Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 12 2012

Why is teaching now different from teaching in the ’50s?

Here goes: why is teaching now different from teaching in the 1950s?

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but I’m serious. Maybe my picture of ’50s classrooms is way off the mark (confession: it’s coming from movies), but I have this picture that back in the day kids sat in rows, teachers taught from the front of the class, and lessons came out of textbooks. Not group projects. Not kinesthetic learning. Not engaging, video hooks to catch attention or powerpoint Jeopardy to make review fun. And yet entire generations of kids were educated this way, and they’re currently running our country so it must have worked at least a little (must refrain from sarcastic comments about how our country is run…).

So what changed? Why is it unthinkable that we teach that way anymore? Kids used to learn that way, but I (think I) know if I styled my classroom like that my students would be asleep, out of control, or at the very least not learning.

I have 2 theories, but I’d love to hear other people’s ideas. Here are my thoughts on possible reasons:

  1. We don’t teach kids in that static, rote-learning way anymore because kids have changed. The advent of TV and video games has made kids less receptive to static classrooms. There’s a bunch of startling data supporting the idea that our attention spans have shortened (according to one study, to about 12.5 minutes, the average length between commercial breaks). Kids are used to instant gratification from technology, be it Call of Duty Black Ops gunfire or TI-83 instant multiplication. It’s harder for them to maintain focus on things that don’t have those bells and whistles. It’s not that they can’t learn that way, it’s that the rest of their fast-paced, high-tech lives have left them unprepared to try.
  2. We don’t teach kids in that static, rote-learning way anymore because it never worked that well to start with. Even though some kids succeeded in those classrooms, some kids didn’t. We just didn’t care as much about those that didn’t. Why not? Maybe because we believed that our system was a just meritocracy and those that succeeded deserved it. Or maybe because the kids who didn’t succeed then were the same children who struggle now: the poor kids, the kids with learning disabilities, the minority kids, all of whom would have fewer advocates crying for a system overhaul. Maybe the ’50s-era classroom wasn’t fantastic either, but at the time we as a society simply didn’t expect that ALL children in this nation would have the opportunity to attain an excellent education (whether we expect that now is up for debate).

I realize that it’s a little odd for an almost-23-year-old to be ruminating on the relative merits of the education policies of a decade forty years before her own birth, but humor me. What do you think? Are my reasons oversimplified? Am I way off base on what those classrooms looked like? IS teaching now different from teaching in the ’50s?

On another note, there is a GIANT spider crawling across my floor right now. Gotta love the desert creatures.

2 Responses

  1. Disclaimer: this is from the perspective of teaching secondary—things may be entirely different for elementary.

    I obviously didn’t go to school in the 50s, but I distinctly remember my almost invariable high school experience of sitting in rows, the teacher standing at the front of the classroom the entire time, and lessons coming out the textbook—or sometimes made up on the spot. I’m not arguing for this style and I would never think to use it in my own classroom, but contrary to your second theory, a large majority of my peers learned the material, did well on tests, and went to great colleges. Why doesn’t this style work in the schools that we’re in? I suspect that in addition to your first theory, two additional factors are in play:

    (1) My peers and I were invested in our classes because the content was at an appropriate level. My high school program was comprised of kids who needed to be given extremely rigorous content in order to stay engaged. (My junior and senior year schedules were entirely AP classes.) Analogously, our kids need content that meets them where they are—let’s be real, it’s tough to learn Algebra 2 when you can barely add and subtract integers or solve an equation. Barring the possibility of this, thanks to unrealistic curricula and pacing guides, strategies like the ones you mentioned are probably necessary to keep kids engaged.

    (2) It’s perfectly possible that our kids would also do okay in an all-rows, teacher-at-front, textbook-based classoom—if it were explicitly taught and reinforced from a young age what it looks like to pay attention, take good notes, and grapple with the material. This is often not the case though, which is why we as teachers need to use other strategies as workarounds. That being said, I’m pretty certain that things like group work and kinesthetic learning are powerful teaching tools in their own right, so I don’t mind putting in the time investment to develop them.

  2. Miss Friday

    The reasons why teaching today is different today than it was 60 years ago are so numerous as to be impossible to enumerate in a simple blog comment. If you are truly interested in the whys, I would encourage you to ask your parents and grandparents about their schooling and then start reading. E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch are good places to start. If you want a clear overview of the forest try Invsible Serfs Collar, which should be read from the beginning and is quite depressing.

    You assume the only thing that has changed since the ’50s has been students. True, students are different, but not as much as you think. What has really changed? How about:

    1) teacher training
    2) administrator training
    3) adult (read: parent and administrator) attitudes towards other adults (read: teachers)
    4) adult (read: parent and administrator) attitudes towards children
    5) societal expectations of education (Hint: 60 years ago not everyone was forced into college-prep courses.)
    6) societal demands of schools (Hint: 60 years ago, schools were not required to solve all social problems.)

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