Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform
reviewed by Joan Y. Pedro - April 26, 2007
Title: Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform
Author(s): Mary M. Kennedy
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674022459 , Pages: 288, Year: 2006
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Mary Kennedy has produced a very interesting and thought-provoking book which captures the heart of teaching and the many drawbacks that teachers encounter in the classroom. The main aim of this book is to portray the way teaching really looks and to learn why reform efforts are not generally successful. Kennedy puts forth the notion that teachers are aware of reform efforts but that they are so burdened with the everyday orchestration of teaching and learning that reform is not always at the forefront of their thinking or practice. Kennedy carefully and in a very powerful way has produced research on teaching that is valuable in this age of reform, and which represents the constant struggle faced by educators as they seek to balance high-quality instructional practices with external calls for accountability that often come from corporate and public leaders (Begley & Stefkovich, 2004). The title of the text led me to believe that the author took on the massive task of investigating how life in the classroom can undermine reform; however, she provides the impetus for serious discussion on reform efforts by both teachers and reformers.
Kennedy has structured the book into eight chapters, with a powerful introduction that presents different hypotheses regarding failure of reform. The research was conducted to support or refute the hypotheses that teachers lack sufficient knowledge or guidance, and that teachers beliefs and values differ from those of reformers. Kennedy also contends that teachers have dispositions that may interfere with the ability to implement reforms, and that the problem may lie in the act of teaching itself. Kennedy includes a provocative hypothesis that the reforms may be unattainable or may actually impede practice as the icing on the cake of failed reform ideals. The study then sets out to produce evidence around three broad research questions 1) what teachers are actually doing, 2) how teachers account for these practices, and 3) where teachers got the ideas that motivated their practice (pp. 18-19).
Throughout the book there is an abundance of information on the various classroom episodes and teacher behaviors that lend support to or refute the major hypotheses. The research reveals that there are differences in the beliefs and values of teachers and reformers, and indicates that teachers intentions are much wider than those of reformers. We cannot assume that all stakeholders have the same or shared vision. In her book Kennedy has given voice to teachers to help them identify and verbalize their fears, current reality, and their vision for teaching and learning. Kennedy was able to unearth various concerns in the ways teachers thought about their practice. She found that there was an emotional valence to teachers intentions. Although teachers embraced the idea of engagement they thought less about intellectual engagement. These episodes provide insight into real dilemmas for teachers and can be the caveat that teachers use to see ourselves as we really are, and not through rose-colored lenses.
Kennedy presents powerful evidence from classroom episodes that supports the hypothesis that teaching itself impedes or militates against reform ideals. Examples of interruptions, not enough time to think, and the intrusion of outside distraction all contribute to the fact that teachers have so much to do in so little time, that they are not always fully prepared or do not have control over their instruction or classrooms. Most importantly, efficiency is deeply rooted in the history of education and in school culture and can sometimes take precedence over effective teaching.
Content coverage is very important in terms of teacher knowledge and how much they know. Kennedy does a good job of examining teacher knowledge by exploring different aspects of conversation between teachers and students in the study. There are examples of how teachers dealt with unexpected student ideas, the routines teachers created to interact with students, and the ways in which teachers interrogated students. Kennedy concludes that active and engaged students are highly likely to generate ideas that teachers do not anticipate. She also points reformers into the direction of teacher knowledge relevant to their manageable boundaries. The findings also revealed that even when teachers had a good grasp on the content, they were frequently faced with students unexpected ideas and often did not know how to guide the students toward the ideas they want to pursue. The problem of managing time while increasing intellectual engagement is another important aspect that must be considered. The lesson for reformers here is to think about the exchange between covering content and active intellectual engagement.
Another important aspect of teacher knowledge explored in the book is the kinds of learning and the ways reformers have impacted curriculum delivery. Teachers attend to the state standards but the finding reveals that despite the widespread influence of content standards, many lessons are devoid of important content. There are logistical complications where materials and activities distract from the content that should be taught. A prevailing conclusion in the book is that although students intellectual engagement depends on the learning activities, there is no connection between the broad range of activities teachers engage in and any reform ideal.
Are reform ideals unattainable? Kennedy seeks to answer this question by looking at the problems found in teaching. She looks at the time and energy that teachers already put into teaching and concludes that maybe they simply have no more time or energy to devote to reform ideals. This conclusion is well supported by Tyack & Cuban (1995) who concluded that exhausted teachers returned to previous practice; and Huberman (1994) who found that teachers lacked interest in reform because of disagreement with the reform or disappointment and tiredness caused by earlier reforms (p.198). Kennedy also cites skepticism on the part of teachers that because of the hindrances found in teaching many of the reform ideals are difficult to reach. Many of us have fought to implement reform efforts afforded by workshops and education mandates, but without the support of the school we retreated back to our comfort zones.
In examining the ways that teachers used informal sources, institutional sources and knowledge vending sources to improve their teaching practice, Kennedy concludes that none of these sources are guaranteed to move teaching practices closer to reform ideals. She further suggests that reform ideals may be feasible if teachers beliefs and dispositions were altered, and if the circumstances of teaching were changed: however, these aspects are inextricably linked to and reflect the larger society, and in many ways are not changeable.
Kennedys study has placed on stage many relevant facts and nuances of the work of teachers and has sought to demonstrate through this extensive research study why it is nearly impossible to engage in reform efforts. Every teacher who reads this book will recognize and relate to the complex energy that emanates and pervades the classroom atmosphere where teachers are bombarded with a multitude of decision-making episodes on a daily basis. I found it very interesting to look back into real classrooms and digest some of the revealing results. Teachers can gain many thoughtful insights into teaching, and reformers can gain a better understanding of how teachers operate and move away from their narrow lenses of how teaching should be performed. School reform needs good teaching and can be improved when we consider the complexities of teaching.
Begley, P., & Stefkovich, J. (2004). Education, ethics, and the cult of efficiency: Implications for values and leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 42(2), 132-136.
Huberman, M. (1994). The lives of teachers. NY: Teachers College Press.
Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.