post at The Core Knowledge Blog by Lisa Hansel.  The article discusses an apparent lack in teacher training in pedagogical instructor education […]

    Pingback by research + reflect: Reflective Writing / PIDP3230 – patchworkhorse — January 20, 2016 @ 2:38 am

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