Wise Words


THE curriculum is ”sterile.” Topics of great human interest ”on the way to the classroom are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal.” Students ”scarcely ever speculate on meanings” or discuss ”alternative interpretations.” Teachers ”teach as they were taught” years ago in their own schooling. All the messages received by them ”conspire to reinforce the status quo. The cards are stacked against innovation.”

These are not observations on a single dismal school; they are conclusions gleaned from a summary report by the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles, in a seven-year study of American schooling. The study, considered one of the most extensive critiques of contemporary public education, dispatched teams of researchers into 1,016 classrooms in elementary, junior high and high schools. In addition, it collected curriculum information and samples of textbooks and other teaching materials from all 50 states and the districts in which the schools examined are located.

If the improvement of schools so much talked about and so widely desired simply continues on its present course, the Dean warns in his report, the schools will remain very much as they are.

He complains of a ”sameness” of instruction, with teachers doing virtually all the talking. He found that, on the average, only seven of 150 minutes of instruction in the course of a school day involved teachers’ responses to individual students. Feedback and guidance to help students understand and correct their mistakes were often ”almost nonexistent.”

Few activities, the Dean reports, called for, or even permitted, planning by students. The fact that social studies, which ought to spark a great deal of excitement, actually rated at or near the bottom of the list of interest, the Dean said, ”must give us pause. Why this sterility?”

One major reason, he believes, is that while a great deal is expected of the schools, from teaching the fundamentals to creating civilized adults, ”whether schools are satisfying places for the students who attend them is largely irrelevant or of only passing concern.” The message teachers get from outside the school is ”back-to-basics and more discipline,” a message that does little to stimulate imaginative planning by teachers and leaves even less room for change. Most teachers, in their training, read about some of the more interesting alternative ways of teaching, such as those advocated by John Dewey and by other reformers since his time; but the Dean found that in their classrooms teachers have little or no opportunity to test such ideas.

This means that for most students school is a place in which to listen, to respond occasionally when called on, to read short sections of texbooks and write short responses to questions on quizzes. Students rarely, the study found, read or wrote anything of some length. Most of the time, they listened or worked alone.

The same, he added, is also true of most teachers. Many of the 1,350 teachers in the study’s sample appeared not to be working together on problems of importance to their own schools. Nor did they meet with teachers from other schools, inside or outside their districts, to deal with matters of common interest. When efforts were made to help them improve their teaching, they usually attended short-term or even one-shot courses, initiated by the district or the county, often imposed by outside consultants.

”My mouth waters over the ways the money spent could be put to better use,” the Dean says. He considers it ironic that while every statement of goals for schooling, whether it comes from the state, from legislative committees, or from groups of educators or parents, tends to be broad and far-ranging, all the practice in school and classroom is geared to keeping things as they are. Teachers often ”run a serious risk of censure” if they try to break out of the mold.

”The policy makers are attuned to statistics, the business community, the state of higher education – to the larger political scene.”

Since teachers are sensitive to pressures imposed by state and district testing programs, ”they get the message. The other messages – that there are goals beyond those that the tests measure … and that education means the deliberate, long-term cultivation of knowing, traits of character, and human sensibilities – are faint to begin with, and they are drowned out by the more immediate and stronger message,” which is not to rock the boat.

Yet while the researchers found that changes mandated from the top down are generally ineffective, school management is rigged in a way that practically insures that changes always are imposed on teachers by higher outside authority. ”Presumably persons in Federal, state and local education offices are there to do something. Not having schools to run, their attention tends to turn to giving direction to those who do.”

Fortunately, he adds, Americans are slowly coming to realize that much that has guided their economic development, land use and management is anachronistic – and so is the management of the schools. ”Bits and pieces” of the kinds of theories and practices that might bring about the necessary changes to renew the public schools are ”knocking about” in the literature and in many educators’ minds, the Dean says.


from a New York Times article.


In 1983.

The Dean was John Goodlad. His obituary can be found here.

Plus ça change.



Oh: happy new year.


14 thoughts on “Wise Words”

  1. You know you are a thought leader, a real educator, essentially an art in its own right, when your website is linked to a new piece of Art!


    Thank you for all that you share for so many. Your work has been a tremendous influence!



  2. This article didn’t seem out of date to me – at least not 30 years of progress. We have the technology and strategies today that can provide personalized learning (the holy grail of “no child left behind”) and yet we cling to the en masse approach of instruction and assessments. There’s so much more we can do.

  3. Never came to my school. We’re using a junk mailing from a meat and produce vendor this morning to study unit rates and “best deal” analysis. We’re reading “The Number Devil” in leveled groups with activities and writing to demonstrate our understanding. We use Dan Meyer’s 3-Act Math weekly to explore math in the real world. The best teaching advice I ever got was: “make the kids do the work…” BTW: we’re a Charter in suburban Boston.

    • I like the mantra “let the kids do the work”– and I think it’s also important to be careful in defining what constitutes great ‘work’. Sometimes thinking in silence and intensive listening constitute great work, necessary work–even though this kind of work isn’t empirically verifiable (and therefore less valuable given our current assumptions on learning). Sometimes silent thinking and intensive listening are preceded by teacher talking. It’s all a balance.

  4. This was the source from which I learned about “thick research.” And, I never have quite understood why it was ignored, except as required reading and forgetting in graduate courses.
    If there was a reluctance among teachers to take risks then, how much greater it must be now.

  5. I was surprised until I saw the study was from 1983. In my state we have been encouraged, via the state wide teacher evaluation model, to do everything but what that study found. We are encouraged to have students talk more than us, work in groups of various sizes, and collaborate with other teachers. The result for many of us thus far has been chaos. The students who have no desire to learn and only a desire to disrupt are running the classrooms; while those who desire to learn are becoming frustrated.
    I think the reason experts have decided teachers doing most of the talking is ineffective is that fewer teachers are skilled at it. Public speaking should be required in all education programs. If that is the way a particular teacher can be effective; then they should be allowed to teach that way. If not; then they shouldn’t be forced to.
    By the way; I was in elementary and middle school during the years of that study. I received a top-notch education from teachers using those “outdated” methods in the same school system I teach in now. Unfortunately, the students there now are not getting the same education.

  6. How ironic.

    Here’s a different way of looking at this. I think one of the problems with the current reform is that it focuses too much on student learning (that’s not a typo) and not enough on human learning (student, teacher and administrators TOGETHER).

    The very same expectations that are imposed upon teachers — to differentiate instruction for instance and to tap into the individual, unique needs of each student; that is, to FIGHT conformist learning experiences– should be the very same expectations placed on administrators and schools who support teachers. Instead, what we have are standardized rubrics for teacher evaluation, standardized curriculum, standardized tests– all imposed conveniently for data collection which ends up being very reductionist. All of this reform rests periously on positivist science and the philosophical assumption that all teachers learn alike, teach alike and therefore should be treated the same. Like students are able to sniff out being treated differently in class, teachers sense the hypocrisy here. Is it any wonder that the environment is becoming sterile?

    The good news is that what we are learning about learning- the importance of questions, discussion, student-directed activities etc… is providing a fertile ground for reform. If only we don’t forget about the adults!!

  7. That took me a while! [to realize it wasn’t another recent study that found the same results…] Would it be such a surprise that a study found all this sterility and stagnation still in place today? Yet Goodlad also maintained optimism that the good ideas would cycle back. Teachers are ready and open—as they were in 1983—to bring more meaning and energy to the time they spend each day with their students.

    Although the history of educational reform can sometimes seem so depressing—it also can be uplifting! In honor of a new year — and in memory of champions of the progressive spirit like Goodlad-let’s concentrate on those bright spots of educational grace and wisdom that teachers somehow manage in the jungle of mixed messages and demeaning edicts!

  8. Of course I’ll be civil! We all yearn for the same thing here.

    My comment: Though we still have far too much of 1983 happening today, I see improvements everywhere I go. I want it to go faster – yes. Kids pay the price of our snail-paced reform and that is unacceptable. That said, without hope and careful nurturing of the improvements that are happening, we are most certainly lost. So, from my perspective as a consultant that sees teachers learning and trying and discussing and doing far more talking in pursuit of their own learning, I say that it is a happier new year now than it was last year, at least in regards to school reform on a teacher-by-teacher level.

  9. John Goodlad was a professor in my Master’s program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington. He inspired us to adhere to value excellence and equity and to use those values as the measure by which we made programmatic choices as leaders. Thank you for the post in tribute to Dr. Goodlad–it reminded me of a great influence in my life.

  10. Could ‘change’ in education at heart just be a process of peeling the onion, and then carefully replacing the layers until the “new” onion is ready to be sliced and diced? A tearful metaphor, but students have had to listen to the same stories, units, and lessons for a long, long time. And the result, too often, is tedium, numbness, and comatose marking of test sheets. The pressure to teach-by-talking isn’t just external — though that force is real — but also internal: when one is talking, one feels in control and command. Stellar teachers let go of that, and allow students/learners to grasp the knowledge and wrestle with it, work with it.

    Mere talking doesn’t signify learning – just as sheer talking does not equate to teaching. But when students know that true struggling through a problem, conflict, issue, or idea means they can/should talk it through in class, learning is going to flare up — and a good teacher will fan the flame. Shouldn’t we be moving the power increasingly away from the teacher to the learner — for real, and not just in abstraction? We keep talking (!) about that…but the guide on the side is still an empty mantra to most, with the sage on the stage still largely the practical reality.

    Let’s hear what the learners have to say – don’t we want them grabbing the content, skills, competencies, and all that good stuff? They’re the ones who have to peel the onions finally, saute the vegetables, and prepare the meal — let’s help them by at least giving them fifty percent of the air-time. I bet there would be fewer tears, more excitement, and we’d all enjoy dinner-time a lot more!

  11. Whether it is the study you refer to or Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, it seems that we have known and continue to know what needs to be changed. But it simply won’t. As a school board member it is very frustrating; change seems to be anathema; even for the parents that scream for student achievement.

  12. Interesting! We should start a book club and read one book every 3 months. Something to consider!

    Sent from my iPhone

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