There is some evidence that, despite the heavy emphasis placed on student-centered techniques, many social studies teachers might be successfully using teacher-centered instruction in the classroom. It is hard to be certain, however, because as Cuban (1991) observes, studies of classroom observations are rare in social studies. In his summary of the studies that are available, he con- cludes that the most common pattern of social studies teaching includes heavy emphasis on the teacher and the textbook as the sources of information for assignments and discussion, followed by tests and seatwork—in other words, teacher-centered instruction. Whole group instruction dominates. Cuban comments that this state of affairs seems nearly impervious to serious change. This observation is congruent with observations made by others of social studies classrooms (Goodlad, 1984). But, if this is so, is it as bad as Cuban implies?
Educators who use teacher-centered approaches are generally reluctant to use esoteric forms of instruction, and many effective teachers have not found success using student-centered teaching approaches. Consider cooperative learning as an example. Its research base is impressive in terms of its potential to achieve aca- demic and social outcomes (Slavin, 1990). But in practice, this potential is rarely achieved, primarily because in order for cooper- ative learning to be successful, teachers must follow specific steps, carefully organizing the content and skills that students are to “teach” each other. (After all, the students do not know this mate- rial as well as the teacher does.) They must group students care- fully with regard to academic ability, race, and gender; place stu- dents in groups of four or five students with a high, a low, and two or three medium-achieving students in each group; and compute student “improvement scores,” an essential component in Slavin’s work. In computing improvement scores, the teacher must first compute base scores for each student and for each group of stu-
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dents from past quizzes and tests. They then need to administer the test or quiz again to the class and convert the scores to improve- ment points.
Failing at any one step could jeopardize the results that had been achieved when the approach was studied. Yet, few teachers follow all these steps. While some choose occasional group work, most do not do anything resembling the cooperative learning described in the literature—mostly because these well-intentioned techniques have been tried and have failed in practice. Instead, most social studies teachers discover on their own that teacher-cen- tered techniques are among the best ways to improve student learning. This happens despite the fact that cooperative learning and similar student-centered approaches are stressed repeatedly in initial teacher training programs and at numerous professional conferences and workshops. Teachers reject these approaches because they conduct a common sense, cost benefit analysis. The costs of student-centered approaches are high, immediate, and cer- tain. The most obvious costs are additional time to prepare such lessons and additional class time. To many teachers, the benefits of student-centered approaches—eventually improving student achievement—appear to be highly uncertain and distant. As a result, many place their faith in teacher-centered approaches.
Of course, either knowing that a classroom is student-centered or knowing that it is teacher-centered reveals little about the qual- ity of instruction in the classroom. It tells nothing about the facts and concepts being presented, examples being used, or interaction between teacher and students. Teachers who favor teacher-cen- tered approaches, however, tend to focus on what content to teach, the sequence of ideas, the examples used, the demonstrations per- formed, the questions asked, and the students’ responses, and they tend to be more interested in the details of instruction—all central components of effective teaching.
In any case, regardless of one’s personal preference for student- or teacher-centered instruction, the ultimate questions should be: What are the results of instruction? Do students achieve more? Under what conditions is learning enhanced? Research consistent- ly shows that, while student-centered instruction may work in some
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cases, teacher-centered instruction works better with most stu- dents and with most teachers. Unfortunately, this is precisely what the leaders of the field who are focused on promoting student-cen- tered methods ignore.
WHAT DO SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHING METHODS BOOKS TEACH?
Though there is evidence that many teachers, parents, and administrators prefer teacher-centered instruction, leaders of the field still work overtime to push student-centered learning. In fact, today’s teaching methods textbooks in social studies are nearly silent on how to develop teacher-led, teacher-centered instruction. Instead, the authors of these books are deeply influenced by the progressive legacy of student-centered instruction.
Some early methods books do provide a more balanced approach. Lee Ehman, Howard Mehlinger and John Patrick’s (1974) book Toward Effective Instruction in Secondary Social Studies, for example, has some positive things to say about teacher presenta- tions. The index shows nine references to expository instruction. The book devotes 10 full pages to expository instruction, giving advice on how to plan and deliver a good lecture. Prospective teachers are advised to begin a lesson by explaining what students are expected to learn. Then they define unfamiliar ideas or facts, proceed in a well-organized manner, provide immediate correc- tions to students, and close by reviewing the ideas that were taught.
Most methods books from the latter half of the last century, however, give short shrift to teacher-centered methods. Edgar B. Wesley’s 1950 book, Teaching Social Studies in High Schools, includes just seven references to lecture. And, though he discusses what lectures are and explains how many social studies teachers use “informal” lectures, the discussion is couched in his distaste for such teacher-centered methods: “the teacher who lectures in the public schools is likely to be charged with . . . cruelty to pupils.” In another example, Maurice P. Hunt and Lawrence E. Metcalf ’s 1968 book, Teaching High School Social Studies, includes neither the phrase “direct instruction” nor the word “lecture” in the index.
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The book is, however, filled with references to “reflective thought” and issues related to power, class, and race.
Additional evidence of the disproportionate emphasis on stu- dent-centered instruction can be found in the Handbook of Research
on Social Studies Teaching and Learning. This is regarded as a highly authoritative, landmark work in the field. Edited by James P. Shaver (1931), it includes 53 chapters. These carefully selected and meticulously edited chapters address numerous concerns in social studies education. Yet, the index has a single reference to direct instruction—Peter Martorella mentions it in his chapter on teaching concepts, devoting four paragraphs (in a book of over 600 pages) to this form of teaching. Even here, though, there is no respect for teacher-centered instruction. Martorella summarizes the work of Barak Rosenshine but then dismisses it. He explains that teacher-centered instruction is only useful for low-level cog- nitive objectives and probably not worth employing in social stud- ies classrooms.
Perhaps most disturbing is that these are not isolated instances of neglect. In fact, a brief review of the most widely used social stud- ies methods textbooks exposes a widespread disregard for direct instruction.
• In Jack Zevin’s (2000) Social Studies for the Twenty-First Century:
Methods and Materials for Teaching in Middle and Secondary Schools, nei- ther the phrase “direct instruction” nor the word “lecture” appears in the index. Didactic roles of teachers are described but such roles receive short shrift and little enthusiasm when compared to descriptions of “reflective” and “affective” roles. Didactic approaches are described in order to be contrasted with other, bet- ter approaches. Zevin never suggests how to plan and deliver any sort of teacher-led presentation.