Why we teach in traditional teacher-centred ways

4 min read

The way we teach is learnt through the observation – as pupils – of our own teachers and through the observation of experienced teachers. The profession is based on what Dan Lortie described as an apprenticeship of observation [1].

It explains why Larry Cuban [2] found, in his historical analysis of classroom practice in the US, that patterns of practice and pedagogy are sustained through generations of teachers.

As we began comparative studies of practice in different countries in the 1990s, there was further confirmation of this. It was evident that there were cultural similarities in teaching practice. Stigler and Hiebert [3] recognised similar teaching practices within the countries they observed.

This is not to say teachers are dumb-ass automatons who simply imitate established practices. No, because in spite of observations of similarities in practice there are individual variations. We adapt and personalise what we see. Yet, there are still common features; common patterns of dialogue and organisation in lessons. Much like learning language, learning to teach is like learning vocabulary and grammar and developing the confidence to express oneself individually in a way that others can understand.

This last point is important – being understood – Stigler and Hiebert [3] began to consider why cultural scripts were followed in classrooms. They made a simple but insightful observation, that it enabled classes to be smooth running. Classes work largely because teachers and pupils know the rules, the grammar, the patterns and the expectations.

Larry Cuban [4] came to very similar conclusions about cultural and historical practices. But he also makes one further mundane but important observation about practice. That is, it is the demands of the role of teaching, as well as the institutional demands that are the defining aspect of the character of teaching. He puts it as follows:

Within the age-graded school, the classroom itself was (and is) a crowded setting where teachers must manage 25 or more students (50 to 70 a century ago) of approximately the same age (but not necessarily the same interests, motivation, or prior experiences) who involuntarily spend—depending upon grade level—from one to five hours a day in the same room. Those in the community who hired teachers expected them to maintain control of the students, teach a prescribed course of study, capture student interest in the academic content and skills, diversify their instruction to match differences among students, and display tangible evidence that students have performed satisfactorily.

Not an easy task to meet those social expectations and manage a crowd of 5- or 15-year-olds who have to be in school. Within a room no larger than 600 square feet a half-century-ago (now a third larger), teachers and students communicate often (up to a thousand interactions a day in elementary classrooms). Within these schools and classroom settings, teachers have learned to ration their time and energy to cope with conflicting an multiple societal and political demands by using certain teaching practices that have proved over time to be simple, resilient, and efficient solutions in dealing with large numbers in a small space for extended periods of time [5].

And here is the point.

It is not through concious thought, nor through identifying the most effective means of learning that establishes the way we teach. Teaching is a cultural act that is passed on through generations, it is characterised by routines and dialogue that ensure the class runs smoothly. It is teacher-centred and traditional not because that is better or worse than other approaches to teaching. This does not enter into it. It is a practical solution that has evolved and been refined over generations. To understand this is the beginning to understanding how we develop teaching and learning.


  1. Dan C. Lortie, Schoolteacher, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  2. Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).
  3. James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom (New York: Free Press, 1999).
  4. Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).
  5. Cuban, Hugging the Middle. pp. 10-11

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