Myths and Misconceptions About Teaching: What Really Happens in Classrooms
reviewed by Kathryn J.M. Underwood - July 28, 2006
Title: Myths and Misconceptions About Teaching: What Really Happens in Classrooms
Author(s): Vicki E. Snider
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578863465, Pages: 215, Year: 2006
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Recent trends in education have encouraged democratic and holistic approaches to learning through discovery-oriented teaching approaches. At the same time, research on teaching for students with learning difficulties and disabilities suggests that direct instruction, explicit teaching, and highly regulated learning environments are the best practice for teaching special education classes. These distinct theoretical approaches have been used to argue that regular classrooms are inappropriate learning environments for students with learning difficulty, disabilities, or behavior disorders (Kauffman, 1999; Kauffman & Sasso, 2006). Vicki Sniders new book, Myths and Misconceptions About Teaching: What Really Happens in the Classroom, challenges whether regular classrooms with holistic, discovery-oriented and democratic philosophies are appropriate teaching environments for any students. Snider suggests that the most effective teaching methods are direct instruction, explicit teaching, and highly structured curricular environments. She bases this argument on empirical evidence of the effectiveness of these teaching methods.
Snider proposes that many teaching strategies have come from theories of learning that have not been empirically tested, such as multiple intelligence, and that student failures to a large extent can be explained by the fact that education systems do not empirically test teaching methods and curricula. She argues that the trend toward whole language, discovery-oriented, and experiential approaches to learning hinders learning at best, and at worst, actually causes some students to have learning difficulties. Snider instead advocates curriculum that is proven successful in rigorous testing. She uses extensive reading research as an example, pointing out that the scrutiny of reading instruction indicates that phonics and direct instruction are proven effective teaching strategies. Current general education practice, Snider suggests, has been undermined by six myths or misconceptions about teaching that arise from untested theories that have become widely accepted. These myths are as follows:
that learning outcomes are not as important as learning process;
that learning has to be fun and interesting rather than hard work and sometimes difficult;
that good teaching is always eclectic rather than due to proven methods that work for most children;
that teachers have intrinsic characteristics that make them good teachers;
that individual students have unique learning styles;
and that learning difficulties or disabilities are intrinsic characteristics of students rather than the result of poor teaching.
Research on teaching has given us an important understanding of good teaching practice. The approach to teaching presented in Myths and Misconceptions About Teaching: What Really Happens in the Classroom presents the best of the findings from what has been called the process product and effective teaching literature. The process product literature, which has been replaced with the effective teaching literature in more recent studies, focuses on which teaching methods lead to measurable achievement outcomes for students (Englert, Tarant & Mariage, 1992). This seemingly straightforward aim, however, has met with opposition from advocates for equitable and democratic education. Research on effective instruction, with its emphasis on empirical outcomes, often leaves out the variables related to social environment in the classroom, simply because they are difficult to measure. One of the challenges to Sniders approach is to contextualize scientifically tested curricula. In order to address barriers to accessing curricular content, it could be argued that we need to also understand the culture of a school, the attitudes of peers and adults in the schools, and the relationship of the school to the community. All of these factors potentially influence the ability of a teacher to deliver high quality teaching, and a students ability to digest the curriculum to its maximum effect.
Recent research is now indicating that the seemingly contradictory approaches of direct instruction and discovery-oriented teaching strategies are in fact compatible in classrooms where students have mixed ability levels (McGhie-Richmond, Underwood & Jordan, 2005; Brophy, 2002). It is clear that explicit teaching strategies have been given short shrift, to the detriment of students with learning difficulties or disabilities (and may indeed cause learning disabilities), but I would hesitate to advocate these instructional practices alone. Brophy warns against oversimplifying the relationship between these two teaching strategies because, he argues, optimal teaching varies with grade level and instructional goals, and needs a blend of the two teaching methods. In fact, some data indicate that a combination of cognitive strategies and direct instruction is optimal for students with learning disabilities (Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998). In addition, it appears that the most effective teachers for all students combine transmissive and constructivist strategies that support both skill development and higher order thinking development by maximizing time spent on instructional activities and engaging students in the learning process (McGhie-Richmond, Underwood & Jordan, 2005).
Sniders approach to effective teaching is grounded in the positivist position that asserts that the dispositional characteristics of individual teachers are unrelated to their quality of teaching. However, there is also a growing and fairly well accepted body of literature that indicates that intrinsic characteristics such as teachers epistemological beliefs and beliefs about disability are predictive of the strategies which they employ in their practice (Jordan & Stanovich, 2004; Kagan, 1992; Muijs & Reynolds, 2002; Underwood, 2006). Thus, I would argue that a combination of intrinsic characteristics and good curricula lead to effective teaching, measurable in student achievement. It should be noted here that students who have low incidence or complex disabilities are primarily left out of the discussion of effective teaching in regular classrooms, both in Sniders book and in the literature on effective teaching.
One of the complexities of effective teaching, as Snider describes, is that empirically tested teaching methods should be developmentally appropriate. As an example, Snider claims that decoding strategies need to be employed for early readers while comprehension strategies need to be employed for more advanced readers. Snider offers this as evidence that diverse learning styles (a popular idea in current pedagogical theory) are in fact related to the level of development of the learner, rather than their intrinsic characteristics. The challenge for teachers then lies in differentiating instruction for developmental levels, rather than for diverse learning styles. Not all students learn at the same pace; it is the responsibility of teachers to monitor their students learning and to calibrate their instruction for each students current stage of development.
Sniders approach is a refreshing examination of how teaching affects student outcomes, rather than the traditional approach to learning difficulty and disability that focuses on diagnosing student deficits. This approach is long overdue and Sniders book adds a critical dimension to understanding how teaching practice can disable learners. The book provides an in-depth analysis of effective teaching practices in the classroom. At times, Snider leaves out some of the complexities of the classroom that make implementation of effective teaching difficult. However, her book is one that covers much of the research on teaching that is missing from teacher preparation programs in North America.
Brophy, J. (2002). Introduction. In J. Brophy (Ed.) Social constructivist teaching: Affordances and constraints. Advances in research on teaching, (Vol. 9). Boston, MA: JAI.
Englert, C.S., Tarrant, K.L. & Mariage, T.V. (1992). Defining and redefining instructional practices in special education: Perspectives on good teaching. Teacher Education and Special Education, 15(2), 62-86.
Jordan, A. & Stanovich, P. (2004). The beliefs and practices of Canadian teachers about including students with special needs in their regular elementary classrooms. Exceptionality Education Canada, 14(2&3), 25-46.
Kagan, D. M. (1992). Implications of research on teacher belief. Educational Psychologist, 27(1), 65-90.
Kauffman, J.M. (1999). Commentary: Todays special education and its messages for tomorrow. The Journal of Special Education, 32(4), 244-254.
Kauffman, J.M. & Sasso, G.M. (2006). Toward ending cultural and cognitive relativism in special education. Exceptionality, 14(2), 65-90.
McGhie-Richmond, D., Underwood, K. & Jordan, A. (2005, August). The acquisition of instructional practices for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Paper presented at the Inclusive and Supportive Education Conference, Glasgow, Scotland.
Muijs, D. & Reynolds, D. (2002). Teachers beliefs and behaviours: What really matters? Journal of Classroom Interaction, 37(2), 3-15.
Swanson, H.L. & Hoskyn, M. (1998). Experimental intervention research on students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis of treatment outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 68(3), 277-321.
Underwood, K. (2006). Teacher and parent beliefs about the nature of barriers to learning for students with disabilities: An analysis of theory and practice. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto.