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Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

Lessons Learned in 4th-Grade Classrooms

Mark A. Clarke, Alan Davis, Lynn K. Rhodes

University of Colorado at Denver

& Elaine DeLott Baker

Community College of Denver

For the past thirty years or so the profession has been focused on teaching method in one way or another. Over thirty years ago, Anthony articulated the distinction of approach, method, technique, and the profession has used this basic framework in all subsequent discussions of teaching (Anthony, 1963; Clarke, 1983; Clarke, 1984; Clarke, 1994; Richards & Rodgers, 1986). The focus on method has been productive. However, in 1976, Earl Stevick presented us with a conundrum that has not yet been resolved:

In the field of language teaching, Method A is the logical contradiction of Method B: if the assumptions from which A claims to be derived are correct, then B cannot work, and vice versa. Yet one colleague is getting excellent results with A and another is getting comparable results with B. How is this possible? (Stevick, 1976, p. 104; Stevick, 1996, p. 193)

Our study of three effective teachers who utilize distinctively different methods yet achieve comparable results has forced us to return to the riddle (Clarke, Davis, Rhodes, & Baker, forthcoming). The purpose of this paper is to examine the nature of teaching and learning and the role of method in the process.

Since 1990 we have been engaged in a research project that has caused us to question the role of method in understanding teaching. We began with an intensive examination of literacy instruction in forty elementary classrooms in Denver, Colorado (Davis, et al., 1992). We continued the study by focusing on three teachers who emerged as especially successful; they achieved remarkable success under difficult circumstances, yet espoused dramatically different philosophies and approach their teaching in strikingly different ways (Clarke, Davis, Rhodes, & Baker, 1996). It is the conundrum presented by this situation, essentially the riddle posed by Stevick over two decades ago, that we would like to pursue here. Let us introduce the three teachers, whom we will call Mary, Jackie, and Barbara.

Mary, Jackie, and Barbara

Mary was in her late forties. She had taught for eight years and then took a ten-year break to raise her family. She had been back in the classroom five years when we arrived. Mary's goal was for students to love reading and writing, and most of her instruction was based on literature. She read to the students several times each day and required them to read and write at least two hours of every school day. She was an enthusiastic person who called students "honey" and "sweetheart" as she talked animatedly with them about their reading and writing. Book discussions resembled that of peers discussing favorite topics. Students had freedom to choose what they worked on, but they were held accountable for pace and productivity. They "published" their writing and spent considerable time reading each other's work and sharing their writing with the group. Mary's classroom was as quiet as the reading room in a library, but considerably less formal. Students could be seen sprawled on puff chairs and stretched out on the sofa with clipboards and books as she worked on her own reading and writing or circulated to confer with students about theirs.

Jackie was in her early thirties during the time we were in her classroom. She is bilingual (a native of Ecuador who grew up in Chicago) and instruction in her classroom occurs in both Spanish and English. In her teaching, she focused on her students succeeding in the mean streets outside the school. She knew all of the students' family situations, and she called home whenever she thought a child needed encouragement, discipline, or specific help. She emphasized "good choices" and taking responsibility for one's decisions. Her instruction was organized around thematic units, projects, and frequent field trips, all of which were designed to bring the world into the classroom and to take the children into the world. Students were required to organize their own efforts, provide written descriptions of what they intended to do, what they thought they would learn from the experience, and why they should be permitted to proceed. She conferred with individuals and small groups of students as they worked, and frequently asked them to write in their journals about what they were doing, or problems they were having, to which she responded in writing. As the designated technology leader in the school, Jackie also used computers extensively in her teaching. The classroom was a surging mass of energy which might have appeared chaotic to a casual observer, as students moved freely from computers to art centers to conference tables as they worked on their projects.

Barbara was in her late fifties at the time of the study, and she has since retired. She described herself as a traditional teacher who would enjoy teaching in an academy where students were expected to work and where parents would sign contracts to assist the students in their school work. She emphasized academic achievement; the classroom was decorated with posters that displayed books read, and spelling and math test results. The school day was organized around the timely completion of academic assignments. Barbara excelled at whole-class instruction, using a skillful alternation of explanation, drill, and choral work to teach concepts and practice skills. When a lesson had been taught, students worked on their own, knowing what they had to do: spelling words, worksheets in math, science and social studies, comprehension questions over books they had read, and when they had to have them done. Barbara's classroom exuded an aura of calm, focused energy, one in which students knew what was expected of them and worked confidently to complete their tasks.

A detailed discussion of our claims that these are good teachers is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that we consider teaching to be a function of learning, and the students in these three classrooms demonstrated significant learning on a wide variety of indicators (see Clarke, Davis, Rhodes, & Baker, 1996). The major challenge to the analysis of the three classrooms lay in the uniqueness of each teacher and in the assumptions implicit in Stevick's riddle--that different methods could not yield similar results. As is the case with most riddles, this one arises from false assumptions. We were focused too narrowly on the delivery of the curriculum, the behavior of the teachers, and cognitive aspects of learning.

After several months of work we began to see that we needed to adjust our view of teaching, learning, and research. We continue to learn from that time spent in Mary, Jackie, and Barbara's classrooms. In the remainder of the paper we will explore some of these learnings.

Lessons We Learned

The first thing we learned took us the longest and continues even now: shifting the focus from the teacher to the learners. If the purpose of teaching is to help students learn, then all of our work as teachers should be measured against student learning. This need to focus on learners and learning is equally important for teachers, researchers and teacher supervisors. Rather than worry about whether a lesson adheres to some mythical theoretical or administrative image of good teaching, we need to pay attention to what is being learned. Among other things, the implication is that even frequent visits to classrooms and extended observations will yield only imperfect understandings of what teachers are accomplishing; extensive information on student learning is required before we can comment meaningfully on the teaching.

Which leads us to another issue, the nature of learning. In the course of the year we spent in the three classrooms we got to know the children well. We administered pretests and posttests of literacy skills--our own, the District measures, and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and we collected samples of student work (Clarke, et al., 1996). We had conversations with all of them, and we interviewed a number as well. We visited several of their homes and talked with their parents. We discovered that what they were learning could not be adequately captured in test scores. They were not only learning the content of the curriculum, but also acquiring identities as academic achievers and responsible citizens. We came to the conclusion that we needed to define learning as change (Bateson, 1972b), and that we could not limit our view to academic achievement. In particular, we found that we needed to attend to "apperceptive learning," the unconscious and unnoticed adjustments to norms and values as these are experienced in the subtle nuances of getting through the day (see Bateson, 1972a). How learners treat each other, for example, is just as important as whether they have mastered the details of the lessons.

Closely related to this was the fact that all of us involved in the research were learning--the researchers and teachers as well as the children. The classrooms were essentially communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1990), and the changes we found we needed to monitor were not just the changes in individuals, but also the changes occurring in the classes as a whole. We were reminded of Barth's assertion that children cannot learn in schools where teachers are not learning (Barth, 1990, pp. 37- 62). This began to reverberate in our work as teacher educators and administrators, and we discovered Mary, Jackie, and Barbara sitting on our shoulders as we went about our other chores in our other roles. We began to critique our own teaching according to our growing understanding of the accomplishments of the three teachers, and we began to develop structures and resources within which effective teaching could occur. We have developed formal partnerships with schools to provide structures for collaboration with other professionals around research, teacher preparation, continuing professional development, and curriculum and materials development (Clarke, Davis, Rhodes, & Baker, 1998; Clarke & Lowry, forthcoming; Goodlad, 1990).

Effective Teaching

And what is our understanding of effective teaching? We came to see that teaching is not a narrowly focused didactic event. It is the totality of experiences that learners participate in as a result of who the teacher is: the totality of impressions derived from her selection of materials and activities, her use of language and the quality of interaction, her routines and regulations, her use of time, the rhythm and pace of the activities, and the overall aesthetics of the world she creates for her learners.

The effectiveness of Mary, Jackie and Barbara was a function of the contexts they created and the opportunities they provided for learners to learn. Methods and materials were important, but primarily as the vehicles for the experiences that the children were immersed in. What is important is not only what teachers do but how they do it. The accomplishment is in the experience as much as in the outcomes--the artful integration of the conscious and unconscious decisions they make continually in the course of the day, glimpses of which are visible when we watch them teach. For want of a better term, we have come to call this phenomenon, coherence. This is what is achieved when the preponderance of messages sent and received revolves around a core set of values.


We have begun to appreciate the importance of personal style in teaching. All teachers are drawn to methods and materials that suit their own preferences and personalities. What matters is not which method, but the congruence between the details of the particular method and the attitudes, beliefs and personal proclivities of the teacher.

What we learned was that these teachers have developed a finely tuned critical view of trends and bandwagons, and that they keep their own counsel as they develop their lessons. They each have a distinctive style, one that is only partially captured in descriptions of characteristic methods and materials because the style is as much who they are as what they do. When we turn our attention to the experience of the children in their classrooms we realize that style and coherence refer to the same phenomenon, but at different levels, the former with regard to the teacher and the latter with regard to the classroom. That is, because the teachers are relentlessly consistent in their attitudes and demeanor and in their dealings with the students, their classrooms acquire a predictability that affords everyone the security required for learning.

It is impossible to separate the accomplishment of effective teaching from the process by which it is achieved. This requires us to acknowledge another subtle aspect of the phenomenon that it is not entirely available to conscious understanding. These teachers made decisions and acted with a sixth sense acquired over time with hundreds of children. They knew that a particular comment, question or gesture was right, and they could usually give a rationale for it later, but its effectiveness derived from its unconscious application at the moment of maximum usefulness.

The abiding lesson of all we have said here is deceptively simple. Effective teaching is a function of time and reflective experience; good teachers are grown, not born, and we must learn to be patient with ourselves and with others as developing professionals.


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