“Traditional”: An Unpleasant Word to Reformers

November 28, 2012

I was startled last week when one of my students was presenting her project report to our seminar. She had been examining a “flipped” course that she and 41 other Stanford students were taking along with 40,000 other in this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A “flipped” class means that students see professor-made video lectures at home rather than the professor taking up class time to lecture and ask students questions. During the one afternoon a week allotted to the seminar, they would then discuss in small groups, pairs, and the large group the concepts covered in the video. Thus, a “flipped” class mixes online instruction for homework with a seminar where the professor and students explore concepts, raise questions, collaborate with one another, and practice analytic skills. At least that the theory of a “flipped” class. Whether it turned out that way, I do not know.

What startled me was her comparison of that course to the class I was teaching. She said my seminar was “traditional” as opposed to the “flipped” course she and the other students were taking. I did not sense criticism in the word and I felt none. She had compared the two courses and clearly my seminar was “traditional” compared to the “flipped one.”

To be quite honest, I had not thought that my seminar was “traditional.” I did not lecture for 30 or 40 minutes. While I did structure the class around central questions for the seminar to answer, I had small groups and pairs of students wrestle with data I presented to them or that appeared in the readings they had for that day’s seminar. I would have groups report out their findings and discuss the results. Often I would ask open-ended questions and then have students make a forced choice on the options I presented them, followed up with questions that got at the reasons for their answers.

Yes, I did have a syllabus. Yes, students had readers and they were expected to have completed the selections prior to our twice weekly seminar. Yes, I planned the questions and activities for our sessions of an hour and 50 minutes each. Yes, I guided the discussion with the questions although on many occasions, student responses took the discussion in a direction I had not anticipated. And, yes, I made all of the decisions on which question I would pursue with the group, who to call upon, and when to segue to the next activity. When you total all the above “yesses” up, my student’s description of the seminar  as a “traditional” course is accurate compared to a “flipped” course.

So why was I startled by my seminar being characterized, innocently to be sure, as “traditional?” I suspect that it is the word itself that got to me. As a high school teacher for many years, as a professor for decades, and as a researcher who delved into the many reform efforts to alter  how teachers have taught over the past century, the word “traditional” had connotations that bothered me.

Traditional meant boring classes. Traditional meant that the teacher was the fount of all knowledge and authority. Traditional meant that students were passive listeners.

Yet as both a teacher and researcher I had seen peers and other teachers masterfully teach traditional lessons where students were thoroughly engaged, rapt with attention, and deeply involved in the activities that the teacher had prepared.

What it came down to was that as a reform-minded teacher and administrator for decades in public schools I had styled myself as someone who was non-traditional in both the way I taught and the reforms I sought out in curriculum, instruction, school organization, and governance.

“Traditional” was a negatively-charged word. Among reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, the word meant the no-good past, boring lessons, teacher-controlled classrooms, and little learning. It was the opposite of constructivist, progressive teachers and principals who sought student-centered learning. With the current spread of online learning, blended schools, and “flipped” classes “traditional” has come to mean everything thought to be ineffective and tiresome in teaching and learning.

I think I was startled by my student’s report because I, too, had become caught up in the reform rhetoric that dirtied the word “traditional.” Of course, that is foolish. When applied to teaching, “traditional” covers a wide range of lessons and classroom experiences that have diverse effects on both teachers and students–some thrive in such settings, some make-do, and others shrivel. I knew that before my student labeled my seminar “traditional.” I just had to learn it again.

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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into...