The classroom — one teacher, one group of students, usually of the same age, one rectangular space, door closed — is the great survivor of schooling. It is now as it has been for two or three centuries the main arena of the encounter between teacher and taught, and the taken-for-granted stem cell of schooling as it metastised from cottage to global enterprise.
The pre-eminent chronicler of the classroom, United States historian Larry Cuban, has depicted the history of the classroom as a contest between ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’ pedagogies. In the foundational form of the classroom, rows of desks faced the front where, on a raised platform, standing before a blackboard, a single adult talked, told, and controlled dozens of students who sat up straight and listened, recited, copied and remembered their way through one 30-minute ‘lesson’ after another.
But this form has long been under assault from ‘progressivism’ and its disruptive ideas about how to organise space, students, time and activities to produce ‘active’ and ‘creative’ learning driven by ‘student needs and interests’.
The contest between the old and the new, Cuban argues, has been settled decisively in favour of the established order. As a stroll down any school corridor will reveal, ‘student-centred’ teaching and learning have steadily gained ground, particularly in the earlier years of schooling, but even there it has been absorbed into a ‘hybridised’ but clearly teacher-dominated classroom order.
There is little evidence to suggest that things have played out differently in Australia. Here as in the United States a crazy-brave rebellion in the 1970s in support of the ‘open classroom’ and its team-taught, flexibly-grouped, activity-based learning was effortlessly defeated. A former colleague conducted a national evaluation of the open classroom, and could tell some very funny stories about the ingenuity with which teachers used pot plants, book-cases, office partitions, stacks of cartons, anything to turn open classrooms back into closed ones.
Twenty years later another incursion came from a different direction but suffered the same fate. In the early 1990s the National Project on the Quality of Teaching and Learning (NPQTL) set out to encourage different ways of organising the work of students and teachers, but soon disappeared without trace. The classroom is a jealous god. Read more
News category: Features.