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A Sad Place To Learn

If a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health is valid, the vast majority of elementary classrooms in this country sound like pretty dismal places, instructionally speaking.

Researchers followed 2500 first, third, and fifth graders through “typical” days and found that the kids spent most of their time in large group instruction, working on a very narrow curriculum.

  • Fifth-graders spent 91.2% of class time in their seats listening to a teacher or working alone, and only 7% working in small groups, which foster social skills and critical thinking. Findings were similar in first and third grades.
  • In fifth grade, 62% of instructional time was in literacy or math; only 24% was devoted to social studies or science.
  • About one in seven (14%) kids had a consistently high-quality “instructional climate” all three years studied. Most classrooms had a fairly healthy “emotional climate,” but only 7% of students consistently had classrooms high in both. There was no difference between public and private schools.

While some might point at No Child Left Behind as the reason for what the researchers saw in these classrooms, there are far too many factors at work here. NCLB is only part of the picture.

The entire study is locked behind a pay-per-view page at Science magazine but I’d be interested to see if the researchers mention anything about the use of technology in the classrooms they observed.

Not that computers are the magic bullet that leads to a “high-quality instructional climate”, but that particular aspect ties into a long standing discussion in our group.

Like many others, we are struggling with the dual challenges of helping teachers learn to use technology for something other than lecture/demos, and to use their computers for something other than test preparation activities.

And those changes will require major revisions to their approach to teaching and learning, not just hardware and software.

elementary, school, instructional climate


  1. Carolyn Foote

    And we wonder why kids seem so disengaged and disenchanted in school?

    I would have suspected that elementary schools would have had more project based learning and movement going on. I imagine this statistic gets much worse in many high school classrooms, though I would also suspect that students in science classrooms are among the most active learners.

    I am bewildered by all this talk of merit pay for teachers based on test scores, which only seems like it will result in more of the same strategies.

    To me, real educational reform and real changes in teacher quality mean looking at models like Coalition of Essential Schools or High Tech High, or the Science Leadership School or any school where students are engaged in active, project based, cross curricular learning with technology as an integrated part of that.

    I think slapping “merit pay” on top of the existing system will not accomplish anything in terms of changing our educational system, and I find it dismaying that this is gaining ground.

    Where is the innovation? Where is the recognition that the kind of learning needed in a global environment requires a different kind of teaching, than strictly teacher led instruction? There needs to be nation wide training efforts to help shift the paradigm to more project based, meaningful and relevant learning opportunities. Teachers and schools need support to get there. Not more of the same punitive policies.

  2. Dave

    Notice the use of words like “only”, and how they changes the perception of the statistics. Without connecting to additional research that says what the effects are, it seems a little sensationalist.

    I only spend 1% of my day eating breakfast… I write e-mails during only 5% of my time at work….and? What does it mean?

    And re: high quality classrooms: Where would you make the cut-off when defining “high-quality” in a given situation? Maybe the top 10%? 15%? Is there really anything abnormal about 14% of students receiving a high-quality education? Of course, we all want 100% of students to get “high-quality education”, but it doesn’t make sense logically…50% of students are above average (well, above median).

  3. Christine

    I agree with your post. It is no question that not every child benefits from classroom education to the same extent. I personally know many students who have benefited from supplementing classroom instruction with tutoring. Particularly for families who cannot afford to pay per hour – there are good alternatives to the other (very!) expensive options. TutorVista is one good solution I have found. http://www.tutorvista.com. It offers online instruction in an instant messenging, phone or interactive blackboard format, so each child can tailor it to his/her needs. My favorite part is that it’s $99 per month for unlimited tutoring. Has anyone else had experience with this program? I think it’s great in terms of NCLB.

  4. Tim

    We all start learning through experimentation and curiosity. We have to be taught to learn by sitting in rows and watching someone demonstrate a concept.

    Some learning can occur that way, of course, but by the time most kids get to high school, that method becomes the majority of their day. With the push to pass standardized tests, many of them get there by the end of elementary school.

    And then the tutoring provided by the company in the ad Christine placed above becomes necessary (or at least someone thinks it does).

    As teachers we are told that people are unique and they learn in different ways. However, we are not allowed to acknowledge that fact about the kids in our classes until after they graduate.

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