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Teacher-Centered Instruction The Rodney Dangerfield

of Social Studies

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Mark C. Schug

During the 1970s and 1980s, a line of educational research developed called “effective teaching.” Effective teachers were reported to favor research-supported practices that, when properly implemented in the classroom, produced stronger academic achievement.

The name given to such instruction has varied. Terms like “active teaching” and “explicit instruction” were used from time to time. Such phrases conveyed the image of teachers on their feet in the front of the room with eyes open, asking questions, making points, gesturing, writing key ideas on the board, encouraging, cor- recting, demonstrating, and so forth. The role of the teacher was obvious and explicit and tied to clearly identified content or skills.

For the purposes of this paper, I use the term “teacher-centered instruction” to refer to this approach. It implies a high degree of teacher direction and a focus of students on academic tasks. And it vividly contrasts with student-centered or constructivist approach- es in establishing a leadership role for the teacher. Teacher presen- tation, demonstration, drill and practice, posing of numerous fac- tual questions, and immediate feedback and correction are all key elements.

Teacher-centered instruction has again and again proven its value in studies that show it to be an especially effective instruc- tional method. Yet, when self-appointed education leaders meet to share best practices or write about effective teaching, teacher-cen- tered instruction, as the comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say, gets no respect.





STUDENT-CENTERED INSTRUCTION In fact, for most of the last century social studies leaders have

fought hard against the idea of teacher-centered instruction. At nearly every opportunity—in journal articles, education textbooks, and speeches at professional meetings—slogans were voiced about teaching the child, not the subject, according to developmentally appropriate practices. Those who favor student-centered approach- es suggest that:

• “Hands-on” activities are superior to teacher-led instruction. Projects, group work, field trips, almost any other approach is to be preferred.

• Integrated content is superior to discipline-specific content. The barriers between the disciplines such as history and geography are the artificial creations of self- serving academics. Integrated themes are regarded as having greater integrity.

• Cooperative, group-learning approaches are superior to whole group, teacher-led instruction. Students learn best by interacting with each other rather than by learning from adults.

• Academic content is inherently dull. Topics such as social issues have more relevance and appeal to students than subjects such as economics or geography.

Is there an alternative to student-centered instruction? If so, what research supports it and how does it look in practice? Let’s examine the often-overlooked case for teacher-centered instruc- tion.


Teacher-centered instruction derives from two lines of scholar- ship and curriculum development (Schug, Tarver, and Western, 2001). One is associated primarily with the work of Siegfried Engelmann and his colleagues, whose approach is widely referred to as “Direct Instruction” and whose research focused predomi-




nantly on reading. The other line of scholarship is associated pri- marily with the work of Barak Rosenshine and his colleagues, whose “process-outcome” research identified the teacher practices that were associated with improving student learning.

Engelmann’s work derives from close analysis of the compre- hension and reasoning skills needed for successful student per- formance in reading or mathematics, skills that provide the intel- lectual substance of the Direct Instruction programs he developed. In the case of reading, its substance is found in the sound system of spoken English and the ways in which English sounds are repre- sented in writing—a major reason why Direct Instruction in read- ing is associated with phonemic awareness or phonics. But it is not equivalent to phonics. Direct Instruction can be used to teach things other than phonics—mathematics and social studies, for example—and phonics can be taught by means other than Direct Instruction.

The detailed character of the Direct Instruction approach developed by Englemann derives from a learning theory and a set of teaching practices linked to that theory. The learning theory focuses on how children generalize from present understanding to understanding new examples. This theory informs the sequencing of classroom tasks for children and the means by which teachers lead children through those tasks. The means include a complex system of scripted remarks, questions, and signals to which chil- dren provide individual and choral responses in extended, highly interactive sessions. Children in Direct Instruction classrooms also do written work in workbooks or on activity sheets.

An impressive body of research over 25 years attests to the effi- cacy of Engelmann’s model. In the most comprehensive review, Adams and Engelmann (1996) identified 34 well-designed studies in which Direct Instruction interventions were compared to other teaching strategies. These studies reported 173 comparisons, span- ning the years from 1972 to 1996. The comparison yielded two major results. First, 87 percent of posttreatment test score aver- ages favored Direct Instruction, compared to 12 percent favoring other approaches. Second, 64 percent of the statistically significant outcomes favored Direct Instruction compared to only one percent




favoring other approaches, and 35 percent favoring neither. A meta-analysis of data from the 34 studies also yielded large

effect sizes for Direct Instruction. Large gains were reported for both regular and special education students, for elementary and secondary students, and for achievement in a variety of subjects including reading, mathematics, spelling, health, and science. The average effect size for the 34 studies was .87; the average effect size calculated for the 173 comparisons was .97. This means that gain scores for students in Direct Instruction groups averaged nearly a full standard deviation above those of students in comparison groups. Effect sizes of this magnitude are rare in education research.


The second line of research in teacher-centered instruction is based on a synthesis of findings from experimental studies con- ducted by many different scholars working independently, mostly in the 1980s. In these studies, teachers were trained to use specific instructional practices. The effects of these practices on student learning were determined by comparing similar students’ learning in classes where the practices were not used. The synthesis growing out of these studies identified common “teaching functions” that proved effective in improving student learning.

This research reached its zenith in 1986 when Rosenshine and Robert Stevens co-authored a chapter in the Handbook of Research on

Teaching. The chapter reviewed several empirical studies that focused on key instructional behaviors of teachers. In several of the experiments, they found that effective teachers attended to inap- propriate student behavior, maintained the attention of all stu- dents, provided immediate feedback and evaluation, set clear expectations, and engaged students as a group in learning. Rosenshine and Stevens (1986) distilled the research down to a set of behaviors that characterize well-structured lessons. Effective teachers, they said:

• Open lessons by reviewing prerequisite learning.




• Provide a short statement of goals. • Present new material in small steps, with student

practice after each step. • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations. • Provide a high level of active practice for all students. • Ask a large number of questions, check for

understanding, and obtain responses from all students. • Guide students during initial practice. • Provide systematic feedback and corrections. • Provide explicit instruction and practice for seatwork

exercises and, where necessary, monitor students during seatwork.

The major components of this sort of teacher-centered instruc- tion are not all that unexpected. All teachers use some of these behaviors some of the time, but the most effective teachers use most of them nearly all the time.

Interest in Rosenshine’s second line of research was given an important boost from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s book, The Schools We Need &

Why We Don’t Have Them (1996). He summarized findings from sev- eral studies which contributed to the conclusion that teacher-cen- tered instruction works well in classrooms.

The first was a series of “process-outcome” studies conducted from 1970 until 1973 at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. They showed that time spent focused on content and the amounts of content taught were important factors in achievement. Whether a lecture or questioning format was used, careful struc- turing of content by the teacher followed by summary reviews was the most effective method.

In a later series of studies, Jere Brophy and his colleagues (1973-1979) found that some teachers got consistently good results while others did not. They observed the teachers associated with good and poor academic outcomes and reached at least two star- tling conclusions—first, that teachers who produced the least achievement used approaches that were more concerned with the students’ self-esteem, and second, that learning progressed best when the materials were not only new and challenging but could




also be easily grasped by students. Brophy and his colleagues also found that the most effective teachers were likely to:

• Maintain a sustained focus on content. • Involve all students. • Maintain a brisk pace. • Teach skills to the point of overlearning. • Provide immediate feedback.

Finally, in a separate series of process-outcome studies that spanned the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, Gage and his col- leagues at Stanford University found that effective teachers:

• Introduce materials with an overview or analogy. • Use review and repetition. • Praise and repeat student answers. • Give assignments that offer practice and variety. • Ensure questions and assignments are new and

challenging yet easy enough to allow success with reasonable effort.

TEACHER-CENTERED INSTRUCTION IN SOCIAL STUDIES Though research on teacher-centered instruction focuses on

the day-to-day work of teachers who favor this approach, the rheto- ric of leaders in social studies education fails to take note of these highly successful teachers. A review of recent articles in Theory and

Research in Social Education, the flagship research journal of the National Council for the Social Studies and the College and University Assembly, makes this point abundantly clear. The authors and editor emphasize issues of social justice, race, gender, and class, while failing to address what are the most effective teacher practices. Teachers who favor teacher-centered instruction are rarely the subjects of interviews or observation, and their teaching style and techniques are rarely mentioned. When such teachers are noticed at all by the leaders of the field, it is to use them as exam- ples of what not to do in the classroom. After all, these teachers have rejected most of the hip, student-centered approaches. They




are ignored or dismissed by the self-appointed leadership crowd— the folks who speak at professional meetings, write the textbooks for teachers, and dominate professional discussion. Again, Rodney Dangerfield’s line might best describe such teachers.

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