In “Classroom Teaching in 2030,” Dan Willingham “looks back” at 20 years of evolving classroom practice to describe four “mental obstacles” teachers face that make their work needlessly difficult–impossible, really–and depress student achievement. The backward glance conceit, of course, is a clever way of describing what ought to be done; it invites a kind of, “Yeah, why do we expect teachers to do all this” perspective on current classroom practice.
Why, for example, do we expect teachers to write their own coherent curricula?
“Selecting the most important concepts in a field and putting them in an order that will make sense to students requires deep knowledge of a discipline—knowledge that most teachers or administrators simply did not have. In the absence of such knowledge, teachers could (and did) write curricula, but many of them were likely less than optimal. This problem was all the more challenging for elementary teachers, who were expected to provide foundational knowledge on which later teachers could build and to do so for multiple subjects.
Similarly, teachers are expected to write their own lesson plans, “cope with enormous diversity of student preparation,” and effectively handle chronically disruptive students, Willingham writes. They are also expected to “improve their craft without any opportunity to practice.”
“One damaging misunderstanding was the confusion of ‘experience’ with ‘practice.’ These are not the same thing. For example, my driving improved substantially during my first six months behind the wheel because I practiced driving. But during the subsequent thirty years I haven’t improved much, although I’ve gained experience. Practice differs from experience: when we practice, we actively try to improve. We note what we are doing wrong and seek alternate ways of doing things. Practice also requires expert feedback; it’s hard to spot your own mistakes. A teacher may recognize that students are bored, but she may not always see why. In 2010, no procedures were in place to make practice part of a teacher’s job. Teachers worked in isolation and so could not provide feedback to one another.”
From his imagined vantage point 20 years hence, Willingham describes how the eventual creation and adoption of national standards, curricula and tests conspired to create the conditions that allowed some of these mental hurdles to be cleared, creating conditions that favored wide collaboration among teachers.
“Although the changes of the last twenty years have been described as the removal of mental obstacles for the teacher, it should be borne in mind that the changes have had important consequences for students: classrooms that are less chaotic and instruction that follows a sensible, structured sequence within and across years, delivered via methods that have been tried and shown to work,” he concludes.
Willingham’s clever piece is one in a series of essays by members of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on K-12 education titled American Education in 2030.