Kick-off “For Teachers, By Teachers”

A publisher once told me, “Teachers don’t buy books.” I interpreted that to mean teachers are too busy, too intellectually lazy, or too cheap to buy books.

Now that I have written a book for teachers, I interpret the claim differently. Whether teachers buy books or not has little to do with teacher busyness, intellect, or economic priorities. Many teachers are professionally busy, a few are not; many are intellectually vigorous, a few are not; many face financial hardship, a few do not.

My new hypothesis is that, if it is true that teachers don’t buy books, it’s because books that seem to be written for them are an insult to teachers and the art of teaching.

Two types of books

Books that chronicle the work of talented, dedicated teachers are one type that seems to be written for teachers.  Autobiographical examples are There Are No Shortcuts (Esquith, 2003), Teacher Man (McCourt, 2005), and Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently (Cowhey, 2006).  A journalist’s interpretation of classroom life in the same genre is Among Schoolchildren (Kidder, 1989).

Hollywood adaptations of these stories have been popular for many years. Stand and Deliver is an adaptation of Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (Mathews, 1988), and Dangerous Minds is adapted from My Posse Don’t Do Homework (Johnson, 1992).  These books and movies seem to be for teachers because they inspire us with stories about the influence of great teachers.

Other books, which appear to be written for teachers, are those that report research findings about instructional practices.  They are studied in teacher pre-service and in-service programs.  Their underlying premise is that instruction improves when teachers understand and apply the findings of educational research. Examples are Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and be Able to Do (Darling-Hammond and Bransford, 2005), Best Practices from High Performing Middle Schools (Wilcox and Angelis, 2009), and What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action (Marzano, 2003). The list could go on and on.

Talented teachers’ stories

Educators are familiar with both types of books. The first type inspires us because they portray what it means to be a teacher.  A side-effect of these portrayals, however, is a distortion of what it is like to be a teacher.  Even the slightest suggestion that classroom life is like what is portrayed in the “inspirational teacher” books and movies is offensive to teachers.  Every classroom is different, and the differences are at the center of the classroom experience. They are in the webs of relationships, which are managed and cultivated in ways that depend on individual teachers,  individual students, and individual situations. What it is like to be a teacher is essentially different in each classroom situation because teachers and students create unique educational relationships and situations.

Many real-life teachers watch Stand and Deliver, or Dangerous Minds, and think, “If only things would turn out that way.”  They feel insulted, but they don’t know why.  They are insulted because even the slightest suggestion that these books and movies portray what it is like to be a teacher is an insult to real-life teachers.

This is not a criticism of movie producers or book authors.  Nobody would sit through a movie or read a book that captured the intensity, chaos, vulnerability, disappointment, elation, energy, and weariness experienced by real teachers every day.  I student taught in Sally Hoefts’ Green Bay East High School English class in fall, 1973.  After teaching my first class, she approached and asked how I felt. As the next group of 20-some students was taking their seats, I said, “My head is spinning.”

Audiences don’t want to watch a movie or read a book that makes their head spin.  Instead, movie producers and book authors portray what it means to be a teacher.  These portrayals, however, do not illustrate what it is like to be a teacher.  The only way to experience that is to be a teacher.

Effective teaching practices

Writers of the second type of book assume what Cochran-Smith (2002, p. 284) called the “research as foundation” metaphor:

It is assumed first that there is a body of knowledge based on cutting-edge empirical research in various academic disciplines that is relevant to teaching, learning, and schooling, and second, that when teachers know and act on this knowledge, schooling is more effective.

I call this the social science paradigm for improving education.

Teachers are socialized into this paradigm during their bachelors and masters degree programs. They are taught to believe that, just as physicians apply the latest medical research to the treatment of patients, they should apply the latest educational research findings in their classrooms.  According to the medical analogy, they are supposed to diagnose and treat with what research has found to be effective.

Many dedicated, creative teachers resent this metaphor and the books that assume this is how to improve education.  In my graduate classes they say things like, “I wish the authors would come into my class. Then they would see how it is in the real world. Their theories say we should do this and do that, but they have forgotten what it is really like.” Comments like these reflect the resentment teachers feel toward researchers (Sarason, 1990; Goodson, 1993).

Who is the audience?

If these books are an insult to teachers, who are they for? They’re for the professors and policymakers whose interests are served by the social science improvement paradigm. Professors earn tenure and academic reputations by conducting research and publishing findings (Sarason, 1990; Goodson, 1993).  Politicians cite research findings to give their political beliefs a veneer of science. Because research findings can be found to support almost any political position, they are the perfect cover for beliefs that are more political than educational.

It is time to expose the social science improvement paradigm as a hoax on K-12 teachers.  Past challenges (Bates, 1984; Greenfield, 1986; MacIntyre, 1981) didn’t reach teachers because they were argued in dense, academic language. The following section uses plain language to explain why we need an aesthetic improvement paradigm.

School improvement requires an aesthetic paradigm

Education research finds what is theoretically true.  Teachers, however, need to know what is true in specific, dynamic situations. Teacher knowledge is always tempered by the complexities of ever-changing classrooms.  Because of this, education policymakers should want teachers to create classrooms so creative and exciting they defy the application of research findings.  (That is what the best teachers have always done.)  They don’t, however, because politicians believe in social science, not aesthetics.

Education researchers feed this belief.  Quantitative studies control variables to isolate the effects of a specific strategy on one dependent variable. The controls produce knowledge about what is theoretically true, when “all other things are equal.”  We never know if the findings of these studies are true in any specific, actual situation, because all other things are never equal in real life.

Qualitative studies generate a different kind of knowledge. They produce interpretations of what may be true in specific real world situations. To determine the relevance of these “truths,” teachers must use their judgment, which puts them right where they were, before the qualitative study was conducted–needing to use judgment to improve teaching and learning.

Research findings are disregarded in schools because public school work is essentially aesthetic, not social scientific. Education scholars know this and respond by describing what they call the “research-practice gap” in education. To them, teachers and principals who don’t read and apply research findings are like physicians who don’t keep up with medical discoveries.

Researchers should put their minds at ease. K-12 students are not endangered by teachers and principals who disregard research findings.  The “research-practice gap” exists only inside the social science paradigm. It only exists within an improvement paradigm that assumes we need a division of labor to improve education. It began in the 1950s, when professors (who were mostly men) set out to professionalize education by conducting research to find what is more or less “effective.”  Public school teachers (who were mostly women) were supposed to apply their findings.

There is no “research-practice gap” in schools because teachers don’t need the findings of researchers who have never been in their classrooms. Instead, they need good judgment about what is best for their students, based on their experiences and knowledge of their students. It may be true that some teachers have poor judgment, but it is also true that teacher judgments are far more likely to improve learning than the findings of researchers who have never been in the classroom needing improvement.

Another way to understand the social science improvement paradigm is to see that “effectiveness” is the central concept. We think of “effectiveness” as highly desirable because it represents the achievement of goals and purposes. Within the social science paradigm, however, it is an empty concept.  It carries only the specific meaning it was given in the research study–no more, no less. If a study’s definition of “effective” is shallow, “effectiveness” is a shallow accomplishment.

The best examples are the studies that define “effective” as correctly answering a certain number of standardized test questions.  If researchers told us how many more correct answers made a certain approach “effective,” we would all see the shallowness of what they call “effective.”

Education writer Thomas Sergiovanni (Brandt, 1992) saw the emptiness of “effectiveness” after presenting findings from a leadership study.  Throughout his presentation an audience member kept asking what he meant by saying something was “effective.” He was annoyed by the question, but he gained the following insight:

. . . while my students and people in workshops were patient and respectful of what I had to say, they actually made a distinction between workshop knowledge and real life career knowledge. In real life they weren’t driven by the theories I taught them, but by other ideas and other conceptions” (Brandt, 1992, p. 47).

As Sergiovanni realized, “effective” was only what the study defined it to be. It lacks the luster we tend to give it.

The social science paradigm addresses hundreds of debates about how to improve education. Research has found “effective” ways to group students, question them, test them, encourage them, challenge them, reinforce them, and the list goes on and on. These are helpful findings when teachers realize they are at the perimeter of how to improve instruction.  They must not distract teachers from the appreciation that must be at the center of all improvement efforts.


Books that describe “effectiveness” findings are an insult for two reasons.  First, they value the findings of people who have never been in the teacher’s classroom more highly than the teacher’s own experience.  Second, they assume that good teaching is about “effectively” achieving higher standardized test scores.  This is a useful, but shallow definition.

Teaching is an art, so educational improvement requires an aesthetic paradigm.  Appreciation belongs at the center of all improvement efforts.  Teaching and learning improve when teachers appreciate their students, and when students respond with appreciation for their teachers and lessons. Think about the influential teacher movies.  The plot line is never about a teacher applying research findings. It is always about a teacher appreciating his/her students, and gaining student appreciation in return. (For a parody

The aesthetic paradigm can be pictured as a circle.  Research findings about effectiveness are at the perimeter, with appreciation at the center–just as with all the arts.

If it is true that “teachers don’t buy books,” it is because most books published for teachers are an insult to teachers and the art of teaching.  Books that are truly for teachers recognize the aesthetic essence of teaching and honor teacher experience, dedication, judgment, and creativity.  Examples are Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, (Intrator and Scribner, 2003); The Heart Aroused (Whyte, 1996); books by Parker Palmer, and The Six Virtues of the Educated Person (Hurley, 2009).


#1 Tom Crane on 02.11.12 at 8:17 pm

Your description of “effective” and emphasis on appreciation are important peices to the puzzle here – ch. 9 in the book related to this and changed my mind about using the word “effective” – it’s just a hollow word too often used in education it seems

thanks -tom

#2 casey on 02.12.12 at 9:20 pm

Thanks for posting. I appreciate any feedback from K-12 teachers. You are the people we should be listening to. You always have a voice on this website.

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